Historically informed performance

Historically informed performance (also referred to as period performance, authentic performance, or HIP) is an approach to the performance of classical music, which aims to be faithful to the approach, manner and style of the musical era in which a work was originally conceived.

It is based on two key aspects: the application of the stylistic and technical aspects of performance, known as performance practice; and the use of period instruments which may be reproductions of historical instruments that were in use at the time of the original composition and which usually have different timbre and temperament.[1]

Because no sound recordings exist of music before the modern era, historically informed performance is necessarily derived from academic musicological research. Historical treatises, as well as additional historical evidence, are used to gain insight into the performance practice of a historic era. HIP performers will normally base their interpretations on scholarly or urtext editions of a musical score, unencumbered with suggestions or changes made by editors in later eras.[1]

Historically informed performance can trace its roots to the late 19th century, but was principally developed in a number of Western countries in the late 20th century. Initially mainly concerned with the performance of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, it has since come to encompass music from the Classical and Romantic eras as well. The practice has been a crucial part of the Early music revival movement of the 20th and 21st centuries. Quite recently, the phenomenon has begun to affect the theatrical stage, for instance in the production of Baroque opera, where historically informed approaches to acting and scenery are also used.[2][1]

Some critics contest the methodology of the HIP movement, contending that its selection of practices and aesthetics are a product of the 20th century and that it is ultimately impossible to know what performances of an earlier time sounded like. For this reason, the term "historically informed" is now preferred to "authentic", as it acknowledges the limitations of academic understanding, rather than implying absolute accuracy in recreating historical performance style.[3][2]

Early instruments

The choice of musical instruments is an important part of the principle of historically informed performance. Musical instruments have evolved over time, and instruments that were in use in earlier periods of history were often quite different from their modern equivalents. Many other instruments have fallen out of use, having been replaced by newer tools for creating music. For example, prior to the emergence of the modern violin, other bowed stringed instruments such as the rebec or the viol were in common use.[4] The existence of ancient instruments in museum collections has helped musicologists to understand how the different design, tuning and tone of instruments may have affected earlier performance practice.[5]

As well as a research tool, historic instruments have an active role in the practice of historically informed performance. Modern instrumentalists who aim to recreate a historic sound often use modern reproductions of period instruments (and occasionally original instruments) on the basis that this will deliver a musical performance that is thought to be historically faithful to the original work, as the original composer would have heard it. For example, a modern music ensemble staging a performance of music by Johann Sebastian Bach may play reproduction Baroque violins instead of modern instruments in an attempt to create the sound of a 17th-century Baroque orchestra.[5][6]

This has led to the revival of musical instruments that had entirely fallen out of use, and to a reconsideration of the role and structure of instruments also used in current practice.

Orchestras and ensembles who are noted for their use of period instruments in performances include the Taverner Consort and Players (directed by Andrew Parrott), the Academy of Ancient Music (Christopher Hogwood), The English Concert (Trevor Pinnock), the Hanover Band, the English Baroque Soloists (Sir John Eliot Gardiner), Musica Antiqua Köln (Reinhard Goebel), the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (Paul Dyer) and La Chapelle Royale (Philippe Herreweghe).[7][8][9][10] As the scope of historically informed performance has expanded to encompass the works of the Romantic era, the specific sound of 19th-century instruments has increasingly been recognised in the HIP movement, and period instruments orchestras such as Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique have emerged.[11]


A variety of once obsolete keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord have been revived as they have particular importance in the performance of Early music. Before the evolution of the symphony orchestra led by a conductor, Renaissance and Baroque orchestras were commonly directed from the harpsichord; the director would lead by playing continuo, which would provide a steady, harmonic structure upon which the other instrumentalists would embellish their parts.[12][13] Many religious works of the era made similar use of the pipe organ, often in combination with a harpsichord.[14] Historically informed performances frequently make use of keyboard-led ensemble playing.

Composers such as François Couperin, Domenico Scarlatti, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ.

Among the foremost modern players of the harpsichord are Robert Hill, Igor Kipnis, Ton Koopman, Wanda Landowska, Gustav Leonhardt, Trevor Pinnock, Skip Sempé, Andreas Staier, and Colin Tilney.


During the second half of the 18th century, the harpsichord was gradually replaced by the fortepiano, a precursor to the modern piano. As the harpsichord went out of fashion, many were destroyed; indeed, the Paris Conservatory is notorious for having used harpsichords for firewood during the French Revolution and Napoleonic times.[15] In the 20th and 21st centuries, the fortepiano has enjoyed a revival as a result of the trend for historically informed performance, with the works of Beethoven and Schubert being played on fortepiano.[16]


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.

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, and Vittorio Ghielmi. There are many modern viol consorts.


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".[17]


As with instrumental technique, the approach to historically informed performance practice for singers has been shaped by musicological research and academic debate. In particular, there was debate around the use of the technique of vibrato at the height of the Early music revival, and many advocates of HIP aimed to eliminate vibrato in favour of the "pure" sound of straight-tone singing. The difference in style may be demonstrated by the sound of a boy treble in contrast to the sound of a Grand opera singer such as Maria Callas.[18]

Certain historic vocal techniques have gained in popularity, such as trillo, a tremolo-like repetition of a single note that was used for ornamental effect in the early Baroque era. Academic understanding of these expressive devices is often subjective however, as many vocal techniques discussed by treatise writers in the 17th and 18th centuries have different meanings, depending on the author. Despite the fashion for straight tone, many prominent Early music singers make use of a subtle, gentle form of vibrato to add expression to their performance.[18][19]

A few of the singers who have contributed to the historically informed performance movement are Emma Kirkby, Max van Egmond, Julianne Baird, Nigel Rogers, and David Thomas.

The resurgence of interest in Early music, particularly in sacred renaissance polyphony and Baroque opera, has driven a revival of the countertenor voice. High-voice male singers are often cast in preference to female contraltos in HIP opera productions, partly as a substitute for castrato singers. Alfred Deller is considered to have been a pioneer of the modern revival of countertenor singing.[20] Leading contemporary performers include James Bowman, David Daniels, Derek Lee Ragin, Andreas Scholl, Michael Chance, Drew Minter, Daniel Taylor, Brian Asawa, Yoshikazu Mera, and Philippe Jaroussky.


Standard practice concerning the layout of a group of performers, for example in a choir or an orchestra, has changed over time. Determining a historically appropriate layout of singers and instruments on a performance stage may be informed by historical research. In addition to documentary evidence, musicologists may also turn to iconographic evidence — contemporary paintings and drawings of performing musicians — as a primary source for historic information. Pictorial sources may reveal various practices such as the size of an ensemble; the position of various types of instruments; their position in relation to a choir or keyboard instrument; the position or absence of a conductor; whether the performers are seated or standing; and the performance space (such as a concert hall, palace chamber, domestic house, church, or outdoors etc.).[1] The German theorist Johann Mattheson, in a 1739 treatise, states that the singers should stand in front of the instrumentalists.[21]

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.

Recovering early performance practices

Interpreting musical notation

Some familiar difficult items are as follows:

  • Early composers often wrote using the same symbols as today, yet in a different meaning, often context-dependent. For example, what is written as an appoggiatura is often meant to be longer or shorter than the notated length.[22]
  • The notation may be partial. E.g., the note durations may be omitted altogether, such as in unmeasured preludes, pieces written without rhythm or metre indications.
  • The music may be written using alternative, non-modern notations, such as tablature. Some tablature notations are only partially decoded, such as the notation[23] in the harp manuscript[24] by Robert ap Huw.
  • The reference pitch of earlier music cannot generally be interpreted as designating the same pitch used today.
  • Various tuning systems (temperaments), are used. Composers always assume the player will choose the temperament, and never indicate it in the score.[25]
  • In most ensemble music up to the early Baroque, the actual musical instruments to be used are not indicated in the score, and must be partially or totally chosen by the performers. A well-discussed example can be found in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, where the indications on which instruments to use are partial and limited to critical sections only.[26]
  • Issues of pronunciation, that impact on musical accents, carry over to church Latin, the language in which a large amount of early vocal music was written. The reason is that Latin was customarily pronounced using the speech sounds and patterns of the local vernacular language.

Mechanical music

Some information about how music sounded in the past can be obtained from contemporary mechanical instruments. For instance, the Dutch Museum Speelklok owns an 18th-century mechanical organ of which the music programme was composed and supervised by Joseph Haydn.[27]

Tuning and pitch

Until modern era, different tuning references have been used in different venues. 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.[28]

Iconographic evidence

The research of musicologists often overlaps with the work of art historians; by examining paintings and drawings of performing musicians contemporary to a particular musical era, academics can infer details about performance practice of the day. In addition to showing the layout of an orchestra or ensemble, a work of art may reveal detail about contemporary playing techniques, for example the manner of holding a bow or a wind player's embouchure. However, just as an art historian must evaluate a work of art, a scholar of musicology must also assess the musical evidence of a painting or illustration in its historical context, taking into consideration the potential cultural and political motivations of the artist and allow for artistic license. An historic image of musicians may present an idealised or even fictional account of musical instruments, and there is as much a risk that it may give rise to a historically misinformed performance.[1]


Prior to audio and video recording, no direct record of performing arts survives. Opinions on the implications of these motivations and on how they should translate into criteria for historically informed performance vary.[29]

Even within the early music revival, awareness of the pitfalls was clear. 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, while pioneering the harpsichord rediscovery, highlights the risk of using historical exoterism to hide technical incompetence: "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".[30]

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."[31]

A number of scholars see the HIP movement essentially as a 20th-century invention. Writing about the periodical Early Music (one of the leading periodicals about historically informed performance), Peter Hill noted "All the articles in Early Music noted in varying ways the (perhaps fatal) flaw in the 'authenticity' position. This is that the attempt to understand the past in terms of the past is—paradoxically—an absolutely contemporary phenomenon."[32] Some proponents of the Early music revival have distanced themselves from the terminology of "authentic performance". Conductor John Eliot Gardiner has expressed the view that the term can be "misleading", and has stated, "My enthusiasm for period instruments is not antiquarian or in pursuit of a spurious and unattainable authenticity, but just simply as a refreshing alternative to the standard, monochrome qualities of the symphony orchestra."[8][33]

One of the more skeptical voices of the historically informed performance movement has been Richard Taruskin. His thesis is that the practice of unearthing supposedly historically informed practices is actually a 20th-century practice influenced by modernism and, ultimately, we can never know what music sounded like or how it was played in previous centuries. "What we had been accustomed to regard as historically authentic performances, I began to see, represented neither any determinable historical prototype nor any coherent revival of practices coeval with the repertories they addressed. Rather, they embodied a whole wish list of modern(ist) values, validated in the academy and the marketplace alike by an eclectic, opportunistic reading of historical evidence."[34] "'Historical' performers who aim 'to get to the truth'...by using period instruments and reviving lost playing techniques actually pick and choose from history's wares. And they do so in a manner that says more about the values of the late twentieth century than about those of any earlier era."[35]

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson concedes that much of the HIP practice is based on invention: "Historical research may provide us with instruments, and sometimes even quite detailed information on how to use them; but the gap between such evidence and a sounding performance is still so great that it can be bridged only by a large amount of musicianship and invention. Exactly how much is required can easily be forgotten, precisely because the exercise of musical invention is so automatic to the performer."[36] Leech Wilkinson concludes that performance styles in early music "have as much to do with current taste as with accurate reproduction."[37]

In her book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, Lydia Goehr discusses the aims and fallacies of both proponents and critics of the HIP movement.[38] She notes that the HIP movement itself came about during the latter half of the 19th century as a reaction to the way modern techniques were being imposed upon music of earlier times. Thus performers were concerned with achieving an "authentic" manner of performing music—a 19th-century ideal that carries implications for all those involved with music. She distills the late 20th century arguments into two points of view, achieving either fidelity to the conditions of performance, or fidelity to the musical work.[38]

She succinctly summarizes the critics' arguments (for example, anachronistic, selectively imputing current performance ideas on early music), but then concludes that what the HIP movement has to offer is a different manner of looking at and listening to music: "It keeps our eyes open to the possibility of producing music in new ways under the regulation of new ideals. It keeps our eyes open to the inherently critical and revisable nature of our regulative concepts. Most importantly, it helps us overcome that deep‐rooted desire to hold the most dangerous of beliefs, that we have at any time got our practices absolutely right."[39]


In his book, The Aesthetics of Music, the British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote that "the effect [of HIP] has frequently been to cocoon the past in a wad of phoney scholarship, to elevate musicology over music, and to confine Bach and his contemporaries to an acoustic time-warp. The tired feeling which so many 'authentic' performances induce can be compared to the atmosphere of a modern museum.... [The works of early composers] are arranged behind the glass of authenticity, staring bleakly from the other side of an impassable screen".[40]

See also


  1. Lawson & Stowell 1999, p. 17-18.
  2. Hunter, Mary (2014). "27. Historically informed performance". In Greenwald, Helen M. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Opera. Oxford University Press. pp. 606–8. ISBN 9780199714841. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  3. Fabian, Dorottya (1 December 2001). "The Meaning of Authenticity and The Early Music Movement: A Historical Review". Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  4. Silvela, Zdenko (2001). A New History of Violin Playing: The Vibrato and Lambert Massart's Revolutionary Discovery. Universal-Publishers. ISBN 9781581126679. Retrieved 5 March 2018.
  5. Lawson & Stowell 1999, p. 18-19.
  6. Schippers, Huib (2009). Facing the Music: Shaping Music Education from a Global Perspective. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199701933. Retrieved 5 March 2018.
  7. Wilson, Nick (2013). The Art of Re-enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age. OUP USA. p. 76. ISBN 9780199939930. Retrieved 2 March 2018.
  8. Waleson, Heidi (7 September 1996). "Super-conductor: John Eliot Gardiner". Billboard. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  9. Knights, F. (1 February 2013). "A farewell to Musica Antiqua Koln". Early Music. 41 (1): 173–174. doi:10.1093/em/cas166. ISSN 0306-1078.
  10. "Philippe Herreweghe". www.concertgebouworkest.nl. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  11. "John Eliot Gardiner's Historical Beethoven At Carnegie Hall". NPR. National Public Radio. Archived from the original on 6 March 2018. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  12. "Harpsichord – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment". Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Archived from the original on 6 March 2018. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  13. Kottick, Edward L. (2003). A History of the Harpsichord. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0253341662. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  14. Moses, Don V.; Jr, Robert W. Demaree; Ohmes, Allen F. (2004). Face to Face with Orchestra and Chorus, Second, Expanded Edition: A Handbook for Choral Conductors. Indiana University Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0253110367. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  15. Alex Boekelheide, "Making Way for Beautiful Music", USC News (2 October 2005, accessed 20 January 2014).
  16. Haskell, Harry (1988). The Early Music Revival: A History. Courier Corporation. ISBN 9780486291628. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  17. Brian Blood, "The Dolmetsch Story", Dolmetsch Online (26 September 2013, accessed 20 January 2014).
  18. Malafronte, Judith (2015). "Vibrato Wars" (PDF). www.earlymusicamerica.org. Early Music America. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 March 2018. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  19. Stark, James (2003). "Vocal Tremulousness". Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. p. 150. ISBN 9780802086143. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  20. "Countertenor". Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Archived from the original on 6 March 2018. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  21. Mattheson 1739, .
  22. C. P. E. Bach, Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen, Berlin 1753: Teil 1, Section 2 Par. 5.
  23. Peter Greenhill, The Robert ap Huw Manuscript: An Exploration of its Possible Solutions, 5 vols. (all), Bangor: University of Wales, CAWMS dissertation, 1995–2000.
  24. Thurston Dart, "Robert ap Huw's Manuscript of Welsh Harp Music", The Galpin Society Journal, Vol 21 (1963). JSTOR 841428.
  25. "Stimmung und Temperatur", in F. Zaminer, ed., Geschichte der Musiktheorie, Vol. 6: "Hören, Messen und Rechnen in der Frühen Neuzeit", Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (1987) ISBN 978-3534012060.
  26. Jane Glover, "Solving the Musical Problem" in John Whenham (ed.) Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo, 138–155. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-521-24148-0
  27. Rob van der Hilst, "Fluitekruid van Joseph Haydn", review of Jan Jaap Haspels, Marije Hulleman, and Bob van Wely, Haydn herboren: 12 originele opnamen uit 1793 (Utrecht: Nationaal Museum van Speelklok tot Pierement, 2004), ISBN 90-801699-3-5. De Recensent.nl (2004, accessed January 2014).
  28. Bruce Haynes, "Pitch Standards in the Baroque and Classical Periods" (diss., U. of Montreal, 1995).
  29. Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell (eds.), The Cambridge History of Musical Performance (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2012):.
  30. Ralph Kirkpatrick, Interpreting Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984)
  31. Michael Sartorius, "Baroque Music Performance: 'Authentic' or 'Traditional': A Discussion of the Essential Issues Involved", http://www.baroquemusic.org/barperf.html.
  32. Peter Hill, "'Authenticity in Contemporary Music," Tempo New Series no. 159 (December 1986), p. 2.
  33. "John Eliot Gardiner: Why the Word "Authentic" Bothers Him". YouTube. Carnegie Hall. 24 March 2015. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  34. Richard Taruskin, "Last Thoughts First," Text and Act (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 5.
  35. Richard Taruskin, "The Modern Sound of Early Music," Text and Act (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 164.
  36. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, "'What we are doing with early music is genuinely authentic to such a small degree that the word loses most of its intended meaning'" Early Music, vol. 12, no. 1 (February 1984), p. 13.
  37. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, "'What we are doing with early music is genuinely authentic to such a small degree that the word loses most of its intended meaning'" Early Music, vol. 12, no. 1 (February 1984), p. 14.
  38. Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 279–84.
  39. Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 284. Goehr acknowledges the following writings informed her arguments: Theodor Adorno, "Bach Defended Against his Devotees," Prisms (London: N. Spearman, 1967), p. 135-146; Lawrence Dreyfus, "Early Music Defended Against Its Devotees: A Theory of Historical Performance in the Twentieth Century", Musical Quarterly 69 (1983), 297–322; Harry Haskell, The Early Music Revival (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988) ISBN 9780500014493; Nicholas Kenyon (ed.), Authenticity and Early Music: A Symposium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 9780198161523); Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985 ISBN 9780674166776), chapter 6; Michael Morrow, "Musical Performance", Early Music 6 (1978), 233–46; Charles Rosen, "Should Music Be Played "Wrong"?", High Fidelity 21 (1971), 54–58; and Richard Taruskin, et al., "The Limits of Authenticity: A Discussion", Early Music 12 (1984), 3–25, 523–25.
  40. The Aesthetics of Music (1997), p. 448



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