Studying Early Music

In Germany today, there are many opportunities in Higher Education to study early music. In recent years, the understanding of the importance of "historical performance practice" has changed significantly.

Concert with the Barockorchester Trossingen (Director: Prof. Anton Steck) Concert with the Barockorchester Trossingen (Director: Prof. Anton Steck) | © Musikhochschule Trossingen The real value and benefit to both freelance musicians playing Baroque music – the "baroque specialists" – as well as to modern-minded instrumentalists and singers are increasingly being recognized and acknowledged.

Starting at the beginning: the Bachelor's Degree in Early Music

There are some conservatoires that concern themselves mainly with the interpretation of early music. Such departments often bear the name "Institute" or "Academy" and are characterized by the fact that studies are anchored not only in instrumental or vocal lessons, but also in music theory and musicology, all these elements playing important and vital roles in musical training. Bachelor students emerge as fully-fledged, professionally-qualified exponents of historical instruments (or as vocalists).

The three main music conservatories where a Bachelor's degree may be completed are in Bremen, Leipzig and Trossingen. Other music schools are expanding their programmes towards a qualification in the subject, and these are the Conservatoires in Weimar and Nuremberg. Some departments enjoy a special emphasis status and have clear advantages in that they usually hold large stocks of music and a substantial library of microfilm with facsimiles of the most important theoretical writings and articles. In addition, an instrument collection may exist too. The Early Music Institute in Trossingen holds 25 harpsichords and four forte-pianos pianos as well as many loan instruments (oboes, clarinets, horns, violins, violas and cellos) which can be borrowed by students inexpensively.

Advantages of departments with special emphases

Another advantage of larger departments is the number of lecturers: 40 staff teach in Bremen, and in Leipzig, and around 30 in Trossingen. Thus, in these universities, the diversity of approaches can address the broad repertoire of early music, and almost all combinations are covered. Often works will be performed which call for large and widely varying forces, and which in concert life would hardly be feasible. In addition to teaching, there are also regular courses, workshops, along with other teaching activities such as accompanying Baroque dance, historical tuning systems, and pastiche composition.

A new programme, "Bachelor Baroque Orchestra", will be introduced from April 2012 at the Institute for Early Music in Trossingen. This course is unique in Europe: it is headed up by leading experts and examines orchestral literature from the Baroque, Classical and early Romantic periods. International networks based on various collaborations are planned so that theory can directly connect with practice in orchestral playing.

An additional qualification: Masters in Early Music

The majority of German conservatoires now offer a Master's degree in early music. The task is not easy: students have exactly two years to understand an entire universe of so-called "historically informed performance practice" (HIP). This requires considerable prior knowledge in this area, especially for wind and string instruments.

Students who have already occupied themselves with contemporary methods of studying performance practice can acquire with their Master's degree an additional qualification in the field. For this kind of specialised training, many universities have hired specialist lecturers. In addition to the special emphasis departments mentioned above, a Master's degree in early music from Cologne, Freiburg, Essen/Duisburg, Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg and Würzburg is available.

The low-key solution: Early Music as a subsidiary subject

At almost all music schools which have appropriate specialist teachers, one can study early music as a subsidiary subject. Along with a modern instrument (or voice), it is possible to pursue a minor in the field, which helps at a later stage those who wish to study for a Master's degree in early music. Recently, various "modern" orchestras have welcomed those who audition and can show knowledge of HIP.

Why study Early Music?

There is today no longer any need to fight about the relevance and purpose of early music studies. A single, specific interpretation of a score has, in recent years, moved to the forefront. Any attempt to interpret all the styles in the same manner is now generally perceived as characterless and tedious. Even in modern orchestras and ensembles, a sense of a single specific style has enriched and enlivened the music itself. Here, the contrast between current interpretations could not be greater: between the doctrine of the affections of the 17th and 18th centuries and the new realism of twelve-tone music there lies an interpretive tension, one which could not be more complex or rich. On top of this are the various national styles, especially those of the Baroque era.

A wealth of information is growing daily, not least because of constant publication of studies and library holdings, some of which are also available online and confirm the plethora of approaches to musical aesthetics. Moreover, so-called early music has long crossed the boundaries of the 19th century. Just a few years ago, one believed that early music ceased with Bach or Mozart (the term "early music" has already become a misleading one), and we must accept that we have learned a lesson: even Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms and Bruckner sound vastly different when played on historical instruments, especially where the aesthetics of the 19th century are taken into account.