Thoughts on Historically Informed Performance

The whole idea of “performance practice” or “historically informed performance,” in my opinion, can be boiled down to a discussion of taste and style. The preference for the sound of gut strings has little to do with authenticity as such, but altogether more to do with a preference for a particular aesthetic, or sound, that includes the use of, or is facilitated by, certain equipment. The strings themselves are merely a more primitive technology, as are many of the conventional “period” instruments. The many improvements made since the time the music was written both to instruments and to methods of rehearsal and performance serve only to elevate the music itself, and many of these developments would surely have been embraced by the composers themselves had they lived long enough to witness them. One can both admire the earthy sounds of gut strings and attempt to cultivate that sound with modern equipment, while acknowledging the structural and practical benefits of steel, steel-wound, and synthetic strings. That said, there is nothing inherently backward about a preference for gut strings even today.

As early as 1690 the process of winding gut strings in silver was adopted to allow the lower sting of the cello to more closely mimic the responsiveness of the thinner strings on the violin. Presumably this technological advancement was widely adopted not to change the aesthetic of the music by simply to improve the ability of the player to perform increasingly complex and virtuosic repertoire.

In some respects, the oral tradition of musical instruction can obviate the need for specific study of historical performance as such. The elements of good taste and stylistic performance can and do exist outside the clinical study of “authentic” reproduction of historical music. These primarily stem from an understanding of music that often transcends specific musical periods. In string playing this includes the tasteful use of vibrato and the recognition of strong and weak beats and harmonies. These may be more important in music from the eighteenth century, but are still relevant in the music that came after.

Even elements such as musical forces and conductors can be seen in this light. Often composers in the past (and present) were working in substandard or less-than-ideal circumstances. Perhaps they would have preferred larger forces, and they were not available. Or maybe given the omnipresent constraints the idea may not have even occurred to them. Even the idea of performing in a different space may have prompted them to make substantial changes to instrumentation or scoring. Similarly, the use of a conductor may not have been standard practice; however, oftentimes with the right conductor the overall product can be enhanced by their presence. Also the ability to perform from a score may have been preferable in the past, but simply not possible or practical.

In general, the motivations for striving toward an “authentic” performance needs to be examined. It is perfectly reasonable for instance to make the attempt simply as a sort of historical cosplay: to create as much as possible the experience of going back in time and experiencing something far from our everyday experience. Or the aim may simply be to elevate the performance by studying historical texts to find the best interpretation that will be more effective at communicating the meaning of the music to the audience. Pure motives and not particular methods of execution are of primary importance. Musical decisions should be made with regard to expression, not arbitrary definitions based on dubious historical assumptions.

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