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Historically Informed Performance: A Short Guide

By Alison DeSimone, PhD

Going to a concert of classical music today usually means hearing masterworks from bygone eras performed by modern ensembles. The symphonies of Beethoven or Brahms, concertos by Vivaldi, or J. S. Bach’s cantatas sound magnificent performed by professional classical ensembles—but it’s easy to forget that all these composers wrote their music for performing forces, venues, and audiences that are very different from our own. Hearing early music—music composed before the late 1700s—through historically informed performance (HIP) gives us a window into those long-gone musical worlds.   

What is historically informed performance and how is it different from modern performance? 

For centuries, composers, musicians, and lovers of music have been interested in resurrecting music from earlier historical time periods. Perhaps the most famous examples known today are Felix Mendelssohn’s 19th-century performances of Handel’s Israel in Egypt and J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. But Mendelssohn’s revivals of these works were not historically informed by today’s standards. Instead, he rearranged these pieces to fit the expectations of his 19th-century audience by using a modern orchestra, 150-voice choir, and even a piano. 

The desire to experience what we call classical music in its “authentic” sound comes from the turn of the 20th century, when musicians such as Arnold Dolmetsch began to research performance practice and musical repertoires of earlier centuries. He and others also experimented with instrument building as a means of reviving types of early musical instruments that had long since fallen out of fashion. Dolmetsch and his contemporaries, such as Nadia Boulanger and Wanda Landowska, were some of the pioneers of early music, reviving both HIP techniques as well as the music itself.

As the 20th century progressed, so did interest in finding what scholar and musician John Butt calls “the grail of authenticity”: a way of playing early music that would approximate, as close as possible, what the piece would have sounded like when performed in its original time and place.

How do HIP ensembles achieve an “authentic” sound?

Most HIP ensembles strive for two main approaches in performance: First, they use instruments that were either built in historical eras or are replicas of older instruments. Second, they thoroughly research the performance practice of historical eras and countries. Performance practice usually refers to the un-notated aspects of performing, which, for the Baroque period, include the following:

  • How to play a basso continuo line, a shorthand notation style used for keyboardists in the Baroque period
  • How to implement dynamics, articulations, and tempos, which were not routinely written into musical scores until the 18th century
  • When and where to use vibrato (especially important for string players and vocalists)
  • Temperament (the intervallic relationships between the notes on a given instrument) and tuning

HIP can also apply to arts beyond music. In Europe, many HIP opera companies present works in the original theaters for which they were composed; they also utilize historically informed acting and costuming practices, adding more dimensions to the HIP experience. The below video highlights the Baroque opera theater Český Krumlov and its performance of Vivaldi’s L’unione della Pace, e di Marte for a short example of what these HIP operas can look like.

HIP now comes in a wide variety of styles and flavors, but most ensembles specializing in this kind of playing have a similar purpose. Their main goal is to present one way—not the way, which we will never know for sure—that early music might have sounded in historical time periods.

What are the unique benefits to hearing a HIP concert? 

Very little about HIP is definitive; what makes it fun is that nearly every performance is a kind of experiment, involving many small decisions made on the part of the ensemble director and the performers based on their own informed research. Even if it doesn’t become your favorite kind of concert, every classical music enthusiast should experience a historically informed performance at least once. It’s one way of experiencing history, similar to visiting living history museums or attending reenactments. It’s also a way to hear how different HIP ensembles experiment with interpretation of the same piece.

Although there are no time machines that can bring us back to the premiere of Handel’s Messiah or Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo or Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, historically informed performance offers us a glimpse into what might have been, even if just for an evening.

Photography: Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations by Richard Termine

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