Early Music Defined
The term “early music” refers to both a repertory (European
music written before about 1800) and an approach to
interpreting music (in a way that seeks to fullfill the composer's
original intentions: “historically-informed performance”).
Early music specialists aim to recreate the sound-worlds of earlier times through the use of period instruments and techniques. They base their interpretations on the accumulated evidence of original instruments, manuscripts, first editions, and the remarks of theoretical and instructional treatises, rather than on “received tradition” passed on by previous generations of performers and teachers.
Early music practitioners perform music from times past, often seeking to discover and explore repertories of music that are otherwise little known. The traditional repertory spans a millennium, from roughly 800-1800, from Gregorian chant to the music of Bach and Mozart. But increasingly, performers and scholars are pushing the boundaries of historical performance ever closer to the present time, reconsidering music by 19th century romantic composers (such as Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner). With the new-found awareness of timbres and styles of ages past, even quite a few 20th and 21st century composers have written music specifically for old instruments, and/or music that borrows from older traditions. Early music concerts these days may focus on a single composer or era, or incorporate any number of contrasting elements.