A lively alternative – looking back at 40 years of early music in Germany

A determined attempt by labels and broadcasting companies to support early music contributed much to it becoming an essential alternative to conventional classical music in Germany. As a commissioning editor, Bernhard Morbach has witnessed the development of the scene first hand. A personal look at 40 years of early music in Germany.

It was extremely exciting to see the expansion of early music in Germany over the past 40 years, especially from my perspective as a music journalist on the radio station Sender Freies Berlin, now Berlin-Brandenburg. In the course of one generation it has become an ever-present phenomenon, and as such, is now a lively alternative to conventional classical programming. My first meeting with the early music took place at the beginning of my studies in the Institute of Musicology at the University of Saarland in Saarbrucken in 1969.

In those days the Department of Recordings in the institute held some LP records which one still values today. They are without doubt pioneering attempts in early music, such as the Bach B minor Mass with the Concentus Musicus Vienna under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the medieval Carmina Burana with the Studio for Early Music and the Notre Dame album by Capella Antiqua Munich – all productions of the late 1960s. One supposition suggests that early music was the musical expression of the '68 movement and was directed against the establishment and the market in general. Actually, although one can describe things this way, the interpreters hardly regarded themselves as advocates of the actual ideals of the movement. In point of fact, they were taking a completely different stance, wishing to become part of the establishment.

Regarding Early Music

In the new edition of the German encyclopaedia Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (1999–2007; 27 volumes) one searches in vain for an article on "Alte Musik", although this term is generally common. Admittedly, the field is discussed in articles such as "Historismus" and "Aufführungspraxis", important aspects of early music. Nonetheless, a sense of compulsion should have been felt.  A fitting if pithy definition was formulated in 1980, all be it outside musicological academia itself; Dr. Andreas Holschneider, Head of the recording label Archiv Produktion, made the following comment in a podium discussion broadcast by Sender Freies Berlin: "Early music is a kind of music with a discontinuous performance tradition", continuing (my recollections written down only now) "it must be said that this sense of interruption concerns not just the music itself but also its original performance practice.

The fact that musicology in Germany still refuses to go along with a discussion about the phenomenon of early music, points to the fact that no-one wishes to admit that it has taken up a central position in the country's musical culture, at least since the middle of the 20th century. It competes quite successfully with Contemporary Music, to the development of which is attached an incomparable significance.

Early Music and the Media

From the 1950s onwards, recording and broadcasting companies became important sponsors of what was still a young movement. In 1949 the Deutsche Grammophon founded its "Archiv" label. In 1958 there followed "Das Alte Werk" by Telefunken and the foundation of an independent label, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. In 1972, the Electrola company began its series "Reflexe", which made vital contributions to the entire development of early music, erasing the final remains of what had apparently already become a tradition aimed at a merely documenting various performance traditions. The work of two important producers, Gerd Berg and Wolf Erichson, contributed substantially to the emancipation of early music when compared to the standard classical repertoire.

Today, apart from the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi label, which has found a new home with Sony Music, early music remains the domain of small (independent) labels. Most important in Germany are Carus, Carpe Diem Records, cpo and Christophorus. One hears much talk of a crisis in the music market and one too in early music. Nowadays, CD productions are for the artists (not only in the area of early music) at best just a kind of income supplement. Several labels demand that the musicians must contribute to production costs.

National Radio and its supporting role

Two radio companies of the ARD were especially important as pioneers of early music. With Wolfgang Buchner as a responsible editor, significant names were discovered and promoted from the 1960s onwards by Radio Bremen. Among them were Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Gustav Leonhardt and the Berlin-based Musicalische Compagney under the direction of Holger Eichhorn. With the foundation of Pro Musiqua Antiqua in 1960 a stage was created by the "Sender der alten Musik" for early music in the corporation's own studios. The activities of Radio Bremen formed, as it were, the cultural foundation for the educational institution "Akademie für Alte Musik", founded by Thomas Albert in 1986. In 1994 it became part of the city's Conservatoire for the Arts.

The most significant and financially strongest sponsor of early music since the very beginnings has been WDR. The station initiated the foundation of the Capella Coloniensis, which made its debut in 1954. Under the patronage of the West German Radio, Cologne became the centre for early music in Germany par excellence. Lucrative broadcasting company productions (also by the neighbouring Deutschlandradio Cologne) drew interpreters to the Rhine metropolis and led to the foundation of numerous ensembles: Musica Antiqua Köln, Concerto Köln, Cantus Cölln, Musica Fiata and Sequentia, to name only the most important ones. The Festival of Early Music in Herne was founded in 1976 by WDR and soon became an important platform.

Competition amongst the media proves helpful

Two magazines which appear every two months inform about the national and international scene and are for journalists and corporations alike still of incalculable value: Concerto. Das Magazin für Alte Musik (since 1983) and ToccataAlte Musik Aktuell, which has been published by Pro Musica Antiqua in Regensburg since 1985. Both periodicals contain CD reviews, concert and festival discussions, portraits of interpreters a concert diary. Concerto addresses a certain kind of reader, one interested in music theory, organology, and articles related to performance practice. Experts and the musicians themselves also form part of the readership. Toccata takes care of new CD releases, on a worldwide basis, and is a tremendously valuable source of information for fans of early music. The March/April issue, 2011, lists 200 new CDs (including re-releases) over both months: documenting what is a noteworthy achievement in early music in the 21st century.