Peter Phillips

Life transformer

Life transformer

The revival of interest in what was called ‘early music’ in the 1970s and 1980s was a cultural event which went beyond a new way of making sounds. There was, for example, the dress code and the eating habits which were said to go with it. There was even a political resonance: Thatcher and Reagan were widely held never to have listened to a Josquin Mass. (Not that they were alone in that. We used to invoke that shade whenever an unattractive person, like a footballer or a captain of industry, was found to be behaving in a brutish fashion.) Having just attended the 24th edition of the Utrecht Early Music Festival, I wonder what has happened to that once so powerful an outpouring of desire. Perhaps it didn’t affect very many people — classical music doesn’t — but it transformed the lives of those who got caught up in it.

Apart from the political and lifestyle statements, it is hard to remember exactly what all that passion was about. Did people really insult each other over how to pronounce Latin, or the evil in transposing music even a semitone from written pitch? What has certainly been lost since then is the sense that a repertoire or a performing method, no matter how narrow, can define the existence of an ensemble. We have to think more of ourselves these days, of what is good for our techniques and careers, and not be too completely pigeonholed for fear of losing work. I used to dread walking into the breakfast room in the artists’ hotel in Utrecht, because of all those knowing looks which would dart my way, as if to say ‘there is that fool who favours Italianate Latin in 15th-century English polyphony!’ Last week there were no looks; the heat has gone elsewhere.

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