Historical performance practice – then and now

Every musician faces the task of interpreting musical texts – and this is especially true for the repertoire of early music. The awareness of historically informed performance practice has grown significantly in recent years.

Musical texts are not a set of operating instructions that the musician may implement to obtain from a musical work the appropriate sounds. Even a seemingly clear indication pertaining to a level of loudness marked 'piano' is open to interpretation, because it says nothing about how 'quiet' that is supposed to be. Each performer must interpret a musical score, i.e. interpret the meaning of the information to be found there.

A lack of performance indications in early music

The further one moves back in music history, the fewer performance instructions may be found in the musical text itself. This does not mean that in earlier times an undifferentiated playing style or singing style were cultivated. The opposite is the case. The score often contains only the essential information, which must be added to on the basis of extensive knowledge of the correct type of execution. How fast should the opening movement be in a concerto that offers no indication of tempo? Where may ornamentation be used and where is it necessary? What types of articulation are appropriate for certain groupings of note? Professional musicians of 18th century could easily answer questions like this, because the doctrine of the appropriate performance style and thus detailed knowledge of conventions of playing and singing not part of the notation itself were part and parcel of their training.

Performance styles and their various parameters which affect the interpretation of music are subject to historical change. The knowledge a musician alive in 1730 had about the correct performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was a different one from that of a colleague of the late 19th century who performed this music in the spirit of his own time.

And yet, by the 19th century a gradual realization came about that lent the music of a certain era and a specific time an appropriate performance style. Musicians began to experiment with historical instruments, and sought how best to obtain reliable readings of the score, ones freed from accretions found in later editions. They also began to study those historical sources that provided information on detailed aspects of performance practice, such as the art of adding ornaments for example. Looking at the various preliminary studies for Aufführungspraxis alter Musik (Performance Practice of Early Music), the title of a highly influential book first published in 1931 by the musicologist Arnold Schering, there soon evolved a separate movement: musical interpretation, or so-called authentic performance practice, which represented a kind of countermovement to the traditional direction of musical practice.

The question of authenticity

Up to the 1980s a formula was used that made a claim to truth, one on which many protagonists of the new movement drew: authentic performance practice. This view prevailed – one that assumed authenticity, understood as a perfect representation of the past and something always to be redeemed. One can reconstruct the exact circumstances of performance, playing techniques and other historical parameters, but still not understand the social circumstances and individual experiences as they appear against the backdrop of historical figures. We are dealing here with real musicians and actual listeners, and therefore music which is read in the context of historical performance practice and brushes up against people of our own time and hence engenders experience that we have gained up to now. That is to say, we hear and experience things differently to the people of former times.

Efforts to establish historical performance practice remained acts of individuals, while some music experts welcomed and supported for a long time that which a majority rejected as museum-like practices. Musicians who tried to revive abandoned performance traditions only made progress in this regard in the decades following the Second World War, when they became a firm fixture in the concert and opera business, and in particular in the recording market. The crucial breakthrough was made in the 1970s by musicians such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or ensembles like Musica Antiqua Köln, and it is no coincidence this took place at a time in which an epoch-making social upheaval occurred and many traditional positions were being questioned critically. The reliance on historical sources and the use of historical instruments created, paradoxically, innovative moments that increasingly supplanted traditional approaches to interpretation.

Development of the repertoire

As a working repertoire the field of historical performance practice was initially that of what was considered early music: music from the Middle Ages to about the mid-18th century. A large part of the works and composers were, in the context of concerts and recording projects, generally unknown to most music listeners. Works such as the Vespers or the operas of Monteverdi was enthusiastically received as new discoveries. What caused some irritation and fierce controversy was helped by the new readings of these works, and they soon became part of the familiar repertoire. This is especially true of the music of Bach, whom musicians such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt snatched from the tradition and allowed to speak anew. These were radically innovative interpretations that led to much discussion.

Since the 1980s, the repertoire of musicians who feel drawn to historical performance practice has expanded continuously, right up to the 20th century. There was a conviction that the current practice of music is a continuous tradition, connected with the ages of Chopin, Brahms, Wagner and Mahler. For a long time this appeared almost absurd in terms of historically informed access to this music. But research on the history of interpretation clearly showed that what was regarded as a tradition of the 19th century is in reality but a development of the aftermath of World War I.

In the meantime, there seems to be a novel notion that has established itself and pertains to not only the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven but also the symphonies of Anton Bruckner and to Ravel's famous Bolero. These works, too, belong in a certain way to early music. Played on instruments of the time and according to the 'rules' of musical performance which the composer referred to when completing the scores, even these works sound fairly different to 'traditional' interpretations.

How strong the influence of historical performance practice actually is, may be evidenced by the fact that many of the performance standards developed by the movement have now become part of a general performance style. Many traditionally oriented ensembles use, in the meantime, a more detailed spectrum of articulation, understand that vibrato needs to be metered, and strive for a lean, transparent tone. Those who were formerly classed as outsiders have now arrived at the centre of musical life.