Historically informed performance: Baroque revolution

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Historically informed performance requires no secret code, argues Baroque violin professor Walter S. Reiter. The information is out there for the taking, and modern music colleges need to get ahead of the game

A frequent response to my confessing that I play the Baroque violin goes something like this: ‘Oh, so you play without vibrato?’ Another reaction is supposedly more positive: ‘How wonderful… you mean Vivaldi and… er…’ But neither phrase does any justice to the intensive research involved in the interpretation of a sonata by, for example, Pandolfi Mealli (‘Who?’) based on information gleaned from historical sources with regard to the stylus fantasticus, mid-17th-century instrumental technique, rhetoric, authentic organology, appropriate pitch used (in Innsbruck) in the 1660s, affect, the quirks of musica ficta and tempo relationships (if any). Neither do these responses recognise the meticulous accumulation of information based on the study of music by the myriad composers who preceded Bach, the one Baroque composer most of us do play – even though he himself copied out their works, and without their influence he would not have been Bach as we know – or think we know, or do not know – him.

The names of many of the Baroque composers I most revere do not even appear in the old 1920s edition of Grove’s Dictionary slumbering in my local library, for their music lay on dusty shelves in church and court archives or in state libraries until the Baroque revivalists lovingly gathered it up and set it free to move and inspire us once more. How much astonishing variety there is: a century and a half of rich repertoire, sacred and profane, spiritual and uplifting, from the Venice of Monteverdi (right) to the Vienna of Mozart via the Versailles of Mondonville (‘Who?’), with styles shifting from decade to decade and from city to city – not to mention ‘world Baroque’, such as the music of the Chiquitos, who composed Baroque-style Masses deep in the Bolivian jungle until the late 1800s, without even realising that Beethoven had come and gone!

It is now time to recognise what the historically informed performance (HIP) revolution has achieved over the past half-century, for it has radically altered the way we hear and perform music from the Baroque and Classical periods, and indeed from the Romantic era, shining new light even into the nooks and crannies of the early 20th century. For us violinists, it has brought to light a cornucopia of captivating music and with it the instruments whose sounds transport us back into a distant world. For some musicians, accepting the very concept of HIP is still the musical equivalent of converting to another religion; yet HIP today is no longer the unique domain of specialists, for soloists, conductors, chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras the world over are exploring music in this new–old way, both on original and on modern instruments…

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