Early music scene Ensembles and soloists

Starting from its beginnings in Cologne, early music in Germany has in the last decades become an important genre in national concert life. Freelance ensembles and soloists dominate the scene, many of them playing at international level.

The history of historical performance practice in Germany began in Cologne at what was then the NWDR (Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk). On 18th September 1954, three years before Nikolaus Harnoncourt appeared in public with his Concentus Musicus, the Cappella Coloniensis gave its debut concert in the large hall of what is today's WDR. On the programme was the Cantata Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36) and the Overture to the Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major (BWV 1066) by Johann Sebastian Bach. German President Theodor Heuss and Economics Minister Ludwig Ehrhardt were present. It should perhaps be noted that in the 1930s the industrialist Hans Eberhard Hoesch in Hagen-Kabel had made the first attempts to perform with historical instruments. Many players of this ensemble were the very people who were later to reinstate this approach in Cologne after the Second World War.

Centres of early music in Germany

Cologne is today a centre of early music in Germany, although much now takes place without the WDR as local public broadcaster. The Cappella Coloniensis caused a sensation with its concert tours in the 1970s, which took them as far afield as Hong Kong and Sao Paulo. Supported up until 2004 by the WDR and existing now as a self-supporting organisation, the orchestra set new standards with performances and recordings of The Flying Dutchman and other operatic works of the 19th century, most recently in 2005 with this Wagner opera played for the first time on historical instruments and in the original version of 1841.

Previously, another ensemble had taken over from Cappella Coloniensis: Musica Antiqua Köln under Reinhard Goebel, which existed until 2006. Goebel had, since the 1970s and 1980s, established an interpretive style of early music in Germany: playing in an energetic way, with intense articulation, decrying a soft but beautiful sound, and setting store by diverse results in terms of actual sound, with tempi that were sometimes quite extreme in style.

Early music has become a successful model in today's musical life and has taken root in places distant from Cologne. There are now regional centres in Berlin, Freiburg, Munich, Stuttgart and Hamburg. The German music information centre of the German music Council currently lists 190 entries of early music ensembles, and this list is by no means complete, because the scene is constantly changing. This type of music-making, unlike music supported by the State or municipal orchestras, is not anchored to particular institutions, unlike in France for example. Early music is part of Germany's so-called "free music scene". This opens up opportunities in terms of artistic freedom and ability to innovate, but involves great risks of a financial nature for the performing musicians themselves.

Three Universal Orchestras of Early Music

In orchestral terms, there remain today in Germany three early music formations that have achieved international importance: Concerto Köln, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and the Freiburger Barockorchester. Their world-class status has been established by international opera projects in collaboration with stars of early music such as René Jacobs, Ivor Bolton, or Marcus Creed. In general terms, early music is – despite national characteristics – a European phenomenon. For example, German ensembles thus benefit from the much stronger presence of Baroque Opera in French festivals: while Baroque opera projects can only be developed systematically in Germany at, most importantly, the Handel Festival in Halle and Göttingen. In France, festival programmes provide a kind of alternative to the usual mechanisms of the opera.

The three ensembles mentioned above approach a kind of universal German Orchestras of early music. Someone once referred to the original sound of the Concerto Köln as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra of early music. In addition, there are a number of specialized orchestras such as the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble under Thomas Hengelbrock, the Berliner Lauttencompagney of Wolfgang Katschner or Cantus Cölln with Konrad Junghänel. These are specialist ensembles, which offer a new approach to not just music of the high Baroque, even though works of the 17th century are a major pillar of repertoire in these bands. Beyond Bach and Vivaldi early music has remained the territory of a special interest audience, despite the great boom of the past 30 years, just as there is an audience for contemporary music after Stravinsky and Strauss.

In the whole of Germany, early music was under the mantle of historical performance as realised by certain ensembles. The roots lie in sacred music or choral music. Hermann Max and his Rheinische Kantorei in Dormagen near Cologne or Frieder Bernius' Stuttgart Chamber Choir are two such ensembles that attract national attention. The ensembles of the Stuttgart Bach Academy, however, provide interpretive contrast, just like the ensembles of the former GDR did in Leipzig and Dresden. These and certain other ensembles play baroque music on modern instruments, without therefore a need to strive for a symphonic sound common at the time of Herbert von Karajan or Karl Richter.

Lack of any distinctive soloists' scene

No distinct soloists' scene, as is the case in the area of classical chamber music, can be made out within the fold of early music. In contrast to the classical market, and due to the particular structure of the early music scene, soloists can not be booked for existing ensembles so easily by concert agencies, an exception being vocal soloists. More and more early music soloists found their own ensembles, such as the recorder player Dorothee Oberlinger and her Ensemble 1700, the gamba player Hille Perl with her Ensemble Los Otros or the recorder and shawm player Katharina Bäuml with the Capella de la Torre, all groups of a new generation. From the middle generation, there is a need to mention the flutist Michael Schneider with La Stagione Frankfurt and, for what seems like decades now, the English cornett player Roland Wilson with Musica Fiata or the trumpet consort of Friedemann Immer.

It is a slightly different case with the keyboard players, harpsichordists and organists, who remain in the early music scene (in emulation of their historical models) the leader of any band. The most famous harpsichord and fortepiano player who have as soloists celebrated great success without their own ensemble are Andreas Staier in Cologne and Christine Schornsheim in Munich, who incidentally also perform as a duo.

Medieval music is represented by only a few ensembles in Germany compared to France. Although there are the two Tübingen groups, Ensemble Officium (with a focus on the plainsong) and the ensemble Ordo Virtutum, with an interest in medieval music theatre, many soloists with specialist knowledge in the middle-ages work abroad. For example, those within the radius of Benjamin Bagby, who has, around the world, set new standards in the reconstruction of medieval music. In 2001 he moved his focus of action from Cologne to Paris. One trend in recent years is the softening of borders between world music and medieval music. At serious folk music festivals there will, in the meantime, always be found some medieval groups as well at well-established early music festivals in Germany such as Herne or Regensburg.

National and musical borders have opened up

The early music scene in Germany is probably more European in its focus than any other. It offers enormous flexibility in artistic and economic terms. Furthermore, it goes without saying that German instrumentalists playing in French formations such as Les musiciens du Louvre or in Ton Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra hold positions of concert master. Examples are the violinist Anton Steck and Florian Deuter, or – vice versa – Hiro Kurosaki, a Viennese violinist of Japanese origin who is Executive Director of the Cappella Coloniensis and Les Arts Florissants in Paris.

Long ago the borders to the 19th century have fallen, with bands like the Freiburger Barockorchester collaborating with avant-garde composers such as Benjamin Schweitzer and Rebecca Saunders, and Concerto Köln colluding with jazz musicians such as Uri Caine. Former purists like Reinhard Goebel now conduct regular orchestras or place emphasis on intercultural encounters. In the 1970s and 1980s, early music – rightly or wrongly – was a call to arms to indulge in a pure specialization. Today it has coloured almost every aspect of musical life.