NEW YORK—Early music is not just for listening to during the early morning hours. You may relish the subtleties of it at any time of the day. While it’s generally thought of as music before Bach or as unattainable music before recordings existed, the director of Early Music New York (EM/NY), Frederick Renz, defines early music more broadly. “It can include anything short of contemporary. Early music could encompass the 19th century, if one incorporates historical instruments,” he said. It is also a matter of how the music is approached and interpreted in a historically informed manner.
Renz, who calls himself “a kind of grandfather of the early music movement,” is devoting an entire program to “Papa Haydn.” That was the affectionate nickname Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) acquired not only because the composer mentored the likes of Mozart and Beethoven, among others, but also because he’s considered the father of the string quartet and the symphony, and is credited for establishing the classical music style.
“I always considered Haydn as a straightforward classical composer—not particularly complex; but when I study his scores, there’s ingenious, wonderful detail that he manages as regards to orchestration and harmony. He’s worth his salt: easy listening but not at the expense of extraordinary compositional technique!” Renz said.
As the third concert of EM/NY’s 43rd season, “Haydn in Esterhazy: Genial Kapellmeister” explored a wide range of forms and contrasting moods, from a stormy symphony, a sublime nocturne, and a somber overture to the buoyant positivity of the “Roxelane” symphony.
“There is considerable variety within Haydn’s works,” Renz said. “If one attends an Early Music New York performance, it’s not apt to be your standard fare. We choose works that one doesn’t normally hear in Lincoln Center.”
The Notturno No. 27 in G, which is on the program, originally included a strange kind of hurdy-gurdy-like instrument that was popular at the royal court of Naples, called the “lira organizzata” (organized lyre), but it became obsolete very quickly. It has a crank, multiple strings, and a little keyboard that plays a set of organ pipes. “When you turn the crank, it makes a droning sound,” Renz explained. Haydn created an alternative arrangement, replacing the lira organizzata with a flute and an oboe, which EM/NY will perform.
Subtleties and In-Betweens
The charm of music played with period instruments and with original techniques is difficult to describe.
“The blend of the instruments, the interplay among the violins, violas, and basses is so much more lucid, allowing one to hear the compositional structure clearly,” Renz said.
Early string instruments were outfitted with gut strings that produced a much mellower sound than their modern counterparts, which use steel strings. “With historical instruments, vibrato was very sparingly used, if at all, so a player produced a ‘purer,’ uncomplicated sound,” Renz said.
Renz became interested in early music in the 1960s, a time when people reacted against what he called “an era of plastics and stainless steel.” He started collecting antiques, which led him to a stronger interest in musical heritage.
Among all the different things people were innovating in the 1960s and ‘70s—electronic music, for instance—Renz was exploring what he calls “new-old music.” He started investigating and finding innovative ways of interpreting music that was as faithful to the original as he could discern.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Renz said. Because recordings of music performed before the invention of audio recorders do not exist, musicians invariably emulate modern recordings, and to some extent are at the mercy of somebody’s interpretation, which is not 100 percent authentic, he explained.
“It’s always good practice to reread the old treatises to be reminded of the few rules that have come down to us. For example, what does Leopold Mozart [Wolfgang’s father] write about whether one should play an up bow or a down bow in a given situation, as opposed to winging it,” he said.
With early music, Renz feels he delves into the best of both worlds. He does all the research and footnoting, he said, “but eventually there’s still considerable room to fill in the unknowns by applying one’s own ‘informed imagination,’ thereby re-creating anew.”
“The idea of going back in history, conscientiously attempting to recapture concepts of earlier generations, is a rare practice—instead of trying to keep up with the latest trends. But in reality, building on the past in order to create something novel is part of the natural order. For those of us unabashedly devoted to re-creating and breathing new life into forgotten treasures, this gives an indescribable sense of accomplishment nonetheless,” Renz said.
Father of the Early Music Revival
Renz studied harpsichord with Gustav Leonhardt (a leading early music keyboard player and conductor) in the Netherlands as a Fulbright Scholar. Immediately following, he joined the legendary New York Pro Musica Antiqua as a keyboard soloist and played with them for six seasons.
After Antiqua disbanded, Renz founded the Early Music Foundation in 1974, which presents EM/NY. For his pioneering work, he received performance commissions from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Spoleto Festival, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, among others.
While most early music groups concentrate on a single era of music, every season EM/NY performs four concerts, each one from a different period: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical. “My interest encompasses the entire gamut of historical performance, from medieval drama to classical symphonies,” Renz said.
“I’m always searching for the in-betweens,” he said explaining his penchant for periods at the cusp of a new style—for example the transition from 17th-century early Baroque to the high-Baroque period. Early Baroque is more polyphonic. “It’s not only about a good melody with bass accompaniment, as in classical style; there’s beauty to be found in an unaccompanied, medieval melody (monophony) or the intertwining of multiple lines in Renaissance polyphony,” he explained.
Besides presenting EM/NY performances, the foundation also runs a service organization, New York Early Music Central (NYEMC). It acts as an umbrella organization serving the historically informed artist community by producing the New York Early Music Celebration, among other events.
Early Music New York will perform “Haydn in Esterhazy: Genial Kapellmeister” on Saturday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. and “Monteverdi Echoes: Venice to Vienna” on Saturday, May 5, at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, at Central Park West and 68th Street.
Tickets $40 / $20 students, available by phone 212-280-0330 or online at EarlyMusicNY.org
Program (subject to change): Symphony No. 34 in D minor, Notturno No. 27 in G, Overture L’isola disabitata, Symphony No. 63 in C “Roxelane.”
Violins – Daniel Lee (CM), Nicholas DiEugenio (P), Chloe Fedor, Kate Goddard, Toma Iliev, Jeremy Rhizor, and Chiara Fasani Stauffer
Violas – Rachel Evans (P) and Jessica Troy
Violoncellos – Ezra Seltzer (P) and Hanna Collins
Violone – David Chapman
Oboes – David Dickey and Caroline Giassi
Flute – David Ross
Bassoon – Benjamin Matus
Horns – Alexandra Cook and Sara Cyrus