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Historical authenticity in performance (Historically informed performance)

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The expression historically informed performance (HIP) designates a musical interpretation movement developed in the 20th century and more particularly during the second half of the 20th century. Seeking to get closer to the musical tastes of the time and the original intentions of the composers, the performer notably uses period instruments (or copies of instruments) and carries out important work on the interpretation, both vocal and instrumental, ornamentation, tuning forks and temperaments used, etc.

Current names

The term “historically informed performance” was first popular in English-speaking academic and musical circles following the proposal of British music critic and scholar Andrew Porter, then, in particular, thanks to the work of John Butt in Playing with History, before spreading in other countries. In English, the expression period music is now tending to supplant the former, as it emphasizes the approach taken by the musicians rather than a specific period.

Musicians who identify with the movement are sometimes called “baroquists”, a term initially used in a pejorative manner by some.


Pleyel harpsichord (1927) Large concert model
Source: Gérard Janot, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PleyelGrandModeleDeConcert.JPG

(Pleyel harpsichord (1927) Large concert model (Musikinstrumenten-Museum, Berlin). )

The baroque interpretation movement wanted to react to interpretations of the baroque repertoire as they were presented during the years 1900 to 1970.

The criticisms made were varied and challenged modern interpretations for failure to respect historical parameters:

  • interpretations made in a romantic, Wagnerian spirit…;
  • size of the symphony orchestras, greater than the size of the ensembles of the Baroque period;
  • use of instrumentalists and singers not trained in the techniques of the baroque repertoire;
  • use of the modern tuning fork, different from the baroque tuning fork;
  • use of equal temperament, generalized after this period;
  • strict interpretation of what was noted on the score whereas the composers of the Baroque era knew that they could rely on the profession of performers and therefore did not write everything down on their scores;
  • general ignorance of the movement, character and tempo of the dances of the time;
  • neglect of ornamentation;
  • ignorance of the art of rhetoric and declamation;
  • application of the style of arias to recitatives;
  • repertoire too focused on certain great standards of baroque music (Bach, Vivaldi, the canon of Pachelbel), even pseudo-baroque (Adagio d’Albinoni…), leaving a large part of the baroque repertoire unknown to the public;
  • replacement of the baroque violin by the modern violin, very different on several points:
    • modern violin has been using metal strings since around 1900, while the baroque violin used sheep gut strings, possibly silver spun for the larger strings,
    • modern violin presents a rather significant inclination of the neck, absent in the baroque violin,
    • the baroque bow is convex, while the modern bow is concave,
  • the replacement of certain baroque instruments by other instruments, in particular due to a lack of qualified instrumentalists: the lute by the guitar, the harpsichord by the piano, the viola da gamba by the cello, the traverso by the transverse flute, the natural trumpet by the piston trumpet, etc.


Ancient instruments

The harpsichord is the predecessor of the piano, occupying similar roles as a soloist or accompanying instrument. The first differs from its successor by the volume of sound, technique and playing mechanism, the strings being plucked and not struck. This mechanism makes it impossible to produce nuances on the harpsichord by just touching it (it is however possible to make changes of nuances with the different stops or, depending on the instrument, the different keyboards). Gradually replaced by the pianoforte during the eighteenth century, the harpsichord returned to fashion at the end of the nineteenth century. Since then, many artists have made recordings of pieces by composers of the Baroque era on this instrument. Modern and contemporary composers have also composed pieces for the instrument, from the beginning of the 20th century and often at the request of performers, both in Europe and the United States.

Practices and issues

The “baroquists” rethought the interpretation of baroque music and set themselves the following objectives:

  • rediscovery of the baroque repertoire in general but also of specialized repertoires for lute, theorbo, viola da gamba…;
  • rediscovery of forgotten baroque instruments:
    • viola da gamba, viola bastarda, viola d’amore, violin d’amore…,
    • lyre de bras (lira da braccio), lyre de gambe (lira da gamba or lirone),
    • archlutes (theorbo, angelica, tiorbino, theorbe lute),
    • citrus, archicisters and pandora,
    • vihuela,
    • baroque guitar (5 x 2 strings), chitarra battente;
  • rediscovering the profession of baroque performers on which the composers of the baroque era counted so as not to have to write everything down on the scores – and in particular the ornamentation;
  • compliance with the parameters of the Baroque period:
    • respect for the pitch of the time (the baroque most often adopted today is equivalent to 415 Hertz, a little more than ½ tone below the modern A, although at the time the pitch was not standardized and varied depending on the location),
    • respect for the tempo of the time,
    • respect for contemporary instruments (without replacing them with their modern equivalents: see above),
    • use of old instruments or faithful copies of old instruments,
    • use of gut cords (possibly covered with aluminum to increase longevity),
    • respect for the way of playing baroque instruments (example: the bow of the viola da gamba is held below),
    • instruments tuned according to the temperaments in use at the time,
    • respect for the size of the ensemble of the period: modest ensembles, not symphony orchestras.

Male voices

The Baroque came up against two obstacles which forced them to depart from their principle of respecting the standards of the Baroque era.

The first was the impossibility of having recourse to the castrati so appreciated by Handel and his contemporaries, which forced the baroquists to resort either to countertenors or to mezzo-sopranos to interpret the repertoire intended for the castrati.

The second obstacle was the lack of profession of the boy sopranos of the twentieth century, which led the baroquists to usually replace them with female sopranos. Indeed, the voice of boys of the 17th and 18th centuries moved around the age of 16 or 17, which allowed Bach and his contemporaries to have soprano boys with both strength and profession. But the age of the moult advanced, the young boys of the 20th century moulting rather around the age of 14, so that the soprano boys of the 1970s (like those of Tölzer Knabenchor, for example) no longer had either the power or the the profession of their predecessors of the Baroque period.


The contribution of the baroque movement in terms of interpretation has been recognized since the 1980s, both by musicologists and by the specialized press. Their recordings have received awards.

Some voices have been raised to denounce the excesses of the baroque and recall that an interpretation obsessed with the search for authenticity can pull works towards the past while a modern interpretation can on the contrary to register them in our time.

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