A Thought on Historical Performance Practices

Usually, when we talk about historical performance practices, we are referring to the performance practices that were standard at the time of a work’s composition. So for Baroque music (e.g. Bach), we consult performance treatises from the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century to gain insights about “proper” instrumentation, articulation, ornamentation, etc. However, in doing this we often overlook that there is a rich and storied history of performance practices that can be drawn upon in a valid way.  

With Baroque music, there are two commonly accepted performance approaches. In the early music community, practitioners conform to late-seventeenth/early-eighteenth century performance practices. This means they perform works on historical instruments, diligently refer back to early-eighteenth century performance treatises, and freely improvise on the score (as was standard at the time). In contrast, most pianists take the alternative: a modern “historically informed” approach. They play on modern instruments, loosely apply some ideas around Baroque ornamentation, and conform to the present-day sentiment that the score is a sacred text not to be altered. 

However, I would argue that it’s possible to reframe performance practices as existing on a historical spectrum of equally valid possibilities. On one end of the spectrum are the performance practices as they existed at the time of a work’s composition; on the other end is the contemporary approach to that same music. But in between, there exist alternative historical performance practices from intervening time periods. For example, it would be possible to apply late-eighteenth century (i.e. Classical/Mozartian Era) performance practices to Baroque music, and play these works on early fortepianos. Or, take a nineteenth century, Romantic approach, freely adding pedal, extra octaves, rubato, and other virtuosic elements (in the style of *insert your favorite 19th century pianist here*). Every musical generation has developed its own approach to dealing with works composed in the past. It’s a mistake to think that any one generation has cracked some code and has gotten it right. Even today’s historically informed approach will eventually become outdated, with future musicians probably thinking, “wow, that was a weird way to go about things.” 

I enjoy the possibilities that emerge with this less restrictive mindset. If we collectively broaden our approach to historical performance practices, it opens up a much wider range of interpretive choices for our most familiar works.