'It is impossible for anyone living today to hear early music with the ears of those who first heard it, and it is idle to pretend otherwise.' Thus wrote the late Professor Thurston Dart in his Interpretation of Music ( 1955), a masterly essay in the art of concrete historical understanding. Changes in the nature of music, of instruments, notation, even of building acoustics — but above all the change in the expectations of the listeners, now accustomed to hear everything from Beethoven to Schoenberg — all these make it impossible to hear the music of Bach's day as Bach heard it. As T. S. Eliot has put it: 'the past is altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past'.
Any social historian with a tincture of imagination will recognize the problem. It is especially true of the economic and social history of early modern Europe, the subject of this book. We come to its study from an industrial society. The concepts of industry, trade, agriculture etc. which form the starting point from which the modern historian must try to understand the past are inevitably those of his own world. It is immaterial whether, in the immortal words of 1066 and All That, they seem to him a Good Thing or a Bad Thing; he cannot wholly divest himself of his place and time in history. Yet, like the musicologist, he must try; if he does not, his reconstruction of history will be a travesty. He will resemble Professor Dart's keyboard performers who 'continue to make Bull sound like Clementi and Bach like Czerny and the flow of the music [like] ... a running tap rather than a wind-tossed fountain'.