"Historically Informed" Performance: Who Says, and Why Must It Be So?

Recently I went on a spate of listening to recordings of Mozart piano concertos. For about 50 years I have not been able to get enough of them--they seem to me to be Mozart's "operas without words," the highest form of his non-vocal art. The recordings I chose to hear were mainly those I grew up with, and a few others accrued along the way--recordings by Rudolf Serkin, Edwin Fischer, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, and Clifford Curzon, among others.
In today's world of the "historically informed performance," all of these classics would probably be denigrated by many critics and scholars as inaccurate representations of how Mozart should really sound. (I continue to want to know which one of these critics or scholars has Mozart's area code. And could they share it with the rest of us?)

The HIP movement, as it has become known, is without question a valuable development in music performance practice. It is a great benefit for us to hear the music of Bach or Mozart or other pre-Romantic composers as they may have envisioned their music to sound. I stress "may have" because we do not, in fact, know--and therein lies the problem for me. I have a growing intolerance for those who insist that music must be played as we believe it was played two hundred years ago--those who proclaim that a richer, more romanticized version of Mozart is a crime against nature.

There are two reasons for my intolerance. One is that despite all the musicological research, we truly do not know, and can never know, how Mozart played the piano. But more important is the fact that we cannot create the original audience. Mozart's audiences never heard Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich, or airplanes, car horns, recordings, or a whole bunch of other stuff, musical and otherwise. What was a normal instrumental sound for them is not a normal instrumental sound for today's audience.

What this purist streak has actually done is remove from the orchestral mainstream the music of Bach, Handel, and other Baroque composers (remember when Hamilton Harty's "old-fashioned" suite of Handel's Water Music was standard concert fare?), not to mention fun hybrids like Stokowski's brilliant Bach transcriptions. I can tell you from personal experience that important conductors, those you would like to think were immune from worrying about what critics would say, refused to perform Bach's "Brandenburg" concertos or his orchestral suites, not to mention the B Minor Mass, because they did not want to subject themselves to critical ridicule. (That's silly, I know--they should be worrying about that. But who said that performing musicians were the most secure beings in the world?) The point is they should never have been put in that position: it is simply not "wrong" to perform Bach through the ears of today, or even the 19th century. Anyone who has heard Klemperer's recording of the Saint Matthew Passion, or even Mengelberg's, should understand the beauties of those approaches. Different from "HIP?" Absolutely. Equally valid as a musical experience? Utterly!

The thing that the purists ignore is that composers of the 17th and 18th centuries did not think like they did. Mozart re-orchestrated Handel's Messiah to make it more suitable for the audience of his time. Bach constantly re-arranged his own music and the music of others. Wagner wrote arias for insertion into standard operas such as Norma. Mahler, who re-orchestrated Beethoven and Schumann symphonies, is today subject to those who want to determine the "critical edition" of his scores so that we reproduce them precisely the way he would have. I would imagine that these composers would be either amused or horrified at the "purist" trends in today's music world. Or possibly both.

September 18, 2009 11:49 AM | | Comments (10)

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In my previous comment, I tried to establish that HIP was a normal, natural and necessary step in the evolution of the performance practice of classical music. In the beginning, inevitable errors would occur as some performers believed that using an authentic, historical instrument would immediately lead to an equally authentic performance, which of course was wrong : many historical instruments had deteriorated, were in a bad state or had been badly restored, and the sound they produced was rather awful to hear (as was mostly the case in fortepianos). Furthermore, scholarly musicians had not yet made a thorough research on tempi, pitch, embellishments and other usual performance practice as described in notes an writings by contemporaries of the composers. These however were only temporary problems that soon were to be solved. Using artisanal material and methods, new instruments were built that were an exact copy of the originals : they possessed the advantages but not the inconveniences (a splendid example is the replica built by Paul McNulty after a Conrad Graf fortepiano, which Ronald Brautigam used in his breathtaking performance and recording of Beethoven's sonates in his volume 7 of the complete works for piano solo - unique proof that virtuosity and authenticity can perfectly match). Further research established clearly what instruments and what techniques were to be used. And then there was this huge experience (theoretical and practical) gathered by young musicians who would consequently turn into a new sort of conductors no longer interested in their own shining but in the brilliance of the works they performed (a most fascinating example is my countryman, the Flemish conductor Jos van Immerseel who before and for each performance goes into extensive research on the subject, his most recent tour de force being a "reconstruction" of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique never heard before, while at the same time he continues his original engagement as a piano-player and as such is not too proud to produce in small provincial towns). Problems solved ? No, there was the the hostility and intolerance from part of the music lovers who insisted that things had not become better but even worse and who persistently doubted the facts produced by research ( in this respect, they remind me of creationists who ignore the clear facts of evolution and prefer to believe in myths and legends).
I have come now to the object of my comment which was to reveal the errors and mistakes so-called traditionalists make (I consider calling the others "purists" as a compliment) as shown in the original article by Mr Fogel.
1. Defenders of the HIP do not denigrate ancient performers, on the contrary : these people expressed at their utmost the "Zeitgeist" of the period in which they lived and worked which in turn was the result of a (regrettable) evolution (as Karl Marx stated : The ruling culture is the culture of the ruling class). In that view, they deserve respect and admiration.
2. Defenders of the HIP do not insist that music MUST be played as they believe : they are honestly convinced that the historical approach is the most probable concerning historical accuracy and authenticity ; if some prefer the ancient wat, they have that right (as long as this is not a kind of nostalgia for ancient and better times as Mr Fogel seems to express).
3.True, we don't know HOW Mozart played the piano but we do know
- and that is much more important - WHAT kind of instrument he and the musicians of his time played and how they sounded. HIP tends to recreate this experience.
4. "Modern" audience is used to a smooth way of playing and easy listening while historical instruments sometimes hurt that comfort (that was my feeling when I started, 30 years ago, to listen to what then was called an authentic performance ; in the meanwhile (!) I got used to it and I love it - it is all a question of habit and adaptation (the Darwinist in me pops up again).
5. True, composers of the 17th and 18th century did not think like us : they lived in a different society and a different culture. Still that is a false argument to reject HIP because "modern" educated people feel the urge to KNOW how people in the past thought and lived. This is what the HIP movement is also about.
And in this I will rest my case - for the moment.

What caused the HIP "revolutionary" movement ? Well, every revolution is an evolution, be it a rapid and rather unexpected one, unless you can read the signs that precede it. Before coming to that point, let me picture a brief (and necessarily general and incomplete) history of classical music in Europe. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was almighty : the Church had the power, influence and wealth to decide on everyone's life, including that of artists. To make a living, artists were entirely dependent on works commissioned by the representatives of church. Those works were inevitably religious works that would show the power and glory of God and thus of His ambassador on earth, the Church : motets, masses and so on. Gradually, and for reasons that are obvious but too long to explain here, power shifted from clergy to aristocracy (aristocracy had evolved from royal servants and robbers to self-proclaimed blueblooded superior beings) although in most cases clergy and aristocracy were closely related and identical as they shared the same interests : rule and dominate. This was to remain so for several centuries (even in Beethoven's time, his friend Archduke Rudolph von Habsburg later became Archbishop - no conflict of interests here !). The goal of Art was now to glorify the The Noble Ones and to stress the problems they met (a rather awkward example of this can be found in Mozart's servile Idomeneo). Artists (and musicians in particular) were servants and were treated as such. With the French revolution an the Industrial Revolution, direct (but not entirely the indirect) power and influence of the aristocracy severely diminished and a new "class" took over : the bourgeoisie which now would mark time to come. Artists became "free" to experiment without the heavy task of constantly pleasing their aristocratic audience. A striking example is Beethoven who dreamed of a (relatively) democratic society and opposed to dictatorship. For more than a century, in a "liberal" but still unequal society, musical life would flourish, composers would increase length and complexity of their compositions. The bourgeoisie had no aristocratic ancestors to be proud of, so they invented their own heroes which they could -if necessary - manipulate or replace by ones that better served their cause. As they had no direct or particular interest in classical music itself, concert halls,conductors and orchestras would serve as a showcase of their status. The emphasis on the importance of conductors and orchestras in the performance of classical music grew so excessively, that many a conductor believed he was to decide how a composition should be performed (an appalling example is Stokowski who firmly believed he could improve the music by altering the score..). This situation eventually would prove to be fatal. Young musicians protested to and revolted against the dictatorship of the conductor and the influence of the recording companies that, in order to sell more records, promoted the same conductors and their orchestra and assigned them a semi-divine status ("Das Wunder Karajan"). At the end of the sixties of the 20th century, a semi-revolutionary wind blew over Western Europe : students protested in the streets against the fossilized state into which universities and society had evolved, calling for a "new order" that would give room to initiatives. Books have been written trying to explain why and how this happened at this very moment. Whatever the causes or the reasons, HIP movement was part of this situation. Young artist and musicians eagerly wanted to go back to basics, exploring books, writings and instruments to find out how music really (could have) sounded. Many an enthousiastic musician spread the good news and soon HIP found followers in Eastern Europe, the United States, Japan etc. As the big recording companies saw the change (true lovers of classical music embraced the new approach) and could no longer sell thousands or millions of records, they cut severely in costs and in many cases no longer produced classical music (pop music still sells well as young people are less informed and less critical). Brandnew small recording companies took over and at the moment every year a hundred or so HIP records are
launched on the market (some excellent, others weird) to the pure delight of true classical music lovers...

I always wonder why tradionalists are so opposed to and intolerant towards HIP. I could easily answer the question by saying : that's because they are traditionalists who don't want their conservative views and insights to be shaken by a new (r)evolutionary theory and practice , because they lack the strenght to adapt to new circumstances and because they trust and prefer their own experience (I am a Darwinist).But the main reason, I believe, is that they must conclude how different the same music played by different period instruments ensembles and orchestras sounds, showing a tremendous evolution : listen how different Norrington's Beethoven's symphonies sound from Tafelmusik or Gardiner or van Immerseel's Anima Eterna brilliant performance (I heard them live and on CD, and there is no difference !). There is so much variation while, in fact, they should sound almost equal. Well, they don't. And this is to me proof that HIP is the right and probably the only way. You ain't seen nothing yet ! (By the way, I wonder what traditionalists will say about van Immerseel' "reconstruction" of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. The horror, the horror ?)

"Evolution is not a theory, it is a fact" (Richard Dawkins). HIP is an evolution and that is a fact, no more, no less.

I'm currently enrolled in a class that deals with issues of HIP and I'm still on the fence about this. I definitely think that both approaches to the music of the past have their merits, and musicians shouldn't have to be afraid of playing too contemporarily--Stokowski's transcriptions, as you mentioned, are a shining example of the musical benefits of being a little more liberal with interpretation.

Henry: all excellent points, and I wanted to add a few more.

For one thing, historic as to what? The way they premiered Beethoven symphonies in France was different from what Austrian audiences heard. Regional variations were far greater then, before the radio, photograph, and internal combustion engine, than they are today.

For another, most composers were and are probably a lot less resistant to changes introduced by interpreters than many puritanical listeners are.

For another, how do we know certain expressive techniques weren't used simply because they weren't written into the scores? It seems to me that those very techniques would first be introduced spontaneously by performers, and *then* they would find their way into compositions via notation. So if we could back in a time machine, we'd probably find that a lot more was going on than was strictly written down. It was their continued use and growing popularity that probably led to their being introduced into the notation.

And finally the scores themselves are not Holy Scripture. Norrington, Hogwood and Gardiner all claim they are looking at the markings of Beethoven's symphonies, to take just one example, with fresh eyes and the latest scholarship, yet their recordings are markedly different from each other, so much so that even a lay listener unfamiliar with Beethoven in any form could hear it instantly. Who's "right"? Is that even a sensible question?

Of course HIP is valuable in many ways. With the finest recordings I can hear a clarity and rawness that modern instruments and techniques, with their thicker, more glossy sheen, often hide. There's something soul-stirring about a timpani being hit with bare wooden sticks and strings with no vibrato. I enjoy HIP performances oftentimes, but I do so for what they bring to the music in their own right, and not because they're "more accurate" or "correct." We don't refuse to see a staging of Shakespeare unless it's done in an open theater with a standing pen and a thread-bare stage, do we? So why must we hear a Mozart piano concerto only "on a piano like the one Mozart would have played it on"?

You are absolutely right, Henry. Any kind of orthodoxy in anything is wrong. "....the golden tree of life springs ever green."

As an amateur pianist, I have to say that in many historically informed recordings, the piano sounds out of tune. I'd be more willing to listen to these versions if they were in tune.

I remember in the mid-70's, when choral singers thought Robert Shaw's faster tempi in Messiah were something resembling heretical!

I have run the gamut about the HIP question, and have come to the conclusion that, when faced with music of real quality (like the music of Bach and Handel), many musicians apply "rules" to try to make the music do the rhythmic things that it does inside a performing musician's head, but not necessarily on his or her instrument. When playing a baroque period instrument, for example, certain things happen naturally with the sound and the articulation that do not happen on modern instruments. There are up sides to this, and there are down sides to this.

The carrying power of most 18th-century instruments, for example, is certainly inferior to the carrying power of most modern instruments. The modern way of compensating for that problem is to make recordings that can be balanced in the studio (or the computer), and can be played at any volume. It is a misrepresentation of what the instruments sound like in real space, as far as I'm concerned.

The first time I heard, as a young HIP baroque flutist, a Mozart Piano Concerto played on a fortepiano with a small-to-moderately-sized period-instrument orchestra, I was seriously disappointed. The fortepiano player, who was known in Boston as an excellent harpsichordist, could not be heard in the performance space (it was the Boston Opera House). At that moment I longed for a modern piano, so that I could hear the music. Or even for a recording with fortepiano.

As far as performance "style," is concerned, I now find it criminal to dismiss the "musically-informed" interpretations of musicians who performed works by Bach and Mozart during the 1950s and 1960s (and before). Consider Dinu Lipati's Bach, or Richter's (Sviatislav or Karl, for that matter). Consider Milstein's Bach, or Oistrakh's. Consider Clara Haskill's Mozart (or Oistrakh's). Who am I to criticize these musicians who make musical choices that are far more sophisticated than the ones I could ever make?

There are HIP recordings that are wonderful, and the instruments that people have been able to make during that past 30 years are remarkable. The scholarship that brings unknown composers to light is extremely valuable, but the "codification" of what scholars have deemed "baroque style" comes out sounding, as far as I'm concerned, musically one-dimensional. So many young people limit themselves by dismissing the musical wisdom of musicians from pre-HIP generations. I look at them and think "this too shall pass."

I used to be one of those people, until I wised up. I still consider myself a "recovering HIP musician." I play in a Renaissance and Medieval consort because I like the music, and I like playing the instruments (granted, my string instrument of choice in this ensemble is a viola d'amore--because of the tone quality and the range), but you'll never catch me "applying" arbitrary stylistic "rules" on this or any music.

Perhaps there is a place for purists--but that place is one tributary in the presentation of classical music, and not the main river.

The one thing we know for sure is that future generations will think the "original sound" is completely different from what we believe.

On a related topic, I think that lots of great performances need re-mastering rather than
re-creation.

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on September 18, 2009 11:49 AM.

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