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Early Music 2019
Poor, but happy!

Lute | Photo (detail): © dpa

How is early music faring in Germany at the close of 2019? Well, it’s poor – but happy. This past year, alongside plenty of mainstream festivals, others, brimming with musical idealism, offered highly original programmes of early music. And although historically informed performers still get the short end of the stick in terms of public funding, they are playing more and more concerts. What is more, their enthusiasm and scholarly zest for exploration and discovery remain unabated.

By Andrea Braun

No question about it: hardly a concertgoer in Germany nowadays is surprised at the sight of even the more exotic historical instruments on stage. And the use of inauthentic instruments in recordings of the pre-classical repertoire is clearly going out of style. Almost every German church’s music director now has the Christmas concert performed on period instruments or replicas thereof, and almost every one of the nearly 130 symphony orchestras in the country has invited a specialist in Baroque music to coach their musicians. Although mainstream and easy-listening tendencies dominate the German concert scene, some festivals and concert series are still holding out, boldly resisting the market forces that would constrict and level out the repertoire. The Montalbâne Festival for Medieval Music at Freyburg an der Unstrut in Saxony-Anhalt is a case in point: it’s a good thing in a small package, driven by the pure idealism of its organizers and performers alike. Likewise, the success of the Tage Alter Musik held in Regensburg every year at Whitsun is resplendent proof that concertgoers are no longer leery of early music: in fact, the first concerts there sell out every year before Christmas. The Telemann Festival in Magdeburg also deserves praise for its unflagging devotion to the gigantic oeuvre of the city’s native son, whose works are rather underrepresented in present-day concert programmes. Or the Lausitzer Musiksommer, which, in an effort to cultivate the musical heritage of the Lusatian region, brings excellent productions to the tiniest of rural churches. Or the Via Mediaeval in Rhineland-Palatinate, an autumn festival dauntlessly devoted to a wholly unfamiliar repertoire of pre-1400 medieval music.
These and similar festivals breathe the true spirit of early music, of historically informed practice (HIP), that inspired pioneer generations: the scholarly quest for forgotten or neglected works and composers, and for clues about past performance practice and how music might have sounded so very long ago.
Attendance figures go to show that this approach and this courage to be different are catching on, as does the fact that early music audiences are often a lot younger than their conventional classical music counterparts. We can only hope that, above and beyond some isolated flagship festivals, more organizers will muster that same courage to take a chance for once.

Waning spirit of discovery?

But it’s mainly up to the musicians themselves to come up with new discoveries. And a collective sigh has recently been heard throughout the land: older generations of early music teachers bemoan the dearth of inquisitive minds among their pupils. Spending whole days, even weeks, in libraries poring over historical correspondence and treatises – all that seems increasingly alien to the next generation of the early music elite, however perfect their performance technique may be. Because it’s obviously much less time-consuming to simply ask the teacher how it’s done than to form one’s own opinion based on primary sources. But the spread of economic pragmatism among today's students is certainly another factor: research is rarely remunerated in everyday professional life, so sifting through source material has been relegated to the realm of purely idealistic activity.

Precariat and old-age poverty

For the fact is that early music practitioners are almost inevitably among the ranks of the present-day precariat and are doomed to retire on a pittance for a pension – unless they manage to land one of the rare professorships available at German universities by the age of 35, at the latest, or some other source of financial security. Even Germany’s minimum wage has yet to reach many freelance musicians – whether they play modern or historical instruments. But there is greater demand for teachers of modern instruments, who, at least in theory, also have the option of a steady job in a well-subsidized orchestra. Not so in early music. The Social Welfare Fund for German Artists puts the average annual earnings of professional freelance musicians at a little over €12,000 before taxes. Concertgoers, who are mostly middle class, would be amazed if they knew how little the artists playing for them on stage actually make – even if they happen to be members of the Freiburger Barockorchester, Berliner Akademie für Alte Musik or Concerto Köln, three of the most prominent German orchestras for historically informed performance.
Given their vital importance in preserving our cultural heritage and the large and growing presence of early music ensembles in the German concert scene, one can’t help wondering why it is – apart from tradition – that over half a century after the advent of HIP in the German music scene, Germany’s abundant funding for the arts still goes almost entirely to symphony orchestras and opera houses.

International handicap

But this funding gap is also creating a shift in the international market: in a number of other countries around the world, independent early music ensembles routinely receive national, regional and/or municipal subsidies. Which they can use to fund research and even, in many cases, an office team of their own to handle concert and tour bookings, as well as to cover rehearsal and travel expenses if necessary. Which means these ensembles can charge a lot less for individual concerts than German ensembles of the same size and calibre. The early music scene functions without borders in Europe: everyone plays all over the continent and beyond. So it repeatedly happens that, say, a Canadian ensemble is to be had in Erfurt for a lower price than its Cologne counterpart, or a Belgian orchestra can play Salzburg for less than a Munich-based orchestra, owing to international funding differentials.

Idealism: a curse or a blessing?

Then again, these are marginal issues in the day-to-day world of early music makers because idealism still reigns supreme in the early music scene: these musicians do what they do primarily out of a spirit of genuine interest, enthusiasm and delight in the music, which clearly outweighs any thoughts of due recompense for their efforts.
Only time will tell whether this idealism is a curse or a blessing. And whether future generations of professional musicians will continue to accept the funding gap in Germany – or will instead eventually unionize, perhaps even Europe-wide. The latter trend towards collective bargaining seems more likely over the years to come, given the recent formation of the first early music associations (though so far mostly representing larger ensembles) and the first attempts of these organizations to engage with policymakers.
Early music in Germany clearly still gets short shrift when it comes to public funding, which handicaps the musicians in the domestic and international music markets. And yet its active practitioners are going at it as vivaciously and zestfully as ever in hundreds of ensembles and orchestras all across the land. They remain drivers of innovation in performance practice and in the repertoire as well as internationally agile ambassadors of German cultural life and shining examples of self-motivation and collective commitment.