Goldberg Variations

Goldberg Variations

I recently found a stack of old issues of Goldberg magazine, and I’ve been reading through them voraciously. The magazine is extraordinarily well done—informative articles, lavishly illustrated, etc.—but its high-end price tag and narrow focus had kept me from digging in until this seeming manna from heaven arrived. Said with the greatest respect, Goldberg is in some ways an anti-NewMusicBox, a publication devoted exclusively to early music, mostly from Europe. The reason I thought it might be worthwhile to talk about this adamantly non-new music publication in our adamantly pro-new music web magazine is because I’ve been ruminating over their definition of early music and thought it might spark some new ideas in our ever-evolving attempts at defining new music.

According to the editorial staff at Goldberg, early music goes back as far as archaeologists can dig up manuscripts and even allows for historical conjecture. (One issue even features a rave review of a disc recreating Ancient Egyptian music; no written music from Ancient Egypt actually survives.) While the beginnings of early music are messy, the end point is extremely tidy and convenient: 1750, the year that Johann Sebastian Bach died.

To me, it seems preposterous to give so much weight to one man, even someone as undeniably great as Bach was. Handel and Domenico Scarlatti, both born the same year as J.S.B. (1685), each lived further into the 1750s. According to Goldberg‘s definition, their late works disqualify as early music, as does most of the mature music of Bach’s numerous composing sons, all of whom are hardly classical-romantic standard repertoire. The period instrument movement’s exploration of the repertoire of Haydn and Mozart has made a compelling case for the music of the latter half of the 18th century to fall under the early music rubric. And the ongoing incursions by some ensembles further and further into the 19th—most recently Philippe Herreweghe’s probing accounts of Bruckner symphonies—makes the early music cut-off point of 1800 seem arbitrary as well.

So when does early music really end? Perhaps when new music begins. When is that? Ives and Schoenberg have been dead for more than half a century, and their music still frequently gets called “new music.” I couldn’t imagine their music ever being called “early music,” at least not in the lifetime of anyone reading this paragraph today. I like to think of new music beginning with the advent of recorded sound—which would theoretically preclude the need for reconstructing appropriate period performance practices—but that would take it as far back as 1877. I frequently hear people refer to Debussy, Satie, and Ravel as new music, or at least precursors of it. But then again, there are period instrument recordings of Debussy songs and an extremely revelatory set of Ravel’s complete piano music performed by Gwendolyn Mok on an Erard, all of which make a compelling case for impressionism to be folded into early music.

Truth be told, there is no way to come up with a clear and fast rule for determining a cut-off point or a starting point. Ultimately, if you want to keep an open mind and open ears, early music is as impossible to define as new music.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Goldberg Variations

  1. Garry Clarke

    Hi Frank,

    I’m a period instrument practitioner, both instrumentalist (violin) and ensemble director, so I suppose I could also be called an ‘early music’ specialist. (I am also from the UK and was trained at the Royal College of Music, London, so have a European angle on this). I enjoyed reading your article but have always had a problem with the term ‘early music’, especially from the period instrument point of view.

    In looking at how the works we perform might have been played when they were first written, and in light of the fact that many of our audience may well have heard the music before, I always like to come to the works, from whatever period, as new pieces. Many of the pieces we hear regularly churned out (Pachelbel’s canon; Bach’s ‘Air’; Vivaldi’ Four Seasons) come with centuries of baggage attached. If we examine these pieces a-fresh, and take the garbage away, we can get back to the sparkle and vitality of how this music would have sounded, and even make our modern audiences think they are hearing something new.

    For Americans ‘on the sidewalk’, mention ‘early music’ and they will probably think of men in costumes doing the Colonial Williamsburg thing, suggest ‘new music’ and they’ll probably associate it with classical-highbrow stuff. Surely there is more to both ‘early’ and ‘new’ music than this. Perhaps we need a term that lets people in, rather than makes them run in the opposite direction, and might encompass all music.

    Take the example of Sting. A refreshingly ‘new’ approach to ‘early’ music, not labeled as either, but already making an impact on many.

  2. mcoldwell

    Here is the definition of early music that EMA posts on its website:

    The term “early music” refers to both a repertory (European music written before about 1800, including medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and early classical music) and an approach to performance (“historically-informed performance” including the use of period instruments).

    Early music practitioners seek to discover and perform music from times past, to explore a repertory of music that is otherwise little known. From Gregorian chant to the music of Bach and Mozart, the repertory spans a millennium, from roughly 800-1800.

    Early music specialists also aim to recreate the sound-worlds of earlier times through the use of period instruments and techniques. They base their interpretations on the accumulated evidence of original instruments, manuscripts, first editions, and the remarks of theoretical and instructional treatises, rather than on “received tradition” passed on by previous generations of performers and teachers.

    Please visit the web site and poke around a bit:


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