Editors Tess Knighton and David Fallows have foregone the chronological approach that might seem obvious for a book of this sort (although they do include an excellent glossary and chronology as appendices) in favor of essays grouped around particular issues such as genre (keyboard works, Mass cycles, or wind ensemble music, for example), using historical evidence (not only written music and treatises but pictorial evidence, folk-music traditions, and surviving instruments), pre-performance decisions (preparing performing editions, pitch standard, even choosing performance venues), and performance techniques (tempo, vocal production, embellishment).
There is quite a range of contributors--academic musicologists, performers, critics, and combinations thereof--and the level on which the essays are written varies widely. Almost all of them are instructive; some will be immediately accessible to casual listeners, while others go into detail about compositional techniques and theory. (The book's glossary is particularly helpful in these cases.) Some of the academicians' articles are very clear and helpful to the nonspecialist reader (David Fallows on the three-voice fixed-form songs of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance), some less so (Margaret Bent, who can't resist phrases like "simultaneously projected rhythmic hierarchies" in her essay on late-medieval motets). The worst example in this regard is the essay by Thomas Binkley, one of the great pioneers of the 20th-century revival of medieval music. Binkley takes nearly eight pages of dense academic-style prose just to remind us that a piece of musical notation is distinct from the actual performance of that music. On the other hand, Irena Cholij's detailed but comprehensible examination of the ways Renaissance composers incorporated preexisting material into their works is exemplary.
Much better, on the whole, at communicating with the lay reader and listener are performers such as lutenist Hopkinson Smith and medieval fiddle player Randall Cook. The section on performance techniques includes three essays by founding members of the Hilliard Ensemble. Philip Pickett, director of the New London Consort and musical director of the New Globe Theatre in London, contributes a discussion of the modern evolution of early-music concert programming entitled "Hard-sell, Scholarship and Silly Titles."
Possibly the most salutary piece--for readers at all levels, not just recent initiates--is by editor Tess Knighton, who has been writing about early music for general audiences for some years as contributor to Gramophone magazine and editor of Gramophone Early Music Quarterly. Her essay "Going Down on Record" is probably the best place to start in the book--a brief reminder of the history of early-music recordings and the implications and possible ill effects that recordings might have on our ideas about performance styles and even the music itself. --Matthew Westphal