Photo: Picture by Lu-Mi Strings Ltd, reproduced with kind permission

Is Historically Informed Performance Practice Exclusive of Early Music?

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[Note: This article appeared first in Finnish language in the magazine Ostinato Nuottilehti, voume August 2016. I share it here in English with kind permission from the editors.]

Is Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIPP) Exclusive of Early Music? No, and it should not be. In fact, HIPP should include as late a repertoire as one composed an hour ago. If one analyzes the holistic meaning of HIPP, it refers to finding the technical aesthetics or performance conventions that were present when an existing piece of music was composed in a specific context, and what that meant for listeners and artists.

This philosophical approach has helped both modern and period musicians to reconsider contextual and historical aspects for the interpretation of repertoire from the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern eras. However, the majority of performers who adopt this approach in a wider and more authentical way find themselves focusing exclusively on the repertoire between roughly 1580 to 1750, and in some particular cases, as late as to the first Viennese School and as early as 500 – the so called ‘Early music’ movement, a group of ‘specialized’ musicians in which some members believe HIPP is entirely theirs.

So, if a living modern musician wants to play recently composed music by, for example, a contemporary Finnish composer, adopting HIPP the way period musicians do, require getting to know as much as possible about:

  • the composer’s life,
  • his/her compositional techniques,
  • his/her turmoil and happiness through the delivery process of that specific piece,
  • how the piece relates to a specific context (type of society, economic, political, cultural and historical moment),
  • how the piece stands in connection to this composer’s general output and in relation to his contemporaries and predecessors,
  • how one can get the best possible sound from their instrument and which instruments are more adquate,
  • how to work out different musical aspects with other colleagues if the piece is chamber music,
  • who are you, how do you change and what is your message through this piece, etc.

These are the minimal requirements one needs in order to achieve the ideal HIPP mindset. The same applies to music written in the past. Evoking the atmosphere and capturing the essence of early music involves a complex understanding of several components. In addition to the considerations listed above, one should know what music meant to people in past centuries, when rules were often avoided, because the main goal was to affect people’s emotions. Inspired by that romantic idea, we should aim to achieve the so called in statu quo ante (the way things were before), and not merely a status quo (the way things are). In the best scenario, we could take a ‘tradition+transition’ approach which would merge both approaches for a more creative output.

In fact, nowadays the whole HIPP movement dances around fewer options than people had before, such us control of different instruments and their setup, tunings and temperaments, technical aesthetics, spaces, audiences, and materials. For instance, new editions, despite all efforts by editors, usually convey little about the playing characteristics of their authors and nothing about the context that gave them light, such as national schools.

In that regard, we know it’s difficult to familiarize ourselves with musicians of bygone years, apart from what is taught from generation to generation and through books, scores, and treatises. Therefore, without proper research and immersion in the sources, playing techniques and approaches to musical style are gradually being systematized to suit local conventions, with definable methods of performance as a result.

But we should move forward. Apart from teaching students simply the mechanics of playing and what to read to suit the contextual needs, teachers should encourage students to get closer to the true goal of HIPP: to have the mind of a researcher and artist by critically exploring all that has been written, said and, played, and to make their own choices according to their own performing goals, rather than following specific rules or avoiding mistakes listed by baroque police officers (such as “no vibrato or rubato for Baroque music”). This applies to both modern and period musicians.

People want to be authentic and therefore have developed a fear of the old repertoire. Authenticity, as a literal meaning of HIPP, leaves out expression and also understanding of the context. People become fanatical and forced to live under one truth, the same for everybody, forgetting that we are unique individuals.

Thus, the current primary tendency is to follow the great Masters such as Harnoncourt or Leonhardt, or whoever your local capo is, without actually understanding how their practices arose. People tend to imitate others; however, the great pioneers were great precisely because they did the opposite: they challenged everyone. And now that most of them are gone or nearing the end of their careers, what do we have left?

It’s clear that Historically-Inspired Performance Practice is a much better translation for HIPP. Introduced to me by my former baroque and classical cello teacher, this little detail (inspired vs informed) makes a big difference in how we understand old music, and narrows the distance between modern and period instrumentalists.

In that regard, as researchers of learning psychology know, there is a huge difference between knowledge and information. In a simple way, a person achieves knowledge of something when they are able to convey meaning to any kind of information. For example, information could be having the correct fingerings for Beethoven’s piano parts and simply reproducing them in the same way as a particular recording. On the other hand, knowledge would require an understanding of why Beethoven used those specific fingerings, or why a particular musician chose a specific way of playing, as well as understanding how that inspires you as a performer.

However, to obtain knowledge and inspiration, you need some cognitive and analytical ability, and you must work hard to achieve a holistic vision of art that is rarely taught. The figures of the composer-performer, the theoretician-performer, and the instrument maker-performer were typical, and that led to incredible avant-garde creations. But now, when these figures have been split into one thing or the other, when there is such a small number of people who try to combine different disciplines, we face a risk. Our strong conservatoire tradition with dominating transmissive teaching practices aimed at isolated specializations leads us to canonize how music should be performed.

We are moving toward the popular and spectacular, toward harmful music competitions and useless musicality tests. We want our own rule book of authenticity and a select handful of spectacular performers to read that book to us in a certain way. It certainly seems that people are more prepared to give answers than to raise questions. Audiences seem to enjoy predictable and standardized mass events. People use social media more than books. In that case, HIPP may be dying, and so might recitals and chamber music and remote repertoires, whatever the approach.

I strongly believe that events in the past are interpreted from our current position and knowledge. We interact with our cultural heritage from the perspective of a contemporary worldview, and as Umberco Eco said, “Historical research is nothing but fiction.” Yet that doesn’t mean there is no value in trying to disentangle now from then, as long as you realize it is a project you will never complete or get entirely perfect. There is no right or wrong in art, but we can still transform people in our own meaningful ways. Otherwise, knowledge does not occur.

In my particular artistic and scientific research funded by the Kone Foundation and supported through CERADA-Uniarts, ArtsEqual Research Initiative, and Taike, I will study the factors behind such an environment of incomprehension, misconceptions, and standardized reproduction of music from the late Classical and the early Romantic periods (in this context, 1796-1829). Particularly, applying my artist-researcher background, I will approach the performance psychology and technical aesthetics in the variation works for fortepiano and violoncello by Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Instead of copying what performers do/did to play this repertoire, my goal is to go deeper to comprehend how people might have understood music, why they did so, and who I am as an academic-performer in this process. I personally want to simply be called a musician, not a modern or period cellist.