HISTORY

The UK was at the forefront of the historical performance movement which began in the 1960s and has been growing and gaining momentum over the decades since then. There is now a rich array of highly-acclaimed and musically outstanding ensembles in the UK performing repertoire from the Middle Ages to the early 1800s on original period instruments, or replicas made in the same way they would have been centuries ago.

Harpsichord - Flemish.png
Jan Couchet the Elder
Flemish Harpsichord - Chordophone-Zither-plucked-harpsichord, circa 1650
Courtesy of The Met Museum

Musical instruments have changed significantly over the centuries, so mastery of these instruments requires great skill and many years of training with experts. Almost all period instrumentalists work on a freelance basis and their careers depend upon being engaged by the ensembles and orchestras who create and promote performances and recordings.

These groups – ranging in size from trios to full orchestras – perform in leading music venues, festivals and music societies across the country and abroad, bringing a freshness of approach and variety to the classical music landscape.

Piero di Cosimo's Perseus Frees Andromeda, 1510-1515 (Uffizi)

ECONOMIC MODEL

Few groups have their own venue and rather than receiving a fee, often must pay to rent out the concert hall and take the financial risk on ticket sales. Despite these fragile economics, dozens of excellent ensembles have successfully funded themselves for decades through ticket sales, donations and grants from private individuals, trusts, foundations and businesses, with minimal support from public funds.

 
These ensembles are the source of employment for freelance instrumentalists, and also of the creative artistic vision, deep knowledge and research into their specialist periods of music, unearthing forgotten repertoire from libraries, museums and archives. Unlike other art forms, the majority of their artistic projects culminate in a single concert, rather than a long-running series, so freelance period instrumentalists rely on performing with several ensembles in order to earn their living, hence the importance of preserving the sector as a whole.
Covid-19 cancellations and other adverse economic effects have caused these ensembles to suffer a huge reduction in income, putting their very existence at risk. The government’s announcement of £1.57 billion for the UK’s arts, culture and heritage sector has so far not reached these ensembles (with the possible exception of one or two) or their freelance musicians. In addition, much of these groups’ historic private grant funding has been project-specific, so cancellations have also impacted their ability to raise money from the usual sources. Fundraising events have also had to be cancelled, compounding the losses. As the resumption of a full concert schedule with paying audiences is reliant upon the discovery of a Covid vaccine or cure, these ensembles, which have taken years, if not decades, to reach their current level of excellence, are in a precarious position and historical performance could become a lost art.