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HIP — Or Not

Posted by acdtest on April 27, 2003

HIP — Or Not

eginning in the 1960s, there arose an increased interest in, and performance of, so-called “early music,” a term referring originally to music of the Baroque period (c. about 1600-1750) and before, and later extended to include music written during the Classical period (c. beginning around 1750 or thereabouts, and extending into the first quarter of the 19th century). With this new interest there arose simultaneously a movement dedicated to performing this music as it was performed at the time of its creation utilizing instruments of the period or modern copies thereof, as well as performance styles and practices period-appropriate.

The movement first went by the fairly innocuous name of Early Music Movement, which name, however, soon morphed into the decidedly uninnocuous Authentic Performance Movement, thereby implying, of course, that performances of early music that didn’t comply with the movement’s tenets were, by very definition, inauthentic. In referring to this movement its critics quickly started to enclose the term authentic in scare quotes, and so the battle lines were drawn, and the fight begun; one which continues up to this very day, albeit with less acrimony and a softening of both sides, the movement now self-defensively going under the cleverly devised stealth name of Historically Informed Performance (HIP, get it?), a perfectly meaningless term because applicable to all responsible performance of music of any and all non-contemporary periods.

Most annoying about the HIP movement, as with all such movements in any domain whatsoever, are its True Believers, in that such always insist on unwavering adherence to the movement’s tenets; see the movement, themselves, and the movement’s followers and supporters as morally superior entities; and count as reprobates and cultural barbarians all who reject or make objection to the movement’s agenda.

Informed objection to the tenets and agenda of the HIP movement are manifold, and run along lines aesthetic as well as specifically musical. Chief among the informed objections is the objection that no amount of scholarly research, no matter how thorough, can result in authentically reproducing performance conditions today that are the equivalent of earlier periods, not the least difficulty being the utter impossibility of reproducing a period-authentic audience. There’s also the lesser, but still potent, objection that the available historical evidence is always fragmentary, and therefore modern-day performance based on this evidence always involves modern-day musical and intellectual imaginations and sensibilities, a further, and insurmountable, bar to genuine period-authentic performance. And then there are those objections grounded in the question of whether, in the first place, it’s even desirable to strive to attain a period-authentic performance.

For my part, I’m among those music-lovers who, in agreement with many performing musicians, believe profoundly in the idea that every piece of music is an individual work of art (i.e., an individual-created aesthetic work, good or bad) that possesses an essential aesthetic and musical nature more or less readily discoverable absent any knowledge of, and independent of, period performance practices or the social and cultural milieu existing at the time of the work’s creation. And while, my belief notwithstanding, I’ve a certain sympathy with certain HIP objectives, I find its motives, as well as performances done in compliance with its tenets, largely suspect.

My initial encounter with a HIP-style performance was the first-ever “authentic” performance of Messiah recorded for a major record label. It was done for RCA Victor in the mid-1960s by Robert Shaw with the Robert Shaw Choral (the names of the soloists elude me at the moment). The performance was breathtaking technically, but emotionally bloodless musically. As matters developed over succeeding years, this proved something of a template for HIP-compliant early music performance, and raises certain troubling questions.

Why, for major instance, is HIP performance almost always done at tempi significantly faster than is the norm for modern-day mainstream performance of the same work, especially in light of the fact that the scores for music of the Baroque period and earlier include no tempi indications of any kind? And intimately connected, Why is HIP performance so markedly absent the expressivity and nuance characteristic of modern-day mainstream performance of earlier music? Surely, it can’t be the case that scholarly research has uncovered the astonishing fact that all period early-music performance was uniformly arid emotionally, or that human emotion and response to music then was of a markedly different character from now. The very idea is manifestly absurd. Further, the typically breakneck tempi of a HIP performance suggests that performance groups of earlier periods were technically of the sort that could handle routinely and adeptly such breakneck tempi when all the best evidence suggests that performance groups of earlier periods were largely technically impoverished compared with performance groups of today. Additionally, HIP tempi seem to fly in the face of the fact that instruments of earlier periods were much less easy for hands, fingers, and lips to negotiate securely and accurately at speed than their present-day descendants.

Clearly, something is not kosher here.

So, is there good and plausible justification and explanation for this seeming historically insupportable phenomenon of breakneck tempi cum emotionally bloodless performance? Well, I can think of one, much as I wish it weren’t so plausible: Commercial and ideological staking out of turf. For an audience, nothing segregates a HIP performance more quickly and more surely from its mainstream competition than those breakneck tempi cum emotionally bloodless readings. And nothing could be a more clear and forceful rebuke of the mainstream “Romantic tendencies” so reviled by the HIP ideological cognoscenti.

Two hits for the price of one.

Cynical, you say? Perhaps. But if there exist non-cynical, equally good and plausible justifications and explanations for this HIP practice that seemingly hypocritically and ignobly flies in the face of the historical evidence, I’d like to know what they might be.

I, for one, can think of none.

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