'Historically-Informed Performance'...

In Historically-Informed Performance, the search for 'authenticity' should not be regarded as the primary purpose - rather, it should be seen as an invaluable part of the creative process, and a stimulus to creating circumstances likely to lead to interesting, committed performances. In addition to using period instruments, performing with historically appropriate numbers of players and singers is central to creating a vivid sound and maintaining communication between the musicians. In particular, this frequently means that instead of a traditional 'choir', these parts are replaced by a quartet of soloists - 'One Voice Per Part'. (The theory - 'OVPP', as it is frequently called - was originally formulated by Joshua Rifkin and championed by Andrew Parrott, whose very readable book, 'The Essential Bach Choir', sets out the arguments very clearly.) This applies in much music from Italy and Germany, and generally includes the vocal works of J.S. Bach.

This has been a hotly-debated issue in recent years, and though the idea has wide acceptance, it has had relatively few exponents. Leaving aside the details of the arguments, performing the music in this way presents us with various practical advantages, chief among which are:
  • singers are better able to project text and personality within 'choral' parts
  • instrumentalists, too, are challenged to take command of their lines in a more soloistic way
  • since the group is smaller, communication is easier, so there is less dependence on a conductor
  • the counterpoint gains in freedom
Having said that, there are occasions nowadays when it can be appropriate to use larger forces, as there were in Bach's time. Festive services provided opportunities to create a fuller texture by adding 'ripienists' at certain points, though the addition of only a single extra voice per part seems to have been the standard practice. The solo voice is served differently by different acoustics - some buildings provide both clarity and reinforcement (see 'Architecture' below), while others can leave individual singers struggling to be clearly heard. For these and other reasons we should not take a fixed view of how one 'should' perform Bach today. However, 'OVPP' is certainly an important issue, and one which creates both challenges and opportunities for the Magdalena Consort.

... and its limits

Musicology gives fascinating insights into ancient styles, but today's musicians must also stay true to their own instincts if they are to give convincing performances. There are many circumstances which cannot be re-created in the twenty-first century, and we should always bear in mind that historical authenticity is not only unattainable, but it should never be an objective in itself. Indeed, it is striking how many of the elements that make up a modern 'historically-informed' musical experience must differ from the original performance, especially when one looks beyond the stage itself. Here are some to consider - some obvious, but worth re-stating, and some maybe less immediately apparent:
  • Boys - their voices broke much later than now, so Bach had more mature, better-trained boy sopranos and altos. Today we employ professional female sopranos, and either counter-tenors or female altos. The question of counter-tenors is a matter of debate, but women certainly would not have been heard in eighteenth-century Lutheran churches.

  • Architecture and the audience - rather than be able to see the performance, most of the congregation would have sat below the musicians (who performed in the gallery) with their backs to them. However, from an acoustical point of view, singers at the front of a gallery, with the orchestra behind them, are at a considerable advantage.

  • Organs - the performing area in German churches was dominated by the main organ, generally hung on the west wall of the building. Instead of being physically confined within the group of players, as modern box organs are, the absolute reverse was the case - these organs spatially surrounded the other instruments and singers. To what extent they dominated the sound is a matter for conjecture (and experiment, though this is hampered by organs - even historic ones - being tuned in ways which make them difficult to combine with period instruments), but what is certain is that they had the capacity to be far more present in the texture than in today's performances. The other reason for big organs being so little used nowadays to accompany other instruments is the matter raised in 'Architecture' above - we like to be able to watch a performance as well as hear it (and preferably without getting a stiff neck). 'Audiences', as opposed to 'congregations', pay for their Bach, and consequently today's musicians must perform where they can be seen.

  • Linguistic, cultural and religious context - all of these areas can present obstacles between ancient works and modern audiences, which we must deal with as best we can. However, we should not underestimate our audiences - today's 'art as religion' culture might not be so far removed from the 18th century bourgeoisie's delight in the weekly cantata. Just as in an audience today, there would have been a range of expectations and levels of appreciation. Some present, surely, must have entertained the (furtive?) hope that today Herr Bach would have been able to muster his finest musicians, and that this would be one of those very special Sundays.

In conclusion

There are countless other areas to consider, of course, but these are a few which highlight the fact that we are not even aware of how many aspects of music-making do not easily yield to musicological demands, and that all 'historically-informed' performances involve countless unconscious compromises. However, that is not to say that we should give up - rather that we should bear this in mind and be modest in our claims. What is certain, however, is that having learned what we can of historical performing styles, it is up to today's musicians to engage personally with the music, the most persuasive performances being those where we reveal something of ourselves.