‘Whether good, bad or indifferent’: Early Music and Modern Mass Media

by Dr Daniela Fountain

Early music’s relation to modern mass-media is closely linked with the technological advancements made in media itself during the twentieth century. The wide-spread dissemination of this music throughout the last century continuously raised awareness and interest in a variety of listeners even when exposed subconsciously to the sounds, rhythms and musical structures.

Harry Haskell (1988) devotes considerable attention to early music’s relation to media in his chronological account of the early music revival. One of the driving factors for the more widespread recognition of early music has been identified by Haskell as taking the form of the technological advancements of recording and radio (Haskell, 1988, p. 114, 120). ‘For better or worse – perhaps for better and worse – the twentieth-century mass media have radically transformed the early music movement’ (Haskell, 1988, p. 130), so Haskell claims. Whilst he is convinced that radio was extremely successful in promoting early music, he is more apprehensive in his judgement of film’s or television’s contribution to the revival of early music. His critique intensifies for early music in film, which, in his view, is confined by ‘similar limitations’ (Haskell, 1988, p. 124). Haskell summarises cinematic applications of early music as little contributing to the revival of early music. On a positive note, he argues that even the ‘inappropriate’ deployment at least raises awareness of early music. Wide-spread dissemination and public display enable constant reviewing processes of early music concerts and recordings. Films add to this a new layer by incorporating early music in narrative driven contexts. A film’s discussion in the popular press and online continues to generate questions about early music’s existence and performance practice.

Whilst Haskell’s views appear to some extent limited due to the time in which they were written, one wonders how he might rate the music in the Showtime-series The Tudors (2007) had his work been written a quarter of a century later. In The Tudors the legacy of the early music movement of the twentieth century can be experienced through a number of defining moments. Episode 1 employs period pastiche in the form of lute, psaltery, harpsichord and recorder accompaniment for scenes of calm beauty, be it behind the first scene of sexual intercourse, the king and queen dining, playing chess or generally at court or most predominantly when King Henry VIII receives a shave whilst dictating his response to a treaty of pan-European peace. Furthermore Thomas Tallis, one of the most important British composers of the Renaissance, features as a character at some point in this first episode, being commended by the Archbishop of Canterbury to join Westminster cathedral. Throughout the series the calm beauty of period sounds is retained and practiced in the form of implied source music and occasionally with a token onscreen representation of the sounding period instruments. It may seem that early music has been fully absorbed into modern mass media and its innate sound qualities are recognised and employed purposefully to indicate more than just period both in film and on television.


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