What is 'Early Music'? It is a modern phrase that describes music composed in Europe between about 1400 and 1750. The first two hundred years is called the 'Renaissance', and from 1600 until 1750 is the 'Baroque' period. These names also apply to art, architecture, and costume.
For Early Music Mondays I am going to focus on the Baroque period and the birth of the orchestra - strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion. The same instruments play in the modern symphony orchestra, but there are many important differences compared to the Baroque period - which I will talk about in future posts. For a modern audience, the most noticeable differences are the much smaller number of players, violin and violists sometimes standing to play, brass instruments having no valves, woodwind instruments actually made of wood, and cellos having no endpin. Instruments of the violin family and percussion instruments 'look' much the same. There are also several instruments used in baroque music that do not play in the modern symphony orchestra including harpsichord, pipe organ, and lute.
The orchestra started around 1600 in Italy, and was used for instrumental pieces as well as for accompanying staged costume dramas that were sung rather than spoken - the birth of opera. The Baroque period ends with music by Vivaldi, Handel and J S Bach.
How do we know what these early instruments were like, and how to play the music? Some instruments from the 1600s and 1700s survive in their original condition. Paintings of the period showing musical instruments being played are another helpful source of information, and some composers provided written instructions about how best to play their music. It is up to players to make use of the historical information and try to make the music sound convincing for audiences.
I welcome questions, comments, and suggestions for future posts.
Early Music Monday posts will included YouTube videos of performances of baroque music played on instruments of the period, rather than modern instruments. The first video is an orchestral fanfare played before the start of one of the earliest operas which was composed in Italy by Monteverdi in 1607. The 2nd video is Davis High School Baroque Ensemble playing a Vivaldi piece for strings (with harpsichord) on period instruments in a concert in Rome at the end of their tour of Austria and Italy in 2017.
Please use good headphones or stereo - much of the detail in the music will be lost using laptop speakers!
This painting shows a family group playing musical instruments. It was painted by the Dutch artist Jan Molenaer in 1635.
This English painting shows Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his Sisters - painted by Philip Mercier in 1733.