Playing by the Rules

Creativity and Research in Historical Performance Practice

One of the most striking aspects of Early Music as a cultural movement is its vast impact resulting directly from research. Within the context of Classical Music, research is so to speak what defines Early Music.

Assuming the beginnings of historical performance in a modern sense somewhere in the early 19th century, we see a dynamic process of more than a century culminating in a booming effect during the 1960s and 70s.

Throughout that process there has been a perpetual flow from research-based practice into practice-based research and vice versa. Of course in more recent times this can also be said of Sonology or Composition, but the spin-off of Early Music was of a fundamentally different character. It was embedded in an appreciation of history in a broader sense than just the arts. Most likely as a result of the devastations by WWII, there was a sudden shift from the anecdotal and narrative interpretation of history towards sources, facts, proof and restoration of the extant originals.

In that light the celebrations of Bach-year 1950 show clear traces of the new historical imperative as we see for instance in the speech held by Paul Hindemith: Johann Sebastian Bach, ein verpflichtendes Erbe.

This plea for the use of the original instruments was preceded by his own attempts in this field, for instance in his performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 1944 at Yale University. The concert with period instruments took place only four years after Arnold Dolmetsch had died, leaving behind a single handed erected empire of historical performance with a strong aura of extremely knowledgeable and passionate amateurism.

Hindemith himself died just a few years too early to witness an unexpected flowering of his ideals that he articulated in his lecture twenty years earlier. The original instruments were given a role as key players in a new fashion, an almost theatrical revival of music history. A play that was taken very seriously by the participants, even though they were enjoying at the same time a relatively carefree late 1960’s atmosphere, which made space in society for experimentation. Despite the adventure most of these experiments were initiated and preceded by the output of musicological source studies and instrument makers, who copied meticulously the examples from the museum collections.

It all contributed to an exploding market of new instruments, editions of sheet music sold as Urtext, (expensive) facsimiles, reference books, specialized magazines, societies, concerts, festivals, broadcasting and finally as absolute winner the record industry. The latter played a vital role in the proliferation of the phenomenon of historical performance practice on ‘original instruments’, with three major consequences. First the group of passive and active Early Music amateurs was growing very fast.  In the second place this growth was closely linked to professionalization of the specialist performers, whom they admired and followed. And thirdly traditional classical musicians were provoked by the claims and successes of the new movement. One could say that the credibility of mainstream classical performers in relation to all music up to Haydn and Mozart was fundamentally questioned.

The refutation by the classical musicians on the traditional side was aiming at the assumed limited competences of those playing period instruments.

If they were not marginalized or even ignored, lots of the attempts of the Early Music performers resulted into an easy target for mockery.

A reviewer mentioned that “we need period instruments as much as we need period dentistry.” [1] Charles Rosen as always did put it in a more subtle way but just as poignantly, describing the historical movement advancing up to composers of the Classical and early Romantic period: “the goal is to make these composers sound more ancient than we had imagined.” [2]

Despite the many utterances of disapproval in the professional musical world, historical performance practice was gradually institutionalized and became a section in the conservatoire. Without any doubt the endorsement of the established musicological achievements helped this new branch in the musical business to be taken seriously. But the main reason for getting period instruments on board in the conservatories was the conviction of leading individuals who appreciated the endeavours of the pioneers as important steps towards valuable musical discoveries.

This was certainly the case at the start in the 1930s of the Schola Cantorum in Basle, when Ina Lohr and August Wenzinger created an academic early music program with the support of the wealthy Paul Sacher.

In the 1969 it was director Jan van Vlijmen who initiated a complete department for Baroque music at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, inviting Frans Brüggen to surround himself with colleagues to teach and experiment further in the above mentioned pioneering mood. Research training and performance practice in one.

While on the one hand exploration of unknown repertoires and playing techniques was in full swing, at the same time the professionalization of the results such as command of technical skills became an issue in itself.

Producing a ‘good sound’ proved a way to fight the image of amateurism, which was haunting the performers of Early Music since Arnold Dolmetsch. With the constant reminder by new releases of recordings, which of course were severely edited, the model of polished good sound was omnipresent.

Though the initial impact of research in music history led to diversification, now it also implied that Early Music was getting professional and as such standardized. Where sound was first a tool for exploring new possibilities and discoveries of differences in styles, it was simultaneously obtaining the status of an independent aesthetical parameter.

This is one of the main reasons why Richard Taruskin joined the musicological debate in the1980s on the authenticity claims of the early music movement, referring to ‘the modern sound of Early Music.’ [3] The past should sound as we want it to sound with our 20th century ears.

Next to this acoustical focus, the completion of the scores by appropriate performance instructions based on historical sources became the core of professional education in Early Music. First it was the curiosity of the researcher-performer himself, which was leading to integration of insights based on findings in the relevant sources. But those findings became teacher instructions and books, helping to interpret the music of mainly the 17th and 18th centuries by systematically reconstructing style on the basis of performance rules. Often the nature of these rules is prescriptive and explicit as the rules of a game and with a similar function of social organisation. Originally those rules were dictated by the ear and designed by the players. The information however has become third-hand, while the source is interpreted by the teacher and together with his experience subsequently delivered to the student. In that process not seldom the ear is rather registering than conducting.

If the score is seen as a reduced codification of musical content, we notice that on top of it an extra dimension of instructions is added to the encoded ones and thus completes the relatively empty musical text. Aiming at stylistic coherence this process leads to a standardization of the way musical phrases or patterns are shaped, slurs applied, small-scale dynamics allude to the profile of speech and ornamentation or tempo determine the final character.

With the exception of pencilled in reminders, the additional information to the score works in an implicit or tacit way. The understanding then comes while applying performance rules, often just by following an example. And so imitation instead of personal verification is the guiding principle, just as it was in mainstream classical music. Another oral tradition, but this time rule-based.

These explicit instructions for approaching the bulk of the repertoire are convenient for producing concerts and recording sessions with little rehearsal. But the other side of the coin is that the performances tend to be very similar and so an impression of redundancy often throws a shadow over the experience.

The fundamental difference between the academically trained musicians and those who for the first time picked up instruments that had fallen into oblivion, lies in their embodiment of playing technique and musical experience. For the pioneers the old instruments were pieces of historical technology, bearing information, which could be deduced by making them work and so find out about their purpose and character. Only in this experience of trial and error the hidden knowledge was revealing itself. This research process is described by Michael Polanyi as ‘dwelling in’ a state of search, comparable to the way for instance a blind person uses a probe stick. [4] Contact is made from the proximal (the body) through the stick to the distal (the searched). As soon as information is gathered, both sides change because the searcher starts his next probe from new (extended) knowledge and the searched object has shifted a bit in identity.

Of course in this particular case, the discovery of the instruments possibilities went along side with discovering contexts of their functioning. By thus ‘feeling’ oneself into the unknown the image was gradually getting complete. Knowledge obtained through this process is basically personal and so is its application. In a way the described process has kinship with the creative processes in composition, because a great deal of imagination is required to put things in its place convincingly. It is no wonder that composers in the past one and a half century have been closely related to initiatives of revival and revaluation of music of their deceased predecessors.

Today however, the generations following the pioneers are instructed within the realm of academia. It is therefore inevitable that playing techniques and other skills are learned as a craft, sometimes even separated from their musical purpose. And also that purpose is conceived in a different way than it used to be for the pioneers. In the last fifty years an avalanche of musicological output has enriched and dressed up the operating space of historical performance. This newly gained knowledge provides to most topics such an amount of detailed information that it inevitably in one way or another contradicts some of the many pragmatic solutions of the performers.

In comparison with the happy believers in historical correctness during the 1960s who were convinced that they had the proofs in hand, the current historical performer when thoroughly informed, has to take in account the doubts and objections provided by scientific research of historical musicology.

Though as a reaction clinging as much as possible to explicit knowledge led initially to almost neutral interpretations, the earlier mentioned debate of the 1980s triggered a search for freedom. New conviction was found by the discovery of rhetoric as a guiding principle in much of the repertoire. Again the tendency to systemize and categorize rhetoric based on literature and treatises was still prevailing, but at least expressive playing was no longer rejected as ‘too romantic.’ On the contrary, the musical text was now read with more imagination and so the core of early music reanimated.

Parallel to this movement of expressive liberation, deviations from literate score reading were leading towards hybrids of musical styles. By implementing folkloristic elements or ethnic flavours in Medieval and Renaissance music, the creativity and imagination of musicians were blossoming in crossovers, which impressed and entertained new audiences. Others started mixing improvisations into the works of old masters and seek in a postmodern fashion a connection between past and present by using jazz or pop-like idioms. On the other side such a connection is nowadays increasingly explored from a historical angle by improvisation in style such as partimenti or diminutions. In a way this creative approach can be seen as action similar to Polanyi’s probe stick model reaching from our times to the Baroque era. The exploration takes place by acting inside the system within boundaries of past playing rules, and by doing so our perceptions change as well as the identity of the researched style. We can also imagine an inversion of the probe stick model. Since composers are already writing new music for period instruments we explore the present out of the past and vice versa. It is very probable that the impact of these searches will be a revision of the rules we are now taking for granted.

Proceedings text

Johannes Boer

Royal Conservatoire (The Hague, The Netherlands)


Since September 2006 Johannes Boer is the head of the Early Music Department of the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. At school he graduated from in 1988 as  a master in music on the viola da gamba, after three years studies with Wieland Kuijken. The conservatoire is in its kind one of the largest institutions in the world and has a reputation as innovative and leading in Early Music since 1972.
Before being invited to take the position as head of department Johannes Boer had a double career as a performer and musicologist. As such he took part in many productions and ensembles of several kinds throughout Europe. He was connected to the Utrecht Early Music festival as a board member of the magazine, journalist and reviewer. In the same organization he was programmer and final responsible for five major conferences by STIMU (the foundation for historical performance) from 2003-2008, connecting performers and musicologists of rank.
In the realm of his current position he organizes every season a variety of projects, which go from Bach cantatas to baroque opera, including touring to Italy.

In September 2014 he started a PhD research project in the docARTES program of Leiden University.