Every year, at the end of August, the medieval city of Utrecht gears up for a major tourist attraction: the Utrecht Early Music Festival. This ten-day music bonanza is the largest of its kind, attracting tens of thousands of music lovers not only from the Netherlands, but from all corners of the globe. In 2011 the festival celebrates its 30th anniversary.
The term 'early music' refers to all (mainly European) music composed and performed in the medieval period, up to the early 15th century, as currently played on period instruments and according to historic practice.
This year’s festive programme focuses on the rich music history of Rome, with music by Palestrina, Italian harpsichords, musicians who also performed at the very first festival and, last but not least, some tasting of Italian wines. With around 90 concerts, lectures and workshops and over 60 free fringe concerts in historic venues all over the old city centre, visitors are spoilt for choice.
So how come a small country like the Netherlands hosts the world’s largest early music festival? For one thing, many pioneers of the early music movement are Dutch. They combed libraries and archives for unknown repertory and clues as to how early music would have sounded in the days it was written.
The knowledge and expertise of great researchers such as Ton Koopman, Frans Brüggen, Anner Bijlsma and many others has brought musicians from all over the world to study at Dutch conservatories.
Early music boomed in the 1970s. Instrument builders were making copies of long forgotten period instruments, many new ensembles were being formed, record companies and music publishers were making a lot of new repertory available. Early music became big business!
The Utrecht festival, when it started in 1982, was a much needed stage for these pioneers. The idea of organising a festival dedicated to early music was not new – there were already similar festivals in Boston and Bruges. But what made the festival in Utrecht unique was the fact that all the music was performed on period instruments, says Jan Nuchelmans, one of the founders and the first artistic director of the festival.
“Our goal was to have the music performed in the way and with the sound world that the composer would have recognised. So no modern instruments - that was a very clear decision.”
But why bother to use the sometimes dodgy old instruments when we have advanced modern instruments at our disposal? Jan Nuchelmans:
“I always found the most important thing was that the audience would be moved by the beauty of what was offered. I wa convinced this was achieved much better by using the period instruments.”
In the early days of the festival, this approach needed to be defended, but as the years passed it became more and more accepted. The festival no longer stopped at Bach, but started to include more ‘modern’ music by Mozart, Beethoven and even 20th-century composers. Early music became part of the mainstream classical music scene.
Bach on a bicycle bell
The new artistic director Jan Van den Bossche, who was appointed in 2001, didn’t allow the Utrecht festival to become complacent. He caused a stir with provocative statements such as: “The early music movement is dead. Long live early music!” He wasn’t too bothered about period instruments either:
“If somebody plays Bach on a bicycle bell while giving evidence of having studied the sources and knowing what he’s doing, it’s fine with me. [...] Early music is an attitude, a way of approaching music, and the Early Music Festival will remain a meeting place for musicians [...] who ask the question: ‘What does it say and what does it mean?’”
Nowadays, with early music festivals all over the world, are the pioneering days of the Utrecht festival over? No, says current director Xavier Vandamme: “The early music adventure has only just started.” It’s all about exploration and creativity without being dogmatic.
“Followers have canonised decisions by old heroes such as Harnoncourt, Leonhardt and Brüggen. With all respect, now we have new facts. We have to be careful that a movement which started off as a counter-movement doesn’t become set in its ways. [...] Utrecht should remain a festival without dogmatism, that stimulates and channels reflection on repertory and performance practice, as well as contact with the audience and interaction with other forms of art forms.”
As the largest early music festival in the world, the festival believes it has the position and opportunity to focus on unfamiliar repertory and programme unknown young musicians alongside established ensembles. In other words, to continue pioneering, but with the emphasis on research and development.
Many people can only hope that despite the current budget cuts to the culture sector, the Utrecht festival can continue its pioneering work for another 30 years.
Link to RNW early music programmes
The Utrecht Early Music Festival is taking place from 26 August to 4 September 2011.