What is Historically Informed Performance?

People often assume that Historically Informed Performance (HIP) starts with playing the correct notes of a score on old instruments, and although that is part of it, notation is just the beginning. Music notation is a complex system of codes about pitch and rhythm, and often also about dynamics, speed, articulation, and mood. This code is conventional, and it assumes that musicians know it, so they can effectively transform the notation into a musical sound event. Scholars and musicians involved in HIP refuse two fundamental concepts accepted in the performing world: first, that the conventions in understanding these notation codes have never changed over time; and second, that the music can happen independently from its complex cultural context. In the mind of HIP musicians it is precisely this general cultural context that on the one hand, tells us how to “read” and understand these notation codes, and on the other, gets us a little closer to the aesthetic characteristics that underpin the music we are dealing with. HIP is not interested in producing “what the composer had in mind”—there is no way to know that—but to figure out the practices of a specific time in a specific place. In the end, it is a matter of cultural literacy, and in that sense HIP potentially deals with all music composed until yesterday!

The question is: where do we find all the missing bits that the score does not give us? Instruments of the past and their sounds are a good place to start, but then we have to figure out how they were played. For that we have old method books and treatises: they not only teach us how to play an instrument, but also help us figure out how a given melody or element of improvisation was to be approached in 1780s Vienna, as opposed to, say, 1650s Rome. Iconography (images), and descriptions in documents, treatises, chronicles, letters, reviews, etc., can help us figure out how instruments were held, how many performers were involved, how ensembles were set up in space, and how the music was received.

Styles and aesthetics involve what people liked and disliked: what was seen as beautiful or ugly can be discovered through studies in the visual arts, architecture, literature, poetry, history, and philosophy. Also, between the 16th and the 18th centuries, music was considered to be close to rhetoric, the art of speaking in a clear, beautiful, persuasive, and moving way. Knowing classical rhetoric is fundamentally important to “decode” both the way music was put together, and how it was performed. The notation encodes the message that the performer was to deliver efficiently to the listener.

In short, HIP can only be successful when scholars and performers collaborate and interact with each other, as we try to do in the HIP program at UO. In a way, HIP should better be described as Culturally Informed Performance, since it aims to bring audiences music from the past that includes the full cultural richness which is an organic part of the musical message.

Marc Vanscheeuwijck
Associate Professor of Musicology
University of Oregon School of Music and Dance


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