“Early music” has been present at our institution since over 200 years ago, when the mdw’s initial iteration—the Conservatory—was founded. That era’s growing interest in (music) history went hand in hand with an increased tendency to revive old compositions, particularly in learned circles. And as a certain canon of important composers and works gradually established itself over the course of the 19th century, the music of various “old masters”—above all, Handel and Bach—made its way into the general canon and thus became a standard element of musical training. Back then, though, such music had not yet become associated with special approaches to interpretation or specialised teaching.
It was later on, at the beginning of the 20th century, that various trends brought with them an increased interest in bygone eras, with the musics of those eras becoming the objects of idealisation, rediscovery, or even reinvention. What’s more, instruments that had largely fallen out of use—such as lutes and recorders—came back into general view. All this was frequently less about actual historical art then it was about promoting simplified music and instruments that were intended to be playable by the largest-possible numbers of people. But even so, widespread interest in the past also brought with it renewed interest in the truly historical—and so it came that after the Second World War, the study and revival of “early music” and its special music-making practices proceeded to gain a foothold at the mdw (known at that time as the Academy of Music and Performing Arts Vienna). 1949 saw two “special programmes” in early music set up here: one for viola da gamba and one for viola d’amore. And in a way that was characteristic of those times, these programmes closely linked the old and the new—covering historical playing techniques as well as the instruments’ use in contemporary music.
Of the many instructors who enthusiastically dove into the various areas of “early music”, there is space here to mention only a few individuals—the most significant of whom was probably Josef Mertin. Beyond being well-versed in music and music history, Mertin was also trained as an organ builder. And between the end of World War II and the 1970s, he oversaw a “Collegium musicum” that was anchored in a number of majors. The experience of participating in this historical ensemble (which worked as part of an occasionally rather spontaneous teaching format and featured similarly spontaneous performances) and the theoretical knowledge thereby acquired influenced numerous musicians (foremost among them Nikolaus Harnoncourt) who went on to play prominent roles in concert life or teach at the Academy of music over the following decades. The latter group included René Clemencic (recorder and ornamentation), Gustav Leonhardt (harpsichord), and Jürg Schaeftlein (oboe). And others such as Karl Scheit, who taught guitar with an intense interest in historical practices, were likewise in close musical contact with Mertin.
Several instruments with important “early music” variants, such as the organ, had already been relatively well established both in concert life and at the Academy before all this. And on the organ, it was above all Anton Heiller who stood out for his new, historically oriented style of interpretation when he began teaching right after the war the tender age of 22. Those who played and researched the harpsichord during this period included Eta Harich-Schneider and Isolde Ahlgrimm. And Ahlgrimm, with her interpretations of Bach and Mozart on the harpsichord and the fortepiano, also provided important impulses to a generation of young pianists that included Paul Badura-Skoda, who would himself become a piano professor here later on.
Alongside work with the instruments themselves, the theoretical quest for “stylistically appropriate” ways of interpreting and understanding musical texts shifted into the foreground. And in 1957, a “style commission” was established in order to deal with fundamental questions of historical performance practice. In 1987, these activities gave rise to a professorial chair devoted to stylistics and performance practice (which was occupied by Hartmut Krones), and this eventually led to the “Department of Stylistic Research and Performance Practice” (until 2016).
Upon Mertin’s retirement in 1974, an effort had been made to put “early music” on a new footing in the form of a certificate programme in Historical Instrumental Practice led by Eduard Melkus. And at the same time, a new generation of musicians was becoming active (particularly in the field of music education), enabling learners of numerous instruments to work both with their modern forms and with their historical variants. 2004 then saw the mdw establish its own professorship in historical musical practice, which was filled by Ingomar Rainer.
The long path taken by “early music” towards its own department has been exciting but sometimes also tension-laden and rocky. Many things have changed and developed further over the decades—including what we understand to be “early music”. For it’s no longer just a selection of “old masters” from certain eras that occupy the centre of our interest, but the entire inexhaustibly broad repertoire that ranges from the early days of notated music all the way up to the 19th century. And in the process, experimentation with and on instruments has developed from at times isolated independent research into institutionalised professional courses of training that rest upon solid practical and theoretical foundations.