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Authentic performance

The authentic performance movement is an effort on the part of musicians and scholars to perform works of classical music in ways similar to how they were performed when they were originally written. The movement had its beginnings in the performance of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, but subsequently came to incorporate the Classical and even Romantic eras as well. The two methods adopted by authentic performance artists have been to use historically appropriate instruments and to rely on written evidence from the past to gain insight into how the works were originally played.

Table of contents

1 Authentic performance compared to traditional musical practice
2 Early instruments

2.1 Harpsichord
2.2 Viol
2.3 Recorder
2.4 Other instruments
2.5 Changed instruments
2.6 Singing

3 Recovering early performance practices

3.7 Interpreting musical notation
3.8 Linguistic issues

4 Issues in authentic performance

4.9 Variety of opinion
4.10 Authenticity or contemporary taste?

5 Resources

Authentic performance compared to traditional musical practice

Most authentic performance artists would not advocate authenticity for its own sake, but rather as a way of achieving more artistically effective performances of older music. It is felt that the gradual changes in the construction of instruments and in the training of musicians have produced instruments and styles that are optimal for (roughly) mid to late 19th-century music, but not for older work.

In the community of classical musicians, students have over the centuries learned ways of playing and interpreting music from their teachers and also from performances they hear. This results, to some degree, in stylistic accretion, as modes of performing developed by outstanding musicians are echoed through time in the performances of the younger musicians that they influenced. Thus, the way that music is performed is in part a function of the musical culture as it has evolved up to that time.

The authentic performance movement emphasizes instead historical scholarship, covering both instruments and performance practice, in order to obtain a more direct view of original performance practices. Such scholarship is the work both of the performers themselves and of non-performing specialist scholars, usually working in universities.

Adherence to principles of authentic performance is not an all-or-nothing matter. Many traditional musicians are deeply interested in what scholarship can tell us about how music was performed in the composer's time. Moreover, modern instruments can be played in ways that approximate to some degree what can be achieved on instruments of the composer's day.

Early instruments

Many of the instruments of early music disappeared from widespread use, around the beginning of Classical era. Others continued in use, but greatly altered their sound quality and playing characteristics in the course of the 19th century. The discussion below covers instruments that had to be revived entirely, followed by instruments whose earlier form was rediscovered.


Among keyboard instruments, the most dramatic disappearance was that of the harpsichord, which gradually went out of style during the second half of the 18th century. Many harpsichords were destroyed--notoriously, they were used for firewood in the Paris Conservatory during Napoleonic times. Composers such as William Byrd, Francois Couperin, and J. S. Bach wrote for the harpsichord and not the piano, which was invented ca. 1700 and only widely adopted by about 1765. The music of these composers sounds very different, and requires a different interpretive approach, when played on the harpsichord instead of the piano. Notably, since every note on a harpsichord is equally loud, subtle variations of timing and articulation, as well a judicious use of ornamentation, are employed to achieve an expressive harpsichord performance.

The harpsichord was revived in the first half of the twentieth century by Wanda Landowska. Since most useful knowledge of harpsichord construction had been lost by that time, Landowska needed to use a rather peculiar harpsichord, based on the modern grand piano, which was made for her by the Pleyel company of Paris. In the view of many later listeners, the tone of this harpsichord was not very successful. Later, harpsichord builders learned to make better instruments by following the procedures of the harpsichord builders of long ago. The revival of the authentic harpsichord began in the 1950's, with the work of the builders Frank Hubbard and William Dowd. Today, harpsichords in the style of the old makers are produced in workshops around the world. The generation of harpsichordists that first achieved eminence with authentic instruments included Ralph Kirkpatrick, Igor Kipnis, and Gustav Leonhardt; later outstanding performers include Kenneth Gilbert and Christopher Hogwood.


The viol (also called the viola da gamba) is a stringed instrument that (in its bass version) roughly resembles a six-stringed, fretted cello. Its tone is more delicate than a cello's, noble and resonant in the deeper notes and somewhat nasal and astringent in the upper range. The viol was largely abandoned by the end of the eighteenth century. Previously, a great literature for it had been created by composers of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including William Byrd, William Lawes, Henry Purcell, Marin Marais, and J. S. Bach. The Elizabethan composers wrote complex polyphonic music for viol consort, which combined viols of three sizes (all held vertically): the bass, the tenor (about the size of a guitar, and the treble (about the size of a viola). Among the foremost modern players of the viol are Wieland Kuijken, Jordi Savall and John Hsu.


The recorder is a wind instrument, made of wood. Its tone is similar to the flute, but it is played by blowing through the end, rather than by blowing across a soundhole. Like viols, recorders were made in multiple sizes (bass, tenor, alto, soprano, and the tiny sopranino). Handel and Telemann wrote solo sonatas for the recorder, and recorders were often played in consorts of mixed size, like viols. Leading modern exponents of the recorder include Frans Brueggen and Marion Verbruggen.

Other instruments

Other instruments that ceased to be used around the same time as the harpsichord, viol, and recorder include the lute, the viola d'amore, and the baryton. Instruments that lost currency rather earlier in musical history include the cornetto, the serpent, the shawm, the krummhorn, the theorbo, and the hurdy-gurdy.

Changed instruments

Even the instruments on which classical music is ordinarily performed today have undergone many important changes since the 18th century, both in how they are constructed and how they are played.

Stringed instruments (the violin, viola, cello, and double bass) were made with progressively longer necks and higher bridges, increasing string length and tension. For the top E string of the violin, steel instead of gut is now ordinarily used. The result has been a more powerful and penetrating tone--but, perhaps, also a less sweet one. Interestingly, the most prized stringed instruments of today, made by Antonio Stradivari and by the Guarneri family in 17th-18th century Italy, started out their careers as "early instruments". They were modified in the 19th century to achieve the more powerful modern sound.

In modern string playing, a more or less constant vibrato is the norm, with lack of vibrato used as a special expressive effect. In the 18th century, it was just the opposite, with vibrato serving as an ornament.

The oboe likewise became more powerful in its sound, but as a result lost a certain amount of its character; it might be said that 18th century oboes sound more "oboelike" than their modern equivalents. A similar difference is found between the early and modern bassoon.

The flute of the 18th century was typically made of wood rather than metal, and likewise had a gentler but more characteristic "woody" tone.

Early brass instruments were slightly less brilliant than their modern equivalents. The tonal difference is perhaps less than is found among the woodwinds and strings. However, the playing of early trumpets and hornss was very different and indeed much more difficult, since versions of these instruments incorporating keys or valves were only invented around the end of the 18th century. The players of the earlier type of instrument had to use mostly just lip control to determine pitch; the early French horns also had their pitch altered by the placement of the player's hand in the bell. Anthony Halstead is widely considered to be among the finest modern exponents of the "natural horn". The earlier trombone of course offered manual pitch control, as did its similar predecessor the sackbut.

The effect of these instruments in their original form is particularly noticeable when they play together in orchestras, since not only do the musical lines sound different, but their relationship to one another is altered by the difference in relative volume (wind instruments generally being louder relative to the strings). A number of authentic-performance orchestras have achieved a broad following, notably the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Christopher Hogwood and the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner.

For the piano, the difference between 18th century and modern versions is probably greater than for any other instrument; for discussion of these differences and their consequences for performance, see the Wikipedia article on the piano. The construction of replica 18th century pianos came somewhat after the revival of the authentic harpsichord, but used many of the same skills, since early pianos resembled harpsichords in their construction. Leading modern-day performers on the early piano ("fortepiano") include Malcolm Bilson, Robert Levin, and Melvin Tan.


The human voice is a biological given, but can be trained in different ways. Singers in authentic performance typically aim at a more natural, less loud tone, usually with less vibrato. It is feasible for the singer not to sing so loud, since the instruments playing at the same time are softer. Listeners to early music seldom complain that the singers are "shrieking" or "barking"--though of course this does not exclude the possibility that quite different vocal problems might be present. A few of the many outstanding singers who have contributed to authentic performance are Emma Kirkby, Julianne Baird, Nigel Rogers, and David Thomas.

Authentic performances sometimes use male singers, called countertenors, to sing alto parts. Although it is often a vexed question how often this was done in early performance, a number of countertenors have won acclaim for their purity of tone, vocal agility, and interpretive skill. Modern countertenor singing was pioneered by Alfred Deller, and leading contemporary performers include Drew Minter and Brian Asawa.

Recovering early performance practices

Recovering the available written information about how music was performed in the past is a difficult scholarly task, requiring fluency in multiple languages, skill in navigating old archives, and thoughtful judgment in weighing sometimes contradictory evidence. Both pedagogical works and the correspondence of musicians from past centuries play an important role. Representative of the works from which valuable information has been obtained are the following:

Syntagma musicum (1614-1620) by Michael Praetorius

Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen ("A treatise of instruction in playing the transverse flute," 1752) by Johann Joachim Quantz
Versuch über das wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen ("An essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments," 1753-1762) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
Versuch einer grundliche Violinschule ("An essay on the fundamental principles of violin playing," 1756) by Leopold Mozart

Among the letters of musicians, those of Mozart are notable for their liveliness and insight, and from them considerable information about performances of his work is obtained. In the case of Haydn and Beethoven we have the advantage that they became very famous--in fact, venerated--in their own lifetimes, and many people with whom they conversed attempted to remember and write down their words.
Occasionally, the written record tells us things we might prefer not to know. For instance, a letter from Haydn (Oct. 17, 1789) says:

Now I would humbly ask you to tell the princely Kapellmeister there that these three symphonies [ 90-92 ] because of their many particular effects, should be rehearsed at least once, carefully and with special concentration, before they are performed.

implying of course that symphonies were often performed with no rehearsal at all. Likewise, there is testimony that the task of keeping early instruments in tune was difficult and perhaps also neglected. One critic wrote in 1684:

At the beginning of the concerts, we observe the accuracy of the chords ... some time after, the instruments make a din; the music is for our ears no longer anything but a confused noise.

Such evidence is a reminder that authentic performance must aim at the highest ideals of past music making, rather than what was achieved on particular occasions.

Interpreting musical notation

One area in which scholarly interpretation is quite crucial is in interpreting the musical notation of the past, which becomes progressively less explicit as one goes back in time. Some familiar difficult items are as follows:

Early composers apparently often wrote dotted rhythms (where the first of two notes is three times the length of the second) to mean instead a time ratio of 2+1, in a context where triplets are present elsewhere in the musical line. The opening line of the last movement of J. S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #4 is a good example.

In a French overture, it is often held that dotted notation was meant to indicate double dotting; that is, a duration ratio of 7 to 1 instead of 3 to 1. A well-known example is the overture to Handel's Messiah, often played in the double-dotted manner by authentic performance specialists.

What is written as a grace note is often meant to be quite long, taking half or even more of the duration of the immediately following full-size note. This convention is pervasive in Mozart's music.

In medieval and some Renaissance music, the notorious musica ficta are employed. These resemble the accidentals (extra sharps and flats) found in later music, except they are not written in the score, and must be inferred, on a rather uncertain basis, from the rules laid down by theorists.

Linguistic issues

An additional relevant area of scholarship is the determination of how the languages of sung music were pronounced at the time of first performance. Such information can help in establishing rhymes and in aligning the syllables to the musical notes (underlay). The disciplines of historical linguistics and philology play the primary role here. Some early music performers prefer to sing using the old pronunciations, feeling that the notes sound better when sung to their original syllables.

Issues of pronunciation even carry over to church Latin, the language in which a huge amount of early music was written. The reason is that Latin was customarily pronounced using the speech sounds and patterns of the local vernacular language.

Issues in authentic performance
The perceived esthetic benefits of authentic performance vary with what kind of music is being played. In rough terms, they can be characterized as follows.

Authentic performance is argued to achieve greater transparency of musical texture. The instruments have a less overpowering tone, so that the playing of one note interferes less with the hearing of simultaneous or neighboring notes.

In orchestral performances, dynamic contrast is typically increased: the contributions of the brass instruments and timpani on accented notes stand out more, since the difference in volume level between brass and strings is somewhat greater than with modern instruments.

Greater transparency and greater dynamic contrast lend themselves, in turn, to greater rhythmic energy. This is particularly important in the choruses of 18th century cantatas and oratorios. To the ear that has become attuned to authentic performance, older "mainstream" performances of such works often sound heavy and rhythmically dull. Paradoxically, for such listeners, the monumental character of these choruses comes through more clearly when they are performed with the lighter forces of the authentic performance movement.

Many listeners appreciate the sheer sound quality of authentic performance instruments, finding it more beautiful and filled with character that what is heard from modern instruments. The same could be said of the human voice, when it is not required to compete with modern instruments in volume.

Variety of opinion

Opinions on the authentic performance movement vary widely, from very strong support to very strong opposition.

A generally skeptical but moderated position has been taken by Charles Rosen, a distinguished traditional classical musician and author on music. One criticism Rosen has made is that the spread of authentic performance has depended very heavily on the recording industry. This results from two factors. First, the lower volume of authentic performance instruments means they tend to be ineffective in large modern concert halls, so that live performance is difficult to sustain financially. Second, the unstable intonation and lesser reliability of early instruments means that a high-quality performance is most easily obtained in the recording studio, where multiple takes can be spliced together to iron out mistakes, and it is possible to interrupt the music frequently to retune the instruments. A musical culture based predominantly on recordings is arguably an impoverished one, given that most listeners respond more intensely to a live performance than to a recording.

There are many listeners who enjoy both authentic performance and traditional performance. Such esthetically-flexible listeners might, for instance, enjoy Malcolm Bilson's vivid and stylish authentic performances of Haydn's piano sonatas on a replica 18th century piano--but also enjoy Vladimir Horowitz's interestingly idiosyncratic (and quite heavily pedaled) performances of the same works on a modern concert grand.

Authenticity or contemporary taste?

An issue in authentic performance that is seldom raised concerns just why performers want to be authentic. It might be argued that what authentic-performance participants want is not always authenticity per se, but particular benefits that come from authenticity, such as clarity, tonal vividness, and rhythmic propulsion. In fact, it is likely that musical tastes among classical music enthusiasts were already evolving in these directions even before the authentic performance movement had become a major factor.

In this connection, it is worth considering two clearly documented authentic performance practices of the past that have not been widely adopted today.

First, it is known from Mozart's correspondence that he was enthusiastic about the idea of performing his symphonies with very large orchestral forces, along the lines of 40 violins, with analogous numbers for the other instruments. Thus, the smaller size of Mozart's usual orchestra in the 18th century relative to modern symphony orchestras may well have been the result of economy, rather than a deliberate esthetic choice. Modern authentic performance orchestras, however, are characteristically small--even though for the more successful ones, funding would probably permit them to be larger, at least on occasion, were it considered desirable.

A second example concerns a matter of authentic performance for string music of the later 19th century. Sources suggest that at this time, most string players made heavy use of portamento--a sliding of the finger along the string that causes pitch to glide from one note to the next. Portamento is used sparingly in the performances of contemporary musicians, and there is evidently little wish on the part of authentic performance advocates to revive it.

The common factor of these two examples is that in each, adopting truly authentic performance practices would actually set back the goals of clarity, transparency, and rhythmic liveliness. This supports the view that the authentic performance movement exists in large part to satisfy musical tastes that were evolving in a particular direction in any event. To say this, of course, by no means devalues the importance or esthetic contributions of the movement.



Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making by Frank Hubbard (1965; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press ISBN 0674888456) is a classic tale of scholarly detective work, both with old instruments and old written sources, that led to the rediscovery of how the old harpsichords were built.

Charles Rosen's discussion of authentic performance may be found in Chapter 12 of his book Critical Entertainments (2000; Cambridge: Harvard University Press; ISBN 0674006844). This chapter contains the full version of the quotation above concerning tuning, which is from the French critic Charles de Saint-Evremond.

The quotation above from Joseph Haydn about the necessity of at least one rehearsal is taken from p. 145 of Rosen's book The Classical Style (2nd ed., 1997; New York: Norton; ISBN 0393317129).


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