Colonialism, capitalism, and the invention of Early Music

Wistreich, R. (2021) Colonialism, capitalism, and the invention of Early Music. In: Forum für Aufführungspraxis, 1 December 2021, Staatliche Hochschule für Musik, Trossingen, Germany. (Unpublished)


‘Nowhere is the connection between theoretical musicology and musical performance as close as in the field of historical performance practice’, states the author of the article ‘Musikwissenschaft’ in MGG. This paper argues that the mutual appropriation of one by the other in order first to construct a symbiotic relationship, and then to hold onto a hegemonic position as joint arbiters of what is, by any definition, a wholly artificial construction – the field called ‘Early Music’ – has been one of the more remarkable successes of the maintenance of canonicity in both the repertoire of Western music and the way it is performed. In this essay I share a few preliminary thoughts about how early music’s apparent success has been achieved and sustained, by considering some of its strategies and structures against the bigger historical and political forces that have characterised the times and societies in which the phenomenon became what it is now, specifically colonialism and 'late' capitalism. This is primarily an exercise in comparative, rather than causal history, but I also want to emphasise that ‘early music’, like all cultural production, cannot insulate itself from being deeply embroiled in the ideological spaces in which it operates.

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