by Matthew Glandorf
In order to talk about the so-called “Historically Informed Performance Practice” movement that began roughly in the second half of the 20th century, we need to go back to the mid 19th century and before. Music, like fashion or film, has been in constant demand, with style and tastes changing quite rapidly.
In the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, the notion of performing music that was more than 20 years old was virtually unheard of (with a few notable exceptions). However, with the Romantic era in full swing, it was a performance of the J.S. Bach St. Matthew Passion (March 11, 1829) by the young Felix Mendelssohn that changed the course of public performance.
Without doubt, trying to perform Bach's music "as the composer heard it" was not a question anyone would have asked in 1829. However, the idea of a passionate interest in the revival of ancient music began to gradually make its way into mainstream concerts. Therefore, by the time we reach the 20th century, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven remained ever popular on concert programs, forming what one might call a sort of classical "sacred canon".
Early eccentric geniuses such as Arnold Dolmetsch, Wanda Landowska and even Paul Hindemith, decided to try and take things a step further. What if one were to strip away the prevailing highly romantic en vogue style of performance and get back to what the notes said. In addition, what if one were to revive the old instruments such as the recorder, the harpsichord, the viola da Gamba and other instruments as they were constructed in the past, rather than adapt to their modern counterparts? However, oftentimes it resulted in instruments that were equivalent to "neo historic" or "new and improved" versions of their older counterparts.
It must be said that the movement is not intended to be some mere historical or eccentric curiosity. It is not enough to say: "This is how Bach would have heard it". No! For the conditions of the times were certainly far from ideal: we can imagine that most ensembles and choirs were probably half drunk and under-rehearsed. (Remember, people in the 1800’s generally didn't drink water, since no one realized boiling water had an effect on killing disease. Instead, people drank beer and wine almost all day long… So, one can surmise what it must have been like!). So far, historically informed performance practice scholars have not gone that far.
But the movement is in fact new, cutting edge and modern. It is the alternative to the mainstream. In Europe especially, the movement has encompassed everything from the performance of Viking poetry, chant, Medieval and Renaissance polyphony – to the music of the Baroque and Classical periods, and now extends into re-thinking how we perform Brahms, Wagner, and even Mahler.
In summary, the historically informed performance practice is primarily about asking questions regarding how we perform the music from any era. It establishes interpretive principles based in research and inquisitiveness. And, paradoxically, through this intention, it breaks through to something completely new.