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August 28, 2011

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Home > 2011 Issues > August 28, 2011

The pleasure of reading about music
By Dr Vaidehi Nathan
A Very Short Introduction on Early Music, Thomas Forrest Kelly, Oxford University Press, Pp 130(PB), £7.99.

MUSIC is an essential part of any culture, especially ancient cultures like India. From birth to death, the milestone moments in a person’s life is marked by music. The cradle songs, to marriage ceremony songs, to ritual related music to religious music, it is all pervading. it is not so in the West. Music there is outside a person’s life and only those seriously interested enjoy it.

A Very Short Introduction on Early Music, by Thomas Forrest Kelly traces ‘early’ music and its evolution through the centuries in the West. The early music is that which is no more commonly sung, says the author.

Discussing the peak of the revival of music, Kelly says “Renaissance to musicians, means essentially the music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries... This is the period of great composers of polyphonic vocal music: Guillaume Dufay, Josquin Des Pres, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina — all of them churchmen, at a time when church music was the cutting edge of musical style (not so true today...)”

Some of the oldest music institutions involved in the revival of early music are the Academy of Ancient Music, set up in 1726 in London and the ‘Concert of Ancient Music’ founded in 1776.

Music, even those revived, have undergone tremendous change, especially in the accompaniments. For instance, the organ never really went out of use, but they have changed “a great deal in the nineteenth century, developing into so-called symphonic organs of great power, and in the twentieth century with the help of electricity, making a tremendous amount of variety and power available to a player who might be a considerable distance from the source of the sound.”

Kelly discusses the various efforts that have been made to revive early music, some of the persons involved in it, the institutions that offer courses and opportunities to take up study on early music. “The power of early music is in the commitment of those dedicated to it by a love of the repertory and by a fascination with the effort of bringing music of the past alive for audiences of today.”

With new music coming, the early music is getting earlier and earlier. There is almost a jostle for space as it were, like old buildings being torn down to make way for new ones. “This need not be so, perhaps, with music. There is plenty of room in the world for music; the commerce has to do with commerce, not with art.” Making a strong case for early music Kelly continues, “The amount of money spent on music is enormous, but very little is spent on art music; and of the little part of the world dedicated to classical music, that part of it devoted to early music is even tinier. And so the clout of early music is very small indeed.”

The book is informative, packed with details, only the title could have mentioned that it is all about music in the West. Kelly is Morton B Knafel Professor of Music at Harvard University and a past president of Early Music America.

(Oxford University Press Great clarendon street, Oxford, OX 2 6DP)

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