As part of Bachtrack’s Baroque Music Month, Matthew Lynch examines the history of the historically informed performance movement, and discusses the situation today.

How many people played in the orchestra in the première of Handel’s Messiah? What sort of instruments were they using? What sorts of singing and instrumental technique did they have? How did the audience react? And, most importantly, what did it sound like? Since the mid 20th century, musicians have been trying to answer these questions, with a view to bringing something close to the true sound and atmosphere of Handel’s music to modern audiences.

Arnold Dolmetsch
Arnold Dolmetsch
Historically informed performance (HIP) has its roots in Arnold Dolmetsch’s work with the recorder, which extends right back into the late 19th century. He built his first lute in 1893 and went on to build clavichords and harpsichords, eventually publishing The Interpretation of the Music of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries in 1915. Dolmetsch’s book was a real milestone in early music performance, and we also have him to thank for the resurgence of the recorder (and also for its modern dismissal as a horrible instrument for small children): it was Dolmetsch who first recommended it as an instrument for children in English schools.

Alongside Dolmetsch, early pioneers in Germany, Switzerland and France established concert series for early music in the 1920s, bringing back forgotten instruments such as the viola da gamba and viola d’amore. These included full performances of Bach’s Passions and Monteverdi’s Vespers but still constituted mostly isolated events. The floodgates didn’t truly open until after the Second World War.

And it was the Germans who got there first, founding the first permanent period instrument orchestra in 1954. But the Cappella Coloniensis, which still exists today, was gradually joined by stiff competition in the 60s, 70s and 80s, mostly in London, Basel, and the Netherlands.

As the HIP movement developed in the second half of the 20th century, the questions changed. To begin with, people just wanted to rediscover old music. Then came the desire to perform it on the original instruments and with contemporaneous techniques of playing and interpretation. As the musicologist John Tobin said as early as 1950: “To sing (or play) Messiah with purely Handel’s notes may be to perform Messiah as Handel wrote it, but it will not be as the audiences that listened to the work under Handel’s direction heard it, or as he intended it to be heard.”

How would Handel have played an appoggiatura in Italy in 1708? Would he have played it differently in London in 1730? Maybe he played it differently on the organ to on the harpsichord, and differently in one harmonic context to another. What ornaments would he have expected from his performers? And what pitch and scale did they use?

Performers have grappled with these questions for decades. Academics such as Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and Thurston Dart have made whole careers out of them, and the results have been not only academically but musically invigorating. Trevor Pinnock’s 1988 recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, to take just one example, is not just an attempt to recreate a lost musical artifact, but creative music-making at its finest.

But the HIP movement has always had its critics. One of the most prominent and vocal is the American musicologist Richard Taruskin, many of whose writings on the subject are collected in the volume Text and Act. Among Taruskin’s main criticisms is the authenticity of HIP. The desire to recreate the past and remain true to composers’ intentions spawned from the division between composer and performer (the creative and the re-creative processes) started with Beethoven (a composer who couldn’t perform his own works) but remained largely latent in the 19th century (with composer–performers from Mendelssohn through Brahms and Liszt to Mahler), re-emerging in the 20th century, when Stravinsky began referring to performers as “executants” rather than interpreters. The musicologist/philosopher Lydia Goehr connects this with contemporary ideas of authorship and the concept of the musical work as a self-contained entity; music has transitioned from a performance-based art to a text-based one, with the score representing a perfect conception of the music, which is then only imperfectly rendered in performance. Thus the idea that HIP is desirable, or that it is connected to the performance tradition it attempts to recreate, is questionable.

Another of Taruskin’s problems with HIP is the idea that “what is not permitted is prohibited”. As he points out, “there is nothing you can do… and be sure that someone will not say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’ If you want no one to say it you must do nothing – as many do in the name of ‘authenticity’”. In order to preserve authenticity, HIP musicians play notes and not music, or so the argument goes. HIP should be a means to an end, that end being imaginative music-making, but many feel that HIP is often an end in itself.

Nigel Kennedy with Palestine Strings and members of Orchestra of Life at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Nigel Kennedy with Palestine Strings and members of Orchestra of Life at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou
This argument comes not just from Taruskin but from musicologists, critics, and musicians everywhere. Nigel Kennedy claimed as late as 2011 that “specialists are pushing Bach into… a ghetto, which leaves many people feeling that Bach’s music is merely mathematical and technical. I see it as my job to try to keep Bach in the mainstream and present his music with, rather than without, its emotional core.” It is sentiments like this that have led to many of the 21st century’s developments in the ways Baroque music is performed.

In 2010 the 55-year-old Sir Simon Rattle gave performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Birmingham with the CBSO. It is well known that Rattle didn’t rush into the core orchestral repertoire, always waiting until he felt ready for it (how many big-name conductors wait until they’re 54 to release their first Brahms symphony?) – but Rattle was a harpsichordist in his youth, and had consequently played a lot of Bach. What held him back? And, more importantly, why did he come back to this repertoire when he did? In a 2010 interview for the Telegraph, he said:

When I started I just couldn’t live with the style that was current then. It was the end of that era when Bach was played in a way which was impassioned, but also grotesque. And then there was this huge transition in Baroque style just getting under way, so it was a confusing time... What really counts isn’t whether your instrument is Baroque or modern, it’s your mind-set. It’s having a sense of style, and also realising that there’s no right way to play Bach.

ir Simon Rattle conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment © OAE
ir Simon Rattle conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Rattle has in fact been building up to Bach since the late 1980s when he worked with the then newly formed period ensemble the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, on a performance of Mozart's Idomeneo. Rattle has described this as “an unforgettable time” for him. He has gone on to become one of the OAE’s principal artists, though his work with them consists largely of Classical and Romantic works, extending right up to the 20th-century repertoire for which Rattle is best known. In the last few years, modern orchestras have been rediscovering Baroque music, not only under their principal conductors, but in the hands of specialists. Emmanuelle Haïm, John Eliot Gardiner, Trevor Pinnock and Ton Koopman have all stood on the podium (or sat at the harpsichord) for the Berlin Philharmonic, and we have seen some of the first new recordings from major orchestras of Bach’s large-scale choral works (the B minor Mass, the Passions and the Christmas Oratorio) for several decades under the likes of Ricardo Chailly and Simon Rattle.

However, perhaps most exciting of all are the new developments in HIP itself. The movement has become increasingly free of rigidity. Performers are recognising that there is so much that we don’t and cannot know about Baroque performance practice, and that imagination and liberties can (and must) be taken in an attempt to fill the gaps. Recorder player Piers Adams started the early music group Red Priest in 1997 in attempt to brush the dry academic reputation of HIP aside, putting showmanship and virtuosity alongside a regard for period performance techniques. Even more mainstream HIP recordings and performances, particularly of opera, engage more freely and playfully with their texts than would have been the case 20 or 30 years ago. If we look at Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, a comparison of Andrew Parrott’s 1981 recording with Emmanuelle Haïm’s 2003 version shows how HIP developed in in those 20 years better than any article.

Sights such as the above – do watch until at least the three-minute mark! – would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, but this is 21st-century, full-blooded and creative HIP. These monuments of music history were resurrected and dusted off in the 19th century, restored and placed in glass cabinets in the 20th, and are now being returned to musicians and audiences.

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