Early music can seem intimidating, as imposing and immutable as a stone cathedral. The context for which much of it was written—liturgical ritual—is no longer a part of daily life for most. The music adheres to mathematical and technical principles, rather than sweeping listeners away with the pathos of Romantic repertoire. And the training required to play most period instruments is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. Perhaps as a result, early music (usually defined as Western European music written before the death of Bach in 1750) is often viewed as a monolithic obstacle to surmount or a gleaming ideal on a pedestal.
These musty conceptions are exactly what some of today’s most innovative choral directors are seeking to topple. It helps that the voice is a much more accessible instrument than, say, the theorbo or the viola da gamba. A cappella early music in particular has spread beyond the domain of conservatory-trained professionals, and many community choruses regularly perform early pieces.
Inaccessible? Actually, People “Get It”
The choral directors interviewed all agreed that early music is, in fact, warmly appreciated by their audiences. “A tremendous amount of early music is a cappella,” says Kent Tritle, who helms ensembles such as the Oratorio Society of New York and Musica Sacra in addition to his duties as director of choral activities at Manhattan School of Music. Tritle has also directed the choral workshop program at the Amherst Early Music Festival, a one-week intensive for experienced volunteer singers. “What the human voice can do with monophony, polyphony, and antiphony has a magnetic way of touching people deeply. Early music, performed beautifully—people get it.”