Introduction: Historically Anachronistic Performance?

Nowadays, history is an important part of listening to classical music. Of course, like all music, we actually experience it live, in the moment. But because classical music also tends to be old music, it brings with it all sorts of historical intrigue. Fascinating information about composers, performers and pieces is everywhere, and very often these insights go hand in hand with hearing the music. Just for starters, think of radio broadcasts, CD booklet notes, concert programmes and reviews.

It's certainly not confined to the experience of listening. Young musicians grow up with the idea that this historical context is an important part of giving a 'faithful rendering' of the score, and that it will help us do justice to what the composer meant by the notes on the page. And now there is a whole ideology of professional performance that is built on the idea of recovering information about how scores used to sound. For both players and listeners, understanding and enjoying classical music seems to be fundamentally bound up with knowing things about the past.

For performers like us, historical information about music is often incredibly exciting. It also brings its pressures, and a historical view of music has also created a very complex situation for players to negotiate, full of paradoxes and potential wrong-turnings. Every so often, it is worth reminding ourselves that this repertoire, which is now so old and venerated, didn't always need to be preserved with words like 'classical'; it existed as a part of contemporary culture, as 'music'.

The performance ideology now known as 'Historically Informed Performance' (or 'HIP') was around as long ago as the nineteenth century, but developed rapidly in the first few decades of the twentieth century, and more recently, has become important in much of the mainstream musical culture. Broadly speaking, its practitioners aimed to understand the playing styles and conventions of the past in order to more fully do justice to the intentions of the composer. But there was also an important revisionist streak to this practice-based archaeology: the belief that many musical masterpieces were being obscured by the sentimental, anachronistic attitudes of late nineteenth century players. By clearing away the messy layers of what performers had done to the work and returning to original sources, these historically informed musicians could save each great work from the tyranny of the Romantic interpreter, and in the process recover its true essence.

It is a sign of just how successful the HIP project has been that this revisionist spirit still guides many current ways of thinking about old music. For instance, the language of modern criticism regularly assesses performers' choices according to how appropriate they are to 'the work'; more often than not, some of what constitutes this appropriate style is to do with a) faithfulness to the text, and b) faithfulness to some historical idea. The irony is that both of these criteria are largely a modern invention - this sort of archaeological criticism would almost certainly have seemed bizarre to the 17th and 18th century performers whose styles have been resurrected by the HIP ideology. For instance, these musicians would hardly have recognised the modern public concert, with its respectful contemplation of canonic masterworks; such an occasion simply did not exist when this repertoire was 'alive'. And so HIP, in reacting to one set of anachronisms, has ended up replacing it with different ones, which are simply the product of modern classical musical culture (and its eccentricities). Clearly there are limits on how 'historical' music can be.

But this absolutely doesn't mean that thinking historically about music is fruitless - quite the opposite! One of the wonderful things about the research conducted for HIP has been to emphasise that musical performance sounded very different in the past. More recently, this has led to much more intense study of early twentieth century recordings, and the unfamiliar music-making they preserve. As HIP gained momentum these performances began to be seen as more and more unfashionable. Looking back at them now, however, reveals some incredibly powerful and communicative musicianship, which became a casualty of the crusade against historical anachronism. And for us in the quartet, spending time with these recordings offers some special opportunities, because this genre has one of the most intriguing performance histories of all.

Playing old music often involves navigating a path between two quite different senses of history. On the one hand, classical musicians - almost by nature - value recent traditions. It is an appealing idea that we are working with knowledge that has been passed down through generations, and this sort of passed-down insight is often extremely effective in performance. It is "tried and tested" after all, and has the added bonus of providing a sense of validation. On the other hand, the recent successes of HIP have meant that modern musicians are more aware than ever of the need to look much further back into the past, and to adopt an 'appropriate style' for the music they play. What these approaches share is the idea of authority.

Being creative and expressive in performance does not follow from using correct evidence and obtaining the right certificates: music obviously doesn't work like that. (Performers know this as well as anybody, although we are occasionally rather bad at admitting it.) The fact is that most creative people, in any field, respond far better to those impulses which move, challenge and intrigue them, than to authoritarian proclamations about the correct way to do something. Curiosity, rather than dogma, produces really communicative performances.

In light of HIP, then, there is a question of whether evidence of performance practice needs to be directly historically relevant - 'valid', perhaps - in order to be effective and interesting. In practice, attitudes to this seem to vary rather a lot, of which more in the next chapter. Interestingly, it is still quite infrequent for the 'Romantic' performance style we hear on early recordings to be taken as seriously as more recent histories of playing. For instance, nobody would dismiss Jacqueline du Pre's 1965 recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto as being irrelevant to how we think about the piece and its performance history. But partly thanks to the legacy of HIP's early diatribes against 'Romantic' performance style, it somehow feels easier to dismiss the Capet Quartet’s portamento-laden Beethoven records (made in the 1920s) as a distortion that has little to do with 'the composer's intentions'. It seems as though a subtle but significant shift of perspective occurs when we consider a performance style we recognise, against one that we don't.

In these pages we will try to explore some of the reasons why that might be the case, and why we think that 'unfashionable' performances are worth talking about. And in the longer term, we want to try to get inside these unfamiliar sets of practices, and to experiment with them in our own playing - partly in order to understand them better, but ultimately in order to reinvigorate and enliven our own musicianship.

We hope you will be interested to follow our progress!

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© Chris Terepin 2015

 

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Research Home

Introduction

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4