Towards the latter part of the twentieth century, a new force in music performance and scholastic endeavour emerged: the genre of historically-informed music. Straight away, it represented a conundrum: was it the art of bringing music of the past to life and into our own time, or was it rather entering the music of the past through a grasp of its performance practices, instrumental natures and stylistic expectations?

A vibrant modernist spirit runs throughout music until the mid-twentieth century, where music from previous eras was viewed as hopelessly out-dated; audiences in previous centuries had wanted the latest opera by ‘Herr Mozart’ or Verdi, or the newest symphony by Haydn, not works that had already been written and around for – horror – twenty years or so!

Would musicians like Mozart and Beethoven have embraced modern instruments and the sonic possibilities offered by modern brass and percussion instruments if they had been available ? Would they have objected to their music being performed by modern orchestras, which offered a richer, wider, more varied sound-palette? Or would they have stuck to the forces for which they would originally have written: valve-less brass, gut-stringed instruments with curved bows and different performance etiquette? All of which brings me to the real question at the heart of this article: should we perform Mozart and Beethoven symphonies with modern orchestras, and Baroque keyboard suites on modern pianos, in ways which reflect or are sympathetic to the original sound-world for which they were written, or should we revel and indulge in the richer possibilities offered by the modern orchestra and the modern piano ?

And where does contemporary music stand in relation to all this ? Is it a natural result of evolutions in musical form and structure, of composers pushing the boundaries to write music for larger ensembles, for bigger orchestras with instruments capable of offering the full chromatic scale or a larger, brassier sound ? Or does the pursuit of early music actually make contemporary music feel rejected, and the new modern sound in music is in fact a return to the livelier period-instrument sounds of the Baroque, which were lost in the inflated pomp of the Romantic and late-Romantic periods ? What does it mean for a vibrant, contemporary musical tradition, that it feels it necessary to exhume the music of the past ?

Our own practices would certainly be alien to visitors from the Baroque or Classical periods experimenting with time-travel: acoustically excellent concert halls; audiences who neither stroll about nor talk amongst themselves but listen in attentive silence and clap only at the end; even the idea of historically-informed performances of music from a previous age would be unfamiliar. And when did the professional orchestra come in to being ? Certainly not during Beethoven’s time.

We can’t know for certain what the original sound of a piece was: simply playing historically-informed instruments after having read up on how trills and turns were executed at the time will not guarantee a fidelious resurrection of Baroque music.

What we can achieve, perhaps, is sympathetic performances: ones that take account of stylistic practices whilst also admitting modern evolution in instrumental development and technical proficiency: a combination of old and new sensibilities. As with most things, it is a question of balance and perspective: a whole-scale rejection of either principles from the past or developments of the present can only result in the formation of ‘movements’ blindly devoted to the pursuit of one and the denial of the other, a state which can be unhealthy and lead to single-mindedness and bigotry. Let’s be receptive to both.

Dan Harding 20th July 2010

Dan is the Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. He writes about music on the departmental blog, ‘Music Matters.’