RANDOM REFLECTIONS ON HISTORICAL PERFOMANCE PRACTICE
by Hermann Max

(With a nod to Gottfried Ephraim Scheibel, Zufällige Gedancken von der Kirchenmusic, Leipzig 1722)

Europe was culturally unified by the church and Latinity from the Middle Ages until the creation of nation states in the nineteenth century. It seems worth noting that so-called historical performance practice (for music up into the nineteenth century) has likewise become a uniform movement throughout Europe. And, analogous to the development in seventeenth and eighteenth century music toward ever more potent, effective music, the modern movement has also seen the rise to prominence of one particular form: opera. Baroque operas are experiencing an extraordinary renaissance today.

As might have been deduced from the garb of some of its protagonists, the historical performance practice movement was initially, in the latter half of the twentieth century, a side effect of the student uprisings of the sixties – a Pan-European current. It was, as such, latently a protest movement, emerging not least from the recognition that the only thing that can truly be called traditional is change. Without change in performance style, acceptance of musical works from the past dwindles. The music becomes ossified, is forgotten. Change in performance style is the only chance of survival for the music of the past.

Among other things, this revolutionary movement took issue with the strongly metronome-based interpretations in established music circles. Musical performance is in any case always fettered by the demands of being in tune and together. These demands, which don’t exist in the theater and therefore allow greater artistic freedom there, were found to be particularly strong in the music business “establishment.”  

A repertoire where authenticity can’t really exist, where, as in an arrangement, decisions regarding many aspects of the work’s final form fall to the performers, offered a way out. Deciding between solo and tutti, choices of instrumentation, at least in the continuo and in colla parte passages, of text underlay, dynamics, accidentals, figures, tempo and ornaments all had to be made, and offered some of the freedom of the world of improvisation.

At first, the historical performance practice movement ran the risk of focusing too strongly on external factors such as original instruments and urtext editions, without an eye for the musical expression hidden behind the notes. These aspects didn’t necessarily guarantee livelier performances, since for the most part performers continued to sing and play as before. Early music couldn’t be freed from musical rigidity by original instruments alone. More was needed for early music to become interesting.

For a time, theoretical sources (as at the time of their writing) had the effect of fostering creativity. Today, however, too much use of these sources is seen as problematic: they are seen to hamper “free” music-making; their teachings, at first stimulating, at some point become irritating. Perhaps knowledge of musicological sources is similar to general education: that which remains, after detailed factual knowledge fades more and more into the background, becomes the basis of one’s view of the “big picture.”

In any case, this turning away from a pedantic focus on the details of source materials had the effect of placing performing in a larger musical-esthetic framework and a broader historical context, and interest in musical rhetoric and the study of affect moved into the foreground. This was a most promising development; in the end, all the interpretive information from the past first becomes meaningful when it leads to lively performances. And music that note by note traces a psychological process, minutely following changes of affect, gains liveliness, authenticity. To achieve this, a performer must recognize how harmony, rhythm, tempo, dynamic and intervals can express an affect.

In fact, representing human emotions is the decisive factor in attempting to breathe life back into music from about 1600 until who knows when. Pathos must be portrayed, static playing and singing avoided. Limitless flexibility in forming each tone should mirror the constant state of flux of human emotions.

The soprano Lodovico, discussed in the Discorso di Pietro Della Valle, 1640, offers an example of this. He never used ornaments, but through the swelling of tones achieved endless variety and sweetness of expression, thus portraying changing affects in the subtlest possible manner. Giulio Caccini (Forward to Le Nuove Musiche, 1601) likewise restricted the main tools of expression to the esclamatio, with two variations, esclamatio viva and rediviva, and the swelled tone.

Just as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, varied and lively musical performances that thrill and move the listener seem to be the actual sense, as well as challenge, of historical performance practice. Our era apparently demands aggressive vitality. It seems that historical performance practice can provide a vigor that corresponds to the current need for aggressive and extraverted performance. Whereas a rather more French style dominated in the early phase of the historical performance movement, today international early music practice is largely oriented toward an Italian style.

The path to evocative and original performances lay in acquiring a thorough knowledge of the performance rules of a given time period. In the quest for an authentic performance, countless discoveries were made. An example: in seventeenth and eighteenth century textbooks, composition is described as invention (Findekunst): good musical-pictorial ideas had to be devised even for “quite barren texts.”  Such knowledge brings with it insight into “hidden realities” of a period, as here, in the area of word painting.

In Der Generalbass in der Komposition (1728), Johann David Heinichen describes a method for this way of writing music. He advises examining the text to be set for that which precedes it (antecedentia), that which accompanies it (concomitantia) and which follows it (consequentia), so that  the “innate fantasy never lacks for clever inventions or the means of expressing ideas” (angebornen Fantasie niemals an Expression beliebter Ideen oder an geschickten inventionibus fehlen). J.S. Bach, along with many other composers before and after him, adhered to this principle.

The aria Mein teurer Heiland from Bach’s St. John Passion provides an illustration of this:

The continuo bass line of the aria is dance-like, with its large leaps, trills and articulation of the triplet figures. (The indication of adagio to be found in all editions appears only in Bach’s original continuo part, to warn the player: Watch out, not as fast as you think! – seeing only the bass line, one would naturally assume the quick tempo of a gigue.)

In seventeenth and eighteenth century painting there are many examples of the annual crucifixions on Golgotha represented as an outdoor fair. Children at play and food stands are to be seen, and…there is dancing. These parallel events – concomitantia – seem to be depicted here in Bach’s continuo part. These paintings nearly always also show groups of people mourning the crucifixions. In Bach’s aria, the choir, with its words “Jesu, der du warest tot, lebest nun ohn Ende,” seems to represent such a group.

These “hidden realities” can only be discovered through knowledge. Today, an early music style has been established in which it seems that, by means imitation, it is quite possible to reach the same musical results without this in-depth knowledge as with it. One highly regarded violinist in the early music scene frankly admits: I don’t want to know anything; it just hems me in and stifles me.

In fact, it seems possible to do without specific knowledge. By that I mean that the established performance style for seventeenth and eighteenth century music that has resulted from study and experience has become common practice. As a result, it is now possible for performers to nuance their individual style intuitively without leaving the slightest impression of pure imitation. Many prominent conductors incorporate this style into their work today. Very likely they too are simply adopting the internationally accepted performance conventions for, say, eighteenth century music, without all too profound background knowledge. And indeed, it is they who are to be thanked that historical performance practice has gained such acceptance, and has led to a more flexible and nuanced performance style.

Where knowledge is lacking, and the consciousness that music of every period deserves to be played and sung in its own way disappears, the tendency is to step back from the performance of early music as a kind of music particularly based on speech and word painting. Away from sung speech. Toward neutral played tones. In the end, that is performance practice of the nineteenth century. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be seen as a sign of an open performance practice, which is constantly changing and renewing itself. As pointed out in the first place, change is the only real tradition.

Someday we’ll know if a transformative performance practice which constantly self-corrects actually works. Perhaps an even more refined and expert historical performance practice will arise, far removed from having been merely a passing episode.