The Revolution is Over

Christopher Hogwood led a revival in early music but the movement died of self-inflicted wounds 

Norman Lebrecht

Early music, like most successful revolutions, came in waves. It began with a slow recognition that the music most people loved was not necessarily what the composers wrote. Three disgruntled groups joined to form a movement. Academics called for a performance style that was true to its period. Orchestra players resented the monolithic certainties of all-powerful conductors. Rank amateurs experimented with organic instruments and authentic pitch. Around the midpoint of the last century, the spark caught fire.

Two wounded British soldiers imagined the revolution. Neville Marriner, a teenage violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra, found himself in a hospital bed in 1944 next to Thurston Dart, a mathematician.Dart convinced Marriner that Bach and Mozart ought to sound lighter and quicker than the blast obtained from modern symphony orchestras.

Marriner, who played for Toscanini, Furtwängler and Karajan, put Dart’s theories into practice in the mid-1950s with a gathering of disgruntled players that he formed into the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Rehearsals were more debating society than session time. Relieved of maestro control, every player in the band was a world authority on his or her instrument. Blows were traded over ideological minutiae. Variations came thick and fast. A young man on the harpsichord declared they should give up modern instruments and play on gut strings, lutes and crumhorns.

The harpsichordist was Christopher Hogwood, a Cambridge student of Dart’s. He was an ally of the charismatic David Munrow, a flautist who kicked down barriers between classical and medieval music, dragging our ears back towards the dawn of human music in a series of BBC broadcasts and recordings. Munrow favoured peasant flutes. Hogwood demanded an earthier symphonic sound. Marriner voted down his instrumental fundamentalism, calling it “macrobiotic” and “popular with the open-toed sandals set”. It was a Lenin-Trotsky moment. Hogwood went off to form an Academy of Ancient Music on period instruments, working his way through major symphonic cycles on Decca, while Marriner plied his smoother style on Philips.

The 1960s and ’70s were the glory days of revolution. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra who bought antique instruments in junk shops, joined the Dutchman Gustav Leonhardt in a compendious record project on Telefunken. British batons — John Eliot Gardiner, Roger Norrington, Trevor Pinnock — drove the bandwagon harder and faster. Some, in Orwellian fashion, showed signs of the very maestro authoritarianism the revolution had sworn to resist, justifying their dictatorship with a Taliban-like literalism and a promise of future happiness.

It never came. Hogwood’s death in September, aged 73, was mourned as the end of an important chapter in musical regeneration. It was nothing of the sort. The early music revolution had long since died of its wounds, most of them self-inflicted. What had begun as a movement became the establishment. Symphony orchestras, learning from the upstarts, adopted lighter textures. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted the Vienna Philharmonic. Wealthy operagoers at Glyndebourne are treated to the vegan accompaniment of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Early music, like other revolutions, ran out of ideas and sold its assets to the oligarchs. Christopher Hogwood, it must be said, was partly to blame.

Which is not to belittle his achievements. Hogwood exuded a viral enthusiasm for playing music in the style in which he believed it was conceived. Fortified by a welter of evidence, much of it drawn from his capacious bookshelves, he led BBC radio listeners on his regular programme to lend their ears to a different sound in music they loved to distraction.

Engaging with sceptical record producers, he argued that there was no better way to renew public interest in classics. His Academy was the first professional ensemble in this country that played on period instruments. He used singers with small voices who could not surmount a modern orchestra. He overcame Musicians’ Union opposition to import specialist players from America and elsewhere. His livelihood was on the line with every rule he broke.

Yet, amid his fervour, he never lost sight of what a middle-brow audience would tolerate, what the market would bear. He was an entrepreneur in the manner of George Frideric Handel, one of his presiding passions, and he saw no shame in making good money from his investments. His Cambridge house was filled with watercolours and instruments of every kind, more harpsichords than you could find in most state museums, and every visitor was invited to play one.

His scholarship was neither dusty nor methodical. He would seize upon a tiny manuscript discovery and convert it into a vast theory. If the theory crashed, he disowned it. Ascetic yet tactile, intellectual without rigour, ideological though malleable, Hogwood was an appealing set of contradictions in the service of a revolution that he was among the first to declare finished.

“My interest in this kind of music became exhausted,” he told the German magazine Opernwelt in 1984, “because we did not know whether or not what we were doing was authentic. Although the whole world thought that this type of music-making had a musicological foundation, the very opposite was the case: we had to do a lot on ‘feeling’.” 

His honesty went largely unheeded. Early music had become big business. Universities had chairs in it, monthlies and quarterlies were published, cities held festivals and competitions, ensembles once formed had still to be fed. Hogwood went to Boston to convert the venerable Handel and Haydn Society to period instruments. Though he stepped down from the Academy in 2005, he continued to support it financially while suggesting it served no further purpose.
 In every revolution, there comes a moment the morning after victory when the leaders say, “What do we do now?”  Christopher Hogwood will be remembered as a revolutionary who asked that question and never found an answer.

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