Authentic performance

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Historically informed performance (also referred to as period performance, authentic performance, or (HIP)) is an approach, or movement, in the performance of classical music and theater. Members of this movement usually play on period instruments, deploy older types of acting and scenery, and consult historical treatises, as well as additional historical evidence, to gain insight into the performance practice (the stylistic and technical aspects of performance) of a historic era. Historically informed performance might have originated in the performance of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, but has come to encompass music from the Classical and Romantic eras as well. Quite recently, the phenomenon has begun to affect the theatrical stage, for instance in the production of Baroque opera.


Traditional musical practice

Gradual changes in the construction of instruments and in the training of musicians have produced sounds and styles different from those used before (roughly) the mid-19th century.

Early instruments

The discussion below (see also Organology) covers instruments that had to be revived entirely, followed by instruments whose earlier form was rediscovered. See also List of period instruments.


Ruckers-Taskin harpsichord, (Paris, Musée de la Musique)

Among keyboard instruments, the most dramatic disappearance was that of the Harpsichord, which gradually went out of style during the second half of the 18th century. The Fortepiano became more popular by such a degree that harpsichords were destroyed; indeed, the Paris Conservatory is notorious for having used harpsichords for firewood during the French Revolution and Napoleonic times.[1] Composers such as François Couperin, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ, or sometimes for a generic "keyboard" (German Klavier), but not for the Fortepiano, which was invented around 1700, but only widely adopted at about 1765. The music by these composers sounds very different, and requires a different interpretive approach, when played on the harpsichord rather than on the piano.[citation needed] Notably, since every note on a harpsichord is equally loud, subtle variations of timing and articulation, as well as a judicious use of ornamentation, are employed to achieve an expressive harpsichord performance.[citation needed]

The harpsichord was reintroduced to the concert-going public in the first half of the 20th century by Wanda Landowska.[citation needed] Since most knowledge of harpsichord construction had been lost by that time, Landowska needed to use a harpsichord made for her by the Pleyel company of Paris, and based on the modern grand piano.[citation needed] From the 1950s on, harpsichord builders such as Frank Hubbard, William Dowd, and Martin Skowroneck began to follow the procedures of the early harpsichord builders.[citation needed] Today, harpsichords in the style of the old makers are produced in workshops around the world.[citation needed]


The bass viol roughly resembles a six-stringed, fretted cello.

A vast quantity of music for viols, for both ensemble and solo performance, was written by composers of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including Diego Ortiz, Claudio Monteverdi, William Byrd, William Lawes, Henry Purcell, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, J.S. Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Marin Marais, Antoine Forqueray, and Carl Frederick Abel. However, viols were largely abandoned by the end of the 18th century, having been overtaken by the violin family.

Many composers wrote complex polyphonic part music (early chamber music) for viol consort, an ensemble of differently sized viols (typically held vertically) with a varying number of viols in it.

From largest to smallest, the viol family consists of:

  • contrabass or violone
  • bass viol (about the size of a cello)
  • tenor viol (about the size of a guitar)
  • alto viol (about the size of a viola)
  • treble or descant viol (about the size of a violin).

Among the foremost modern players of the viols are Paolo Pandolfo, Wieland Kuijken, Jordi Savall, John Hsu, Vittorio Ghielmi, and Guido Balestracci. There are many modern viol consorts including Fretwork.


Recorders in multiple sizes (contra-bass, bass, tenor, alto, soprano, the sopranino, and the even smaller kleine sopranino or garklein) are often played today in consorts of mixed size. Handel and Telemann, among others, wrote solo works for the recorder. Arnold Dolmetsch did much to revive the recorder as a serious concert instrument, reconstructing a "consort of recorders (descant, treble, tenor and bass) all at low pitch and based on historical originals."[2] For a number of important modern exponents of the recorder, see Recorder player.

Other instruments

A man playing the serpent: Engraving from Filippo Bonanni's Gabinetto Armonico pieno d'Instromenti (Roma, 1723)

Other instruments that declined in use around the same time as the harpsichord, viol, and recorder include the lute, the viola d'amore, and the baryton. Instruments that lost currency rather earlier include the cornett, the shawm, the rackett, the crumhorn, the theorbo, and the hurdy-gurdy.[citation needed]

Other instruments, such as the serpent, did not lose favor until quite late in the 19th century.[citation needed]

Developed instruments

(See baroque violin)

From the heavy rigging of the early to mid 1800s, the tendency shifted to using lighter strings for an easier playing technique and more soloistic brilliance. From around 1900 until our times, the average string tension has been lighter than in most Baroque traditions except for 18th century France, but the longer strings and the more compact material (including, in our days, steel E strings) has led to a more brilliant and short-range penetrating tone with a greater acoustical emphasis on the even overtones.

The flute of the 18th century was typically made of wood rather than metal.

Early brass instruments did not incorporate keys or valves until the late 18th century.


The human voice is a biological given, but can be trained in different ways. Singers in historically informed performances typically aim at a less loud tone, usually with less vibrato. Singing more quietly is feasible because accompanying instruments are generally also softer. A few of the singers who have contributed to the historically informed performance movement are Emma Kirkby, Julianne Baird, Nigel Rogers, and David Thomas.

Historically informed performances sometimes use male singers, called countertenors, to sing alto parts.[citation needed] Although it is often a vexed question how often this was done in early performance, a number of countertenors have won acclaim for their purity of tone, vocal agility, and interpretive skill.[citation needed] Modern countertenor singing was pioneered by Alfred Deller, and leading contemporary performers include David Daniels, Derek Lee Ragin, Andreas Scholl, Michael Chance, Drew Minter, Daniel Taylor, and Brian Asawa.

Compositions intended to be sung by castrati present a problem. The 1994 movie Farinelli: Il Castrato, about an 18th-century castrato, used digital effects to create the voice by mixing the sound of a countertenor with a soprano singer.

Boy sopranos in choirs are not uncommon, even in traditional performances, but the use of boy sopranos as soloists is rare.[citation needed] Most notably, much of the music of Bach that Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt recorded made use of boy sopranos even for the solo parts.[citation needed]


Historic pictures [3], layout sketches and sources are giving information about the layout of singers and instruments. Three main layouts are documented:

  • Circle (Renaissance)
  • Choir in the front of the instruments (17th–19th century)
  • Singers and instruments next to each other on the choir loft.

Johann Mattheson: "The singers must stand alltime in front" [4].


see also String section

Recovering early performance practices

Interpreting musical notation

Some familiar difficult items are as follows:

  • Early composers apparently often wrote dotted rhythms (where the first of two notes is three times the length of the second) to mean instead a time ratio of 2 + 1, in a context where triplets are present elsewhere in the musical line.[citation needed] The opening line of the last movement of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #5 is a good example.
  • In a French overture, it is often held that dotted notation was meant to indicate double dotting; that is, a duration ratio of 7 to 1 instead of 3 to 1.[citation needed] Two well-known examples are the overtures to Handel's Messiah, and the Suite in F of Water Music: both often played in the double-dotted manner by historically informed performance specialists.
  • What is written as an appoggiatura is often meant to be longer or shorter than the notated length. This convention is pervasive in Mozart's music.
  • Lastly, the notes of earlier music cannot generally be interpreted as designating the same pitch that they do today. For discussion, see History of pitch standards in Western music.

Mechanical music

Some information about how music sounded in the past can be obtained from contemporary mechanical instruments. For instance, the Dutch museum Van Speelklok tot Pierement owns an 18th century mechanical organ of which the music programme was composed and supervised by Joseph Haydn.[citation needed]

Issues of pronunciation even carry over to church Latin, the language in which a huge amount of early music was written. The reason is that Latin was customarily pronounced using the speech sounds and patterns of the local vernacular language; see Latin regional pronunciation.

Tuning and pitch

In the 18c, circulating temperaments, famously called for in Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, was used.

The baroque oboist Bruce Haynes has extensively investigated surviving wind instruments and even documented a case of violinists having to retune by a minor third to play at neighboring churches.[5][page needed]


The perceived aesthetic benefits of historically informed performance vary with what kind of music is being played. In rough terms, they can be characterized as follows.

  • Greater transparency and greater contrast in volume levels lend themselves, in turn, to greater rhythmic energy.

Variety of opinion

Opinions on the historically informed performance movement vary.

Though championing the need (for example in his editorship of Scarlatti sonatas) for a thoroughly-informed approach, not least in understanding as fully as possible a composer's actual wishes and intentions in their historical context, Ralph Kirkpatrick found it necessary to write "too often historical authenticity can be used as a means of escape from any potentially disquieting observance of esthetic values, and from the assumption of any genuine artistic responsibility. The abdication of esthetic values and artistic responsibilities can confer a certain illusion of simplicity on what the passage of history has presented to us, bleached as white as bones on the sands of time."[6][page needed]

Virgil Fox was more blunt: "There is current in our land (and several European countries) at this moment a kind of nitpicking worship of historic impotence. They say that Bach must not be interpreted and that he must have no emotion, that his notes speak for themselves. You want to know what that is? Pure unadulterated rot! Bach has the red blood. He has the communion with the people. He has all of this amazing spirit. And imagine that you could put all the music on one side of the agenda with his great interpretation and great feeling and put the greatest man of all right up on top of a dusty shelf underneath some glass case in a museum and say that he must not be interpreted! They're full of you-know-what and they're so untalented that they have to hide behind this thing because they couldn't get in the house of music any other way!"

American musicologist and Renaissance choral music conductor Richard Taruskin also discusses flaws in the case for historically informed performance in his 1995 collection of articles, Text and Act.[7]

Regarding "authentic" Baroque music performance, classical recording producer Michael Sartorius writes: "While the debate on authenticity in baroque performance will continue, certain essential characteristics should be present, if the performance is to reflect the true baroque spirit. ... if the tempo is too slow the piece drags; too fast and vital detail is lost as the musicians scramble to grapple with unnecessary challenges of physical dexterity... Many 'authentic' performances of Bach's cantatas adopt a fast, almost racy tempo which would never have been considered or tolerated in the staid atmosphere of a Lutheran church service in 1730. ... Balance is vital too, so that everything can be heard... It is not always easy to find recordings of Bach's harpsichord concertos in which the harpsichord is given correct prominence; and as for the poor Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, often (and rightly) billed as the world's first Triple Concerto, it seems impossible to find one recording from the zillions available in which the harpsichord is given the same prominence as the violin and flute, the other two solo instruments." Sartorius also criticizes "the almost total absence of vibrato" in today's "authentic" performances, resulting in a "flat, plaintive and lifeless tone. It seems quite unclear as to where this aspect of 'authenticity' derived from, since much evidence supports quite the contrary view. A star pupil of Corelli, Geminiani moved from Naples to London in 1714 and was to become the most important Italian violin virtuoso resident in Britain... Geminiani provided ornaments for both slow and fast movements as well as cadenzas in his treatise; he advocated the use of vibrato 'as often as possible', and the expressiveness of his playing was much admired by both Hawkins and Burney."[8]

Also, some listeners who have absolute pitch are disturbed by the fact that historically informed performances often use a lower pitch than traditional performances (415 Hz vs 440 Hz). And some players and ensembles adopt yet another pitch, for example 392 Hz for early baroque music (particularly for French wind instruments) or 430 Hz to play Mozart's or Beethoven's music, which makes the whole situation even more confusing for those people.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Making Way for Beautiful Music
  2. ^ http://www.dolmetsch.com/Dolworks.htm
  3. ^ Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart
  4. ^ Johann Mattheson: Der vollkommene Kapellmeister
  5. ^ Bruce Haynes, "Pitch Standards in the Baroque and Classical Periods" (diss., U. of Montreal, 1995).
  6. ^ Ralph Kirkpatrick, Interpreting Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984)
  7. ^ Taruskin, Rchard, Text and Act (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  8. ^ Michael Sartorius. BAROQUE MUSIC PERFORMANCE: "Authentic" or "Traditional". A discussion of the essential issues involved. http://www.baroquemusic.org/barperf.html


  • Arnold Dolmetsch, The Interpretation of the Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries Revealed by Contemporary Evidence, London: Novello, 1915. The book that started it all.
  • Thurston Dart. The Interpretation of Music. London: Hutchinson and Co, 1954.
  • Robert Donington. The Interpretation of Early Music, London: Faber and Faber, 1963. Covered much the same ground as Dolmetsch, but updated by 50 years of further discovery.
  • Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (1997). "The good, the bad and the boring", Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816540-4.
  • Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making by Frank Hubbard (1965; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press ISBN 0-674-88845-6) is a classic tale of scholarly detective work, both with old instruments and old written sources, that led to the rediscovery of how the old harpsichords were built.
  • Kivy, Peter. Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. ISBN 0801430461. Kivy's book explains that the debate about authentic performance generally fails to distinguish between four distinct kinds of authenticity.
  • Andrew Parrott. The Essential Bach Choir. The Boydell Press, 2000. ISBN 0-85115-786-6. An analysis of how the musicians available to Bach in Leipzig were likely to have been used in practice.
  • Charles Rosen's discussion of historically informed performance may be found in Chapter 12 of his book Critical Entertainments (2000; Cambridge: Harvard University Press; ISBN 0-674-00684-4). This chapter contains the full version of the quotation above concerning tuning, which is from the French critic Charles de Saint-Evremond.
  • The quotation above from Joseph Haydn about the necessity of at least one rehearsal is taken from p. 145 of Rosen's book The Classical Style (2nd ed., 1997; New York: Norton; ISBN 0-393-31712-9).
  • Paul Badura-Skoda. Interpreting Bach at the Keyboard. (English Translation) Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-816576-5. Challenges many ideas that have been taken as granted since Dolmetsch.
  • Nicholas Kenyon (editor). Authenticity and Early Music, Oxford University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-19-816152-2. The proceedings of a symposium in which various approaches to "authenticity" were criticised – essential reading.

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Authentic performance". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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