what is historically informed performance practice?
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.
Mendelssohn did something almost unthinkable: he revived a long forgotten work by an almost completely unknown Kantor that was 100 years old! When he revived the work, he used what were then 'modern' instruments of symphonic proportions. He also cut movements and even re-orchestrated the whole thing. The piano replaced the harpsichord. The chorus, rather than a handful of boy students, was now taken over by a vast choral society of about 100 singers. (Related reading: "Felix Mendelssohn: Reviving the Works of J.S. Bach" - posted by The Library of Congress).
Without doubt, trying to perform Bach's music "as the composer heard it" was not a question anyone would have asked in 1829: the instrument construction, vocal technique, and performance styles have changed in that 100 year period, both gradually and naturally.
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.
Thus began the search for so-called historic authenticity. Pioneers such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, first rate musicians in their own right, began to read. They read, and read, and read. And instrument builders began to take seriously the idea of constructing actual replicas of old instruments, using the exact same techniques and materials as they once had been.
At first, the results were somewhat clumsy as musicians tried to learn these new/old instruments that were clearly more volatile and less predictable. However, suddenly, new/old sounds emerged, which in turn, informed the phrasing, the dynamics, the articulation, the balances. Everything!
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.
- by Matthew Glandorf
Rebecca Harris on baroque violin (December 2016)
Rainer Beckmann on sopranino (October 2016)
Photos by Sharon Torello, Milton Brugada, and Inna Heasley.