By Ruben Valenzuela
San Diego’s performing arts community offers a dizzying array of opportunities to enjoy world-class performances by talented artists in every type and genre of music and art. But many classical music aficionados may be missing out on a chance to explore more fully the history and musical backbone of the genre they love and appreciate.
Early music, generally regarded as the music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque, formed the musical foundation for the composers of the classical canon that includes Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and on down the line. Throughout the history of Western music, composers have consciously understood and built upon the philosophies and musical principles that they have inherited from the past. These great composers have all understood the necessity and importance of looking to their past to inform their work in the present.
Exploring the early music repertory provides us a tangible means for connecting historically and culturally with different worlds. Early music is not simply an exercise in listening to or playing “old” forgotten music, but an opportunity to live with cultures and ways of thinking that no longer exist. What better way to study the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, than through the principles embodied in its philosophies, its arts, its music?
Once there, we can explore some questions that bring us through the windows of the past. What are those gilded angels singing and playing in the dome of St Mark’s Basilica, and why? What tunes did Louis XIV dance to? What did that music sound like, and how was it played? And most importantly, how did that music work in that culture and society and why?
These important questions address the role of music in culture, and beg us to consider the role of music in our very own time. Through early music we can experience a Beethoven symphony through the lens of the society that created it. Through early music we can understand why 19th-century greats like Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms routinely turned to “old” Lutheran chorales as the basis for their compositions. Through early music we can understand why 20th-century French composer Maurice Duruflé turned to Gregorian chant to form the basis for his Requiem Op. 9.
As an advocate for early music, I recommend we simply call it music. For the uninitiated, I suspect the term “early” conjures up a music that should best be left under museum glass, a dusty archive, relegated to the exotic, or — worse yet — thought of as a transitional music before its culmination in the late 18th-century with Haydn and Mozart. We live in an exciting time, when we have at our fingertips more music than ever before. In a matter of minutes, we have the ability to listen to a millennium of music, from Gregorian chant through music being composed today. And most importantly, we have the ability to hear a millennium of music in live performance.
If “early music” is not your thing, or you think it’s not your thing, the next time you enjoy your favorite work from the classical canon, consider how different it would sound if those composers had not looked to their past. This adage applies: You can’t know where you’re going, unless you know where you’ve been.
Ruben Valenzuela is music director of the Bach Collegium San Diego, the city’s only early music performance ensemble, now celebrating its 11th season to popular and critical acclaim. The group’s mission is to enrich San Diego’s music community with historically informed performances of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and in particular the vocal works of J.S. Bach. Performances in December include Handel’s MESSIAH on Dec. 5, 6, and 8, and MAGNIFICAT: From Darkness to Light, a program of Renaissance polyphony for Advent & Christmas, on Dec. 12 and 13.
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