Challenging Performance: The Book. 6.7 Music is best performed ‘historically’

6 Further WCM delusions

6.7 Music makes better sense performed ‘historically’

This is unlike the other beliefs discussed in this chapter, in that it’s optional within the ideology: you can believe it and get work as a ‘historical’ performer, or you can disbelieve it and still get work as a ‘modern’ performer. Before the 1960s the historical view was heretical; but its commercial success, which by the 80s had become very great, made it respectable. One might think this shows that change in the ideology is possible provided that the result finds an audience and earns well for promoters and record companies, and in a sense that’s true. But the audience was only found in this case, and the practice was only accepted within enough of the profession to overcome the objections of the rest, because historical performance could plausibly claim to be not just in line with a core belief of the ideology—namely that the composer knew best—but actually more concordant with it than modern performance. Hence Frans Brüggen’s notorious 1970 claim that ‘Every note of Mozart and Beethoven that the Concertgebouw Orchestra plays is, musically speaking, a lie.’[1] This didn’t endear him to the Concertgebouw, but it was a very effective way of publicising the notion that his belief in the ideology was purer than theirs.

Brüggen’s case was fundamentalist: everything but the original is false. Aesthetically that’s evidently ridiculous, given the wonderful musical experiences that people have had with performances that for Brüggen are simply wrong. For fundamentalists being right is what matters, and then one does one’s best to make art with that. Although I have sympathy with this to the extent that artistic practice needs an ethical basis, it seems to me that to believe that great art can only emerge when you do history properly is both a category error and evidently untrue.  But then, whereas for Brüggen, being historically accurate is (to be fair, was in 1970) the ultimate value,[2] for me producing a wonderful experience is, and I don’t mind how contingent that is, how much it depends on opinion or how much it changes over time, as long as there is debate, variety, and no one is seriously harmed. That our initial assumptions are incompatible simply emphasises the extent to which WCM values always depend on belief.

While the flaws in HIP ideology have been well worked-over, especially by Richard Taruskin in many (entertaining and influential) essays, so have the benefits that have come in the fresh performance styles that have emerged. These have been emphasised also by John Butt and Bruce Haynes, all well worth reading on this topic.[3] And while most performers in this (let’s accept it, modern) tradition do not make claims for historical accuracy anything like as extreme as those knocked down in this debate, nonetheless the ideology of HIP pervades teaching and practice within that world in the more insidious form of tacit knowledge. Notions of what is or is not ‘stylish’ are particularly coercive here, as that measure is used to police ‘historical’ performance style so as to exclude anything that is not generally accepted as normatively HIP.[4] This is the environment in which you won’t get booked again if your ornamentation or your articulation, or another aspect of style supposed to be characteristic of earlier practice, steps beyond an imaginary boundary that has emerged through a widespread consensus defining what is and is not done. There can never be historical evidence for the placing of these boundaries: as usual with performance norms, they are commercially convenient in minimising rehearsal and psychologically supportive in providing reassurance. Indeed, all these rules and beliefs could be seen as strategies for limiting the vast range of possibilities for performance interpretation, whose variety I suspect musicians subconsciously recognise and, because of the extent and viciousness of performance policing, are terrified by.

Nothing makes this clearer than the horror of vibrato, and still worse portamento, among most HIP performers. The absurd situation in which a well-known conductor of original-instrument performances of late nineteenth-century repertoire refuses to countenance vibrato and portamento, despite the irrefutable recorded evidence for both (especially portamento) in late nineteenth-century performances, perfectly illustrates the hypocrisy of HIP. As we saw with the Debussy example in Chapter 3, once recordings are available suddenly no one wants to know about the composer’s expectations: they’re simply too unlike current performance values to be borne. So we take the bits we like (faster speeds for late-nineteenth century repertoire and less vibrato than was normal in the twentieth century) and leave the bits we hate (portamento). But it’s not HIP; and we clearly do not believe in the professed values of HIP when it comes to the uncomfortable truth of previous performance styles.

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[1] Rubinoff, Kailan R. 2009. Cracking the Dutch Early Music Movement: the Repercussions of the 1969 Notenkrakersactie, Twentieth-Century Music 6(1), 3–22 at 7.

[2] And it’s still going on. See Searching for the True Beethoven. I rather like the ‘true’ notes; but remember that they were previously lies and the lies truths, and they all afforded great performances.

[3] Taruskin, Richard. 1995. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Taruskin, Richard. 2009. The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press). Taruskin, Richard. 2020. Cursed Questions: On Music and its Social Practices (Oakland: University of California Press). Butt, John. 2002. Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance (Cambridge University Press). Haynes, Bruce. 2007. The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Oxford University Press). See also Cook (2013), 26–9, for a good summary of the pressure exerted by positivistic musicological thought on HIP.

[4] The key importance of imagined historical stylishness is clear from: Schubert, Emery and Dorottya Fabian. 2006. The Dimensions of Baroque Music Performance: A Semantic Differential Study. Psychology of Music, 34, 573–87. Fabian, Dorottya and Emery Schubert. 2009. Baroque Expressiveness and Stylishness in Three Recordings of the D minor Sarabanda for Solo ViolinMusic Performance Research, 3, 36–56. Fabian, Dorottya, Emery Schubert and Richard Pulley. 2010. A Baroque Traumerei: The Performance and Perception of Two Violin Renditions. Musicology Australia, 32, 27–44.

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