What is Historically Informed Performance?

Historically Informed Performance is a much-debated term, and both music historians and performers have difficulty defining it exactly. There are many ideas of what HIP consists of, but at its most basic level, it means performing music with special attention to the technology and performance conventions that were present when a piece of music was composed. For many years, this approach was applied primarily to music composed before 1750, from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. In recent years, however, the drive towards historically informed performance has made musicians reconsider how they perform Classical- and Romantic-era repertoire as well.

With instrumental music, being historically informed often means performing on instruments such as Baroque oboe, recorder, harpsichord, or viola da gamba. While some musicians (primarily string players) perform on antiques, most early music performers use instruments that were made relatively recently, by modern makers who have a variety of ideas about what an early instrument should be. Some makers try their best to make exact copies of surviving instruments in museum collections, some create their own designs based on historical principles, and some try to blend the two approaches. The particular tonal characteristics of early music instruments, as well as their inherent strengths and limitations, help to create a historically informed sound.

The most important element of historical performance is the musical style, which is ideally based on a knowledge of primary sources and other reference materials from the era of the music being performed - for example, the writings of Johann Joachim Quantz (above) and Leopold Mozart (Wolfgang's father, below). Of course, it is also based on modern pedagogy and performance conventions, since in many cases the early music performers of the 20th and 21st centuries have resurrected musical instruments and traditions that lay dormant for centuries. It might seem incongruous to hear a Medieval mass performed in a concert hall, or a Renaissance drinking song performed in a church, but neither of these are uncommon in the early music world!

The truth is that majority of what we consider historically informed performance practices are speculativeand based on the best information available to the musicians and scholars of our era. Much has changed in the way that we perform early music since the beginning of the historical performance revival, and that was only 60 years ago. Those who perform early music, though (and there are more bright stars on the horizon all the time!), generally believe that the experience of the music for both performers and audience is a richer one when historical performance practices are taken into account.

Boston has long been an important center for early music, and SoHIP is committed to showcasing the best early music performers in the area. To find out more about what it means to be historically informed, try attending one of our summer concerts!