A major component of our intellectual interpretation of any piece of music is our understanding of its historical and social context. It is very useful – for both performers and listeners – to know in what epoch the music was composed, and for whom. Musical language has evolved and transformed itself gradually over time in the same way as word-based languages: to understand Shakespeare nowadays we basically need a parallel translation. But music (like art in general), because it is an abstract language, unnecessary for human communication, has evolved even faster and more radically than any spoken language ever could. Had spoken languages evolved in the same way as music, we would have gone full circle from animal grunts to literary giants and then back to unintelligible computer babble.
The older the music, the further away it is from our times and therefore the greater the effort required to understand its historical context. This is why it is principally Baroque and Pre-Baroque music that tends to suffer from “inappropriate” performance practices (basically, from being played as though it were Romantic music).
Usually, we think of evolution as leading us on a path to improvement. “Newer” normally means “better”: the most recent model of anything is usually an improvement on the previous version. Who then – apart from eccentrics or poor people – would drive an old car, use a typewriter, an old camera, bicycle, gut strings, a Baroque bow, a light sound, little vibrato etc when there are such fantastic improved modern versions available? This reasoning was even applied not just to performance style but also to whole musical epochs: Early Music (pre-romantic) was for a long time considered “old-fashioned”: simple and inferior to Romantic music. Even nowadays, some modern “classical” composers consider previous musical epochs as being irrelevant and “inferior” to their own.
The Romantic Period was a time in which instrument manufacturing, emotivity, symphonic composition and virtuosic playing technique all flowered. This was such an amazing period in musical history that it is very easy for us to get stuck in a time warp, playing everything as though seen through this gorgeous romantic technicolour lens.
Let’s look now at the individual musical epochs and the stylistic, cellistic, historical and social components of their diverse musical languages: