The HIP Movement in Classical Music: Reality and Myth

straight tone

As we wend our way deeper into the 21st century, the Historically-Informed Practice (or HIP) movement has come to completely dominate the classical music world. We now not only get “historically informed” performances of Cavalli, Monteverdi, Byrd, Weelkes, Purcell, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Buxtehude, but historically-informed performances of Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi and even Mahler. One of the few composers they haven’t ruined yet is Wagner, and they probably won’t because his ghost would come back and write vituperative screeds against them!

But Wagner needn’t bother because I am going to rip them up one end and down the other for him. Get ready, folks, ‘cause here it comes.

Many years ago, in another lifetime, I spent a good six years researching the different methods of voice production used by classical singers from the dawn of opera in the early 17th century through the mid-20th century, and I discovered several interesting things, among them the facts that a) no matter how virtuosic and technically intricate the singing in the old days, the voices themselves were not very large but almost always had a piercing sound that could cut through the most reverberant room; b) some singers used vibrato and some didn’t—not only was there no hard and fast rule for such things, but no one was particularly encouraged or trained to have or not have vibrato in their voices; and c) orchestras, at least until the 19th century when such conductors as Carl Maria von Weber, Felix Mendelssohn, Hector Berlioz and Otto Nicolai raised the bar, were for the most part substandard and pretty miserable. What’s more, such composers as Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel and particularly poor J.S. Bach were continually fighting to get the “proper” size and quality forces with which to perform their works, and in many cases felt cheated that the number of players and singers were almost never up to the numbers they wanted. Moreover, this was as true of secular performances of opera as it was of such religious works as Handel’s Messiah (Handel believed that only once of all the times he conducted the work he had anything close to the proper amount of musicians) and Bach’s Passions (he always felt cheated out of the right forces by his employers at St. Thomas Church). And I learned many other things as well: that opera singers usually, not occasionally, departed from the written score to stick in trills, roulades, cadenzas and other such folderol at whim; that even Mozart of sainted memory always wanted larger and better orchestras than those he had to fight with when playing his concertos on the road; and that pitch—almost always thought of nowadays to have been around a half-tone lower than what we deal with today—fluctuated so wildly from city to city over a period of some 50 years that no one could determine what pitch was to be used until they landed in that locale. If you want a good laugh sometimes, take a look at Alexander John Ellis’ History of Musical Pitch. If you were an itinerant musician traveling Eastern and Western Europe during the period 1751-1809 (like Haydn, for instance), you wouldn’t know what to expect: Handel’s tuning fork in 1751 was supposedly set to A=422.5 while in 1783 Paris that of court tuner Pascal Taskin was set at 409; Mozart’s pitch in 1780 Vienna is supposed to have been A=421.6 (why the hell the .6?), but at around the same time the cathedral organ at Seville, Spain was tuned to A=419.6. But earlier on, in 1708, the organ at the Royal Chapel was tuned to 474.1 by Bernhardt Smith and old Austrian military band pitch was 460. In 1838 London the pitch was duly recorded as A=461, but the actual pitch of a flute in the orchestra that year was A=453.3. That must have been some wild bitonal orchestra, man! Meanwhile at the Opéra-Comique de Paris, pitch was set at A=427.6, this around the time (1829) when the standardized pitch of the Paris Opera was 440. But that was just the orchestral pitch; in that same year, the pitch of the Paris Opera’s rehearsal piano was A=425.5!!!

And more to the point, the central core of the HIP mindset and the one that dictates more than any other the character of performances, string players of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries DID NOT use straight tone exclusively, or even most of the time with only rare moments of vibrato for color. In addition, they often used very strong bow strokes which at close quarters could rattle the nerves. And both singers and string players used a lot of portamento. Please pay close attention to this quote from Francesco Geminiani’s treatise on violin playing:

Many gentlemen players on bow instruments are so exceeding fond of the tremolo, that they apply it wherever they possibly can. This grace has a resemblance to that wavering found given by two of the unisons of an organ, a little out of tune; or to the voice of one who is paralytic; a song from whom would be one continued tremolo from beginning to end… The proper stop [to place the finger] is a fixed point, from which the least deviation is erroneous: consequently the tremolo, which is a departure from that point, will not only confuse the harmony to the hearers who are near the band, but also enfeeble it to those at a distance.[1]

One of the recording I explored, and one of the very first HIP performances ever recorded, was August Wenzinger’s 1955 performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo using a small orchestra with straight tone in the strings. If you ever find it, try listening to it: it sounds like crap on a stick. The string intonation makes the opera sound bitonal. The only saving grace of the entire recording is a very young Fritz Wunderlich as Orfeo.

None of this fits in with the almost Fascist-like mindset that determines how HIP performances are given. In addition, certain other features—all of them unpleasant—have been added to their mythological construct of how early music “sounded” to contemporary audiences. Among the most prominent and irritating:

  • Uninflected playing and singing, what you might describe as a “flat affect.” Proponents of this bizarre cult use as an excuse that they are “letting the music speak for itself.”
  • Overly inflected playing and singing, with all kinds of little un-notated swells, choppy attacks on certain notes, and a purposely un-legato approach to music that was obviously meant to be played legato. (You may note that the first and second of these contradict each other, but such is the HIP religion that apparently differing cults are permissible as long as they adhere to the basic tenet of straight tone.)
  • Forcibly reduced instrumental and choral forces which, when combined with the insistence on straight tone, creates a sound that isn’t even human. It sounds exactly like a MIDI but, considering how addicted some modern listeners are to MIDIs, they don’t find it as objectionable as I do.
  • An elimination, regardless of the size of forces used, of emotional projection. Apparently the mindset is that since earlier musicians “always” used small forces and no vibrato, they couldn’t possibly have projected music emotionally, thus we have no right to do so.

As many musicologists (particularly Richard Taruskin and the late Joseph Kerman) and music critics have complained, the first problem with the HIP movement is that we only know so much about how music was produced way back when, and when we do read first-hand accounts they often conflict in the information they impart. I would also add one specific feature of musical performance that was a constant and not a variable up through the third decade of the 20th century, and that was the use of portamento. It was used often, particularly in singing and string playing; it was generally used broadly; and it was considered an important and cultured component of musical performance. But would any string player, string section or singer use portamento today? Of course not, because conductors like Felix Weingartner, Erich Kleiber, Arturo Toscanini and even Leopold Stokowski purged it from orchestral and operatic performances as a tradition not based on any provable intent by the composers. But if we want to be historically authentic, we should by all means use portamento often and regularly.

I think you can see where this is heading. The whole HIP construct is essentially a sand castle, held together by the force of imperious and closed-minded academics and scholars and forced down the throat of a gullible public who assume that they must be right because they know more than we do. But it just isn’t so for the most part. I shall soon explain some of the features of HIP performance that are right and good, but for the time being let us delve a bit further into this slag-heap of rubbish.

  1. Countertenors. If I hear one more goddamned countertenor singing a role that should by all means be done by a female mezzo or a male tenor, I think I’ll scream. The justification for this is that many male operatic roles were sung in the 18th century, and even into the early 19th, by castrati and since castrati don’t exist any more we have to use countertenors. But the castrati were really only popular in Italy, Germany, and to a lesser extent Great Britain. The French absolutely detested them, yet it is in French performances of today that you most often hear countertenors. The British had a comme ci – comme ca attitude towards them and eventually came to reject them. By the early 19th century when Giovanni Velluti, the last stage castrato, performed in England (in Meyerbeer’s Crociato in Egitto), Lord Mount Edgcumbe wrote that from his first sung notes he experienced “a shock of surprise, almost of disgust.” The Spanish evolved a very specialized and unique form of falsetto singing in which the upper register was projected with the force of a female soprano or alto, but such singers were mostly used in church music. Henry Purcell called his own voice a “counter-tenor” and wrote roles for them in his operas (i.e., Secrecy and Summer in The Fairy Queen), but contemporary evidence suggests that these voices, like Purcell’s own, were a form of a very high tenor who could reach into the alto range like Dennis Day or Russell Oberlin. Nowadays we have a few countertenors who can do this, among them Jochen Kowalski whose voice is hard and tight-sounding and Philippe Jaroussky whose voice is sweet and pleasing, but for the most part what we get is that awful hollow sound that reaches my ears like nails on a blackboard.
  2. You got the right keys, but the wrong keyboard. What is it with pianists who insist on playing Beethoven on instruments popular during Mozart’s childhood, or Brahms on instruments that Mendelssohn had to struggle with? Don’t they realize that keyboard construction and sound power increased by leaps and bounds during those decades? Have we forgotten how thrilled Beethoven was with each new advance in piano manufacture, even in his decades of deafness? Do you remember, umm, the HAMMERKLAVIER Sonata? Hellooooo?? But this hasn’t stopped pianists from playing Beethoven on the wrong instruments. Or Brahms. Recently one Philipp Vogler recorded Brahms’ 1879 and later Violin Sonatas on an 1847 Streicher piano. What? Walter Frisch, in the book Brahms and his World, states uncategorically that “Brahms favored the more technologically advanced instruments of his day”—in December 1865, in fact, he performed on a Steinway concert grand. So why did Vogler use an 1847 instrument? Because, when Brahms visited his friends Maria and Dr. Richard Felliger in 1889, where he made his only cylinder recordings, they owned an 1847 Streicher! Hey, hey, hey! This proves that Brahms loved the Streicher, so we’re going to ram it down your throat!
  3. Anemic-sounding harpsichords and organs. This is another bane of mine. The late Virgil Fox was the last unquestionably great organist to go down fighting against this idiocy to his dying day. His argument, which is borne out by historical fact, is that if Bach had access to larger and more colorful organs he would have gladly used one. Indeed, on his few journeys outside Leipzig Bach was absolutely delighted by organs that had unusual stops that could mimic the sounds of bells, carillons, and oboes. As for harpsichords, the modern mindset seems to be that the smaller, weaker, and more pathetic they sound the better, but such modern-day mavericks as Elizabeth Farr and Anna Paradiso have shown that larger-framed harpsichords with bold, colorful sounds did indeed exist in the old days and were often the instrument of preference for those lucky or wealthy enough to own them. Farr uses a huge harpsichord with 16-foot strings sounding an octave lower than 8-foot strings. Keith Hill, who reconstructed this instrument in our time, based it on a Flemish model originally built from the late 16th century onward by the Ruckers family. Incidentally, Flemish harpsichord builders were the first to make two-manual harpsichords as early as 1600, a fact which unfortunately contradicts the claims of historically-uninformed listeners who insist that such instruments are a modern aberration. The early version of the historically-informed crowd in the 1940s and ‘50s railed against Wanda Landowska’s use of a Pleyel concert piano-sized harpsichord solidly built so she could travel with it as an abomination, but even a cursory listen to Farr’s recordings on her family-sized harpsichord will prove that similar instruments existed in Bach’s time and before. Paradiso has told me that she fights almost constant battles against the HIP crowd by not only using a colorful-sounding harpsichord (not so large as Farr’s, however) but also by injecting the music with color, drama and a sweeping sense of phrasing. Which brings us to:
  4. Crappy phrasing. If I hear one more singer, soloist or orchestra play in such a manner that the music doesn’t flow I am going to go insane. THIS SIMPLY ISN’T MUSICAL! IT’S NONSENSE! Who told these people that it was OK to play this way, and why do they persist on ruining every piece they perform with their inanities? There isn’t a single surviving document from the 17th or 18th century that verifies or describes such phrasing…not one. It goes beyond reason that they persist in this nonsense. Yet they do…over and over and over and over again. Listen, for instance, to modern performances of Purcell’s famous Chaconne in G Minor by such groups as Il Giardino Armonico or the Purcell Quartet: despite absolutely no notation or suggestion from Purcell, the piece is taken at a ridiculously brisk tempo and each and every note is detached from the notes before and after it. What the hell??? This despite Richard Taruskin’s (and many others’) insistence that historically informed performances are radically inauthentic, shaped by “an ideal of fleet coolness and light that is wholly born of ironized 20th-century taste.” As Daniel Leech-Wilson wrote in Project Muse (February 2005), “Under Taruskin’s influence, a consensus seems to have emerged that historically-informed performance is as good as the musical results it produces, but that there’s no way beyond the obvious externals (instruments and editions) of showing that it’s historical. On the contrary, there are plenty of reasons to suppose that it is not.”
  5. Bizarre historical claims. The worst of these insist that Bach’s continuo accompaniments are often missing from his scores because he expected the performer to “improvise” his or her own—which they usually do with puerile and anemic creations that a first-year jazz student could surpass in a gig. But even as far back as 1906—yea, verily, in the Bad Old Days—it was Felix Weingartner (in On Conducting) who pointed out that common sense dictates that the reason he didn’t notate them was that he couldn’t conceive of anyone else playing the music other than himself! As Sherlock Holmes once famously said, when you remove all other posible explanations the one that is left, no matter how implausible, has to be the truth. Another one is that older composers orchestrated the way they did because that was the “sound” they wanted; but again we have Weingartner to thank (in his most famous book, On the Performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies) for explaining—again, using common sense—that Beethoven often had to “work around” the deficiencies of instruments in his day, particularly those valveless horns with their “lipped” false notes and weaker sound, in scoring many chords for the orchestra. Weingartner had no compunction about occasionally doubling winds or adding a few strings in order to offset the much stronger-sounding modern horns and trombones of his day, but he held the line at adding instruments not sanctioned by Beethoven. But as Taruskin noted in the watering down of the HIP orchestra to purposely sound anemic, this hasn’t stopped famous HIP conductors from forcing the strings to play with light bow strokes and that obnoxious straight tone and thus have the remaining orchestra similarly decrease its volume so that the natural horns can stand out—exactly the opposite and wrong solution.

Undoubtedly the most bizarre claim I’ve read in recent years comes from the well-respected conductor Sir Roger Norrington. In 2011 he claimed that since the Vienna Philharmonic was (in his opinion) the last major orchestra to continue using straight tone violins into the late 1930s, as evidenced (so he claims) by Bruno Walter’s 1938 live recording of the Mahler Ninth Symphony, that it is not only permissible but right to perform Mahler symphonies with straight tone! Well, I once owned that Walter Mahler Ninth, and I admit that the strings sound rather strange and strained, but I attribute that to the extraordinary tension of the occasion—the performance was given very shortly before the Nazis invaded Austria, and the VPO’s Jewish concertmaster, the great Arnold Rosé, knew he was going to be targeted for extinction—plus the fact that, for whatever reason, the performance was recorded (unusually for EMI) using inferior microphones. I questioned Norrington via e-mail if this meant that all of the early electrical recordings of the VPO conducted by Clemens Krauss, Issay Dobrowen, George Szell, Arturo Toscanini and other Walter performances (specifically, since we’re talking about Mahler, his 1936 Das Lied von der Erde) used straight tone, because those recordings clearly don’t show it, as anyone with a pair of ears can clearly hear. Not surprisingly, Norrington never answered me. I doubt that he had paid any attention to all those other recordings because they didn’t serve his agenda.

But there is far more evidence against the claims made by the HIP Mafia than there is in favor of it. You want to hear performances by violinists who probably sounded much like those of the 18th century? Try listening to the recordings, rare but listenable, of Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) and Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), particularly those of Bach’s music. It is fleet yet stylish; it has musicality; the violin sings while using some straight tone but more often than not a light (and I emphasize the word light) vibrato. Or, if you want better sound, try the output of Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) whose playing, constantly alternating straight tone with vibrato and often using a generous portamento, was considered outré and anachronistic by the 1920s. (Violin pedagogue Carl Flesch detested Huberman and said so in print; Sir Thomas Beecham was quoted as saying of Huberman, “A great musician, a very fine musician…it’s a pity he can’t play the violin!”) In addition to the use of portamento, incidentally, there was another stylistic device used mostly by singers in the 18th and 19th centuries that had all but died out by the time recordings came along, and that was the grace note or accacciatura attacked from above, rather than from below, the principal note. You can hear this on recordings of the great Italian tenor Alessandro Bonci (1870-1940) and, in the recordings of the only castrato soprano to record, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), you can also hear something even more different, the accacciatura from an octave below. You want to give historically authentic performances? Start using devices like these—and if you don’t, just stop the whole charade once and for all.

There is also strong evidence that Baroque orchestras who used straight tone also used strong downbow strokes that rattled the nerves of their listeners (this in a 1791 report by Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Kapellmeister at the Berlin court, of a concert he had attended in 1785) that he appreciated hearing the strings from a distance because they weren’t as nasty-sounding. This was a highly influential tract, as it eventually led to these straight-toned violin sections playing at a softer volume than they did during the 18th century…yet one more move from the reality of that time. As far as the size of performing forces go, Johann Sebastian Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel said that his father always wanted more singers and musicians than he had, that the only reason he used such small groups was because his employers at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig wouldn’t give him the money. When C.P.E. Bach performed the Symbolum Niceum section of his father’s Mass in B Minor in 1786, he used a large orchestra and chorus, as (he said) his father always intended, but now we have to suffer through performances with small performing groups, punk instruments and choirs, just because J.S. Bach suffered through them? Give me a break. Maybe we should make the musicians also play by candlelight, wear powdered wigs, and come and go through the servants’ entrance.

Earlier in this article I promised to go over the few good things in the HIP movement, and so I shall. For one thing, it erased the popular affinity for lush, heavy performances of early music. If you want to hear a performance of Purcell’s Chaconne as wrong-headed as the HIP versions, for instance, listen to the Orchestra of St. Luke’s directed by Pinchas Zukerman. The tempo is right but the performance sounds like a funeral dirge because it’s just too heavy and soupy. Some (and I emphasize the word SOME) HIP performers get the balance between intent and execution better than others: excellent phrasing, terraced dynamics, and emotional projection. Canada’s Tafelmusik is one such organization, as is the CPE Bach Kammerochester. Jordi Savall’s 1980s performances of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos is absoltely superb, as are some of John Eliot Gardiner’s early performances of Bach, Monteverdi and Handel. One of the more interesting performers, because he started as one of the very early progenitors of early music performance before straight tone became a religion and has continued to the present day, is Helmuth Rilling. Rilling has constantly refined and reduced his forces yet refuses to cave in to the affectation for straight tone, and consistently gives interesting interpretations. I also like some of the modern recordings of early operas that walk the line between HIP affectation and honest emotion, such as Marc Minkowski’s recording of Gluck’s Armide, Giovanni Antonini’s recording of Bellini’s Norma, Giuliano Carella’s performance of Verdi’s Ernani and Antonino Fogliani’s superb rendition of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Each of these, using smaller voices than we’re used to but not lacking in emotional projection (and not using straight tone), have shed new light on these works and thereby given us a new way of hearing them. Likewise Dutch conductor Peter Dijkstra’s performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion uses soloists like Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin and a chorus that sound like human beings, not like computerized sounds. All these, and others like them, are valuable additions to our understanding of the music. And, of course, the real innovator and pioneer of the whole movement in our lifetime (there were others in the 1910s and ‘20s, like the Dolmetsch Family and Bed Stad’s American Society of the Ancient Instruments) is Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Unlike nearly everyone who has followed since the “revolution” of the late 1970s instigated by Christopher Hogwood, Harnoncourt has always viewed the use of early instruments as a means to an end, not an end in itself, and for him that end is an emotionally affecting performance. Yes, there are several Harnoncourt performances in which the tempos are erratic and sometimes too slow, but his performances of Monteverdi’s L’Amento d’Arianna (with Cathy Berberian, scarcely a HIP soprano!), Haydn’s Armida, Mozart’s Horn Concertos (with Hermann Baumann) and Schubert’s complete Symphonies (with the Concertgebouw Orchestra) are watershed performances and, in my view, still benchmark recordings.

But for the most part, as you have seen, the HIP movement is a sham and a fraud. The so-called evidence they use is incomplete and apocryphal and, as I have shown, they purposely eliminate any performance style or quirk documented from the old days that does not serve their agenda. They seem hell bent on ruining older music to the point where the majority of listeners find it hateful and disgusting to listen to, all the while saying among themselves (and to whatever critics will print their nonsense) that it sounds so much better without emotion, with chopped phrasing and without dynamics shadings. There seems to be no end in sight, but thankfully there are numerous older recordings that display the music in a better light, going as far back in time as the 1920s—listen, for instance, to the surprisingly idiomatic 1928 recordings of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos made by Anthony Bernard and a small British orchestra or, if you’d like to hear how Beethoven String Quartets may have been played in Beethoven’s own time, try the elusive but fascinating recordings of the Rosé Quartet from the same period.

One final word. If you really want to know why the HIP movement is a sham, listen to Debussy and Prokofiev playing their own music, Richard Strauss conducting Don Quixote or Till Eulenspiegel, Maurice Ravel’s own recording of his Bolero or Rachmaninov’s performances of his own concertos. Not one performance given today replicates what these composers did with their own music; in fact, the Rachmaninov Concertos, some of the Debussy piano rolls and Prokofiev’s solo recordings are actually banned in music classes because they don’t follow the scores exactly! In Schoenberg’s own recording of Pierrot Lunaire the sprechstimme artist, Erika Stiedry-Wagner, sings several of the words on incorrect pitches—and Schoenberg had numerous takes of each song to choose from. The orchestra in the original premiere performance of Le Sacre du Printemps made numerous mistakes, so is this the way we should play the score? In the world premiere performance of The Rake’s Progress—conducted by the composer himself and actually recorded!—there are missed cues, flubbed notes, and passages where Stravinsky had to slow down the tempo to get the music right. None of Stravinsky’s own three recordings of his Sacre sound anything like one another in tempo or phrasing. And these are cases where we know what the composers did with their own music. So how can you tell me that what you’re doing—without a single recorded performance to use as a measuring stick—is right and true? Bottom line, you can’t. You’re full of hypothetical bullshit.

So why do they do it?

It’s a way for them to exert control over performance style and regulate it in such a way that it eliminates individuality. They don’t want any more brilliant mavericks like Huberman, Toscanini, Chaliapin, Callas, Glenn Gould or Virgil Fox to come along, upset the apple cart, and suddenly amass a large following that does not follow their approved, regulated, and standardized tenets of music-making. On the other hand, they do want stage productions of operas—even older operas that, musically, fit into this category—to be as modern, outré, perverted and bizarre as possible, even while the orchestra and singers are toeing the HIP line. The results are ludicrous and bizarre to say the least. A good example was the Zurich production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in which Papageno, in a cage, wore a black suit covered with birdshit and the Queen of the Night was some blind, mole-like creature who felt her way along a wall, all the while Nikolaus Harnoncourt was conducting the orchestra in proper HIP style. What exactly is the point of this? If you’re going to give us a strict, hemmed-in reading of the score following HIP guidelines, you should also insist on a strict 18th-century production with costumes and “stage machinery” that uses nothing invented after 1791. As a matter of fact, you should also have all the musicians wear clothing and powdered wigs of that period and have the stage and their music stands lit only by candlelight. (Technically, you should also have the musicians enter and leave by the servants’ entrance.) Why not? What you’re doing is an affectation and a sham.

Thank you!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

[1] Jerold, Beverly, Did Early String Players Use Continuous Vibrato? (The Strad, March 2005, reprinted in February 2015).

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