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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33 thoughts on “The HIP Movement in Classical Music: Reality and Myth

  1. Geir Øyvind Eskeland says:

    Sorry for my inadequate English. I’m addicted to performances without vibrato. It’s a pain listening to vibrato. I can not understand how people can enjoy it, music most of the time out of tune. Both Leopold and his famous son Wolfgang didn’t liked perpetual vibrato. Again, thank’s God for H.I.P. performances! But you have a lot of knowlegde that I don’t have, sure you are right that they not always are able to proove their statements. I started to listen to Bach’s music back in 1972, but his cantatas was unknown to me until around 2000, but why? Because of the terrible human voices! Baroque-Wagner – absolutely awful – A W F U L ! So once again, thanks God for H.I.P. performances! HIP, HIP, HIP hurray!!

    Geir Øyvind Eskeland

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can only assume that you didn’t fully understand what I wrote, which was that string players of the 18th century used vibrato on held notes and non-vibrato to facilitate fast passages. I used Bronislaw Huberman as a recorded example of this style of string playing. And I can only attribute your incorrect description of players with vibrato as being “most of the time out of tune” to the fact that you are brainwashed into thinking that cold, inhuman playing and singing is somehow wonderful. Absolutely none of the great Bach singers of the pre-WW II era had “terrible human voices.” Check out Albert Coates’ 1929 recording of the Bach Mass in b minor and tell me where Elisabeth Schumann, Walter Widdop or Friedrich Schorr–the latter two famous WAGNERIAN singers of their day–had “awful Baroque-Wagner” voices. And none of the “operatic” singers who most frequently performed Bach cantatas well into the 1960s, such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (who also sang Wagner, by the way), Nicolai Gedda, etc. had much vibrato at all, let alone your misrepresentation of “perpetual vibrato.” As I say, you need to educate yourself. I refuse to review 90% of all new recordings of Baroque and even Classical-era music because the HIP movement has so dehumanized the music that it makes my skin crawl. Have you ever heard Yehudi Menuhin’s performances of the Bach Violin-Keyboard Sonatas with Wanda Landowska? They are the greatest performances ever put on disc. No one today can touch them.


  2. tednancy says:

    I applaud you – HIP is ruining music, and it was a pleasure to read a good takedown.

    Sadly, it’s not just period bands that have been infected with this disease but some of our most prestigious musical institutions. Just the other day I saw Kirill Petrenko lead the Berliners in Mozart’s K.385 (the Finale can be seen on YouTube)…3 double basses and 4 cellos…lumpy, flat phrasing punctuated by unpleasant swells and ugly, bulging accents…no vibrato whatsoever…horns, winds and timpani cutting dominating the strings…the players bearing self-satisfied smirks in mimicry of their mutant leader at the podium, who had all of the dignity and aristocratic charm of a deformed gnome.

    It was sweaty, ugly, and crass. And it was the Berlin Philharmonic.

    If we can’t even get decent Mozart in Berlin, what hope do we have left?


    • The older recordings…and Adam Fischer’s recent set of the complete Mozart Symphonies. He said he believed in correct musical style but NOT historically-informed straight tone. And yet the set was finished and released, perhaps a good sign that at least a few record producers still have good taste.

      But you’re right, indoctrinated conductors are bringing this nonsense to prestigious orchestras as well. Part of the solution, of course, would be to perform more recent and contemporary music. After all, we are living in 2017, not 1785.


    • Geir Øyvind Eskeland says:

      TEDNANCY, I am sorry for my inadequate English. TEDNANCY, quote: “no vibrato whatsoever…” Why do you ask for vibrato? We know this for sure: Neither Wolfgang or his father Leopold wanted continous vibrato. Leopold wrote about it in his violinschool, and Wolfgang in a letter to his father.


  3. Jonathan O'Brien says:

    I’m a violinist. The violin needs some type of vibrato. Of instruments with sustained tone only the bagpipe and clarinet are truly suited to straight tone (and maybe some types of dry accordion tone). It just goes with the tone production of the violin. I enjoyed reading what you wrote, Lynn. You are so right and what you wrote needs to be said. To hell with most of HIP music. God came to the earth as a man and that’s the spiritual mystery in a nutshell. To play music well we have to play it like human beings … not strange robots trying to make some type of ethereal music of the spheres that no one can relate to. Music should be like human speech – it should have a natural human warmth to it. Like you say, listen to Joachim play Bach.


    • FV says:

      I’m a violinist. I play 17th century music by holding my instrument on the chest, so I have to actually hold the instrument with my left hand, and therefore can’t use the modern vibrato technique (with the index finger “leaving” the neck). I use instead finger vibrato (which can’t really be continuous) as well as different bow speeds, bow vibrato and ornaments to make the notes expressive. Is using such a wide toolbox of expressive devices against “human speech”, and should I therefore go back to good old non-question-asking vibrato? Am I a “strange robot trying to make some type of ethereal music of the spheres that no one can relate to”?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Apparently you don’t extrapolate much from what I wrote. You can either choose to use a fast, quick vibrato all of the time, alternate a quick vibrato with a somewhat wider one on long-held notes, or alternate no vibrato with some vibrato on held notes. Any of these three choices would be fine.


    • Geir Øyvind Eskeland says:

      JONATHAN O’BRIEN, I am sorry for my inadequate English. I can not stand the vibrato, it sounds awful! Therefore I need HIP-performances. There is no need for vibrato if the violin has a colorful sound, and the violinist are able to improvise ornaments.


  4. Jonathan O'Brien says:

    Music is an aural art and not a thing that can be learned purely from what has been written. The words of history can help us, carefully used, but can also lead us into a trap of untruth if we are selective in what we take note of. Frankly, as many who’ve done their time in universities know, academia can be an ass.

    Truly, HIP is a newly-invented ‘academic’ performance style or world of taste in music – an attempt at re-invention of the wheel. It is a result of post-modernism. It’s how a certain type likes to see the world and life. That’s fine; and if people want it, let them pay for it. But let us acknowledge, like the article above admirably points out, that it isn’t a true historical style of performance at all. It is a modern contemporary style that is being forced onto music by dryly academic, career-advancing motivations. If you want an honest, ‘early’ sound of music you will simply have to go back to our earliest recordings. There is no other way to attain a concept of an early sound.

    Also, specifically regarding string playing, there is so much garbage written and said in lectures about instruments of the Baroque era. How the violin was played delicately with a thin, light bow and was tuned to A415. The truth is there is an enormous amount that is simply not known, and a lot of guessing and currently-fashionable supposition made out to be canonical truth. If you want to learn from the written words then take careful note of the main point on tone made by early writers like Quantz and Leopold Mozart: they are basically saying “Make the biggest, thickest, warmest sound on your instrument as you possibly can.” And look at the etchings in Leopold Mozart’s book on the violin. The bow is huge in comparison to the violin. It is not a spindly, anemic-looking little thing like today’s so-called, rigidly-defined, ‘academy standard’ “Baroque bow.” What a joke.

    And vibrato was used in the earlier days. Read Geminiani. The writers back then warned against overdoing it, and that is still common advice today. Vibrato was simply termed ‘in a vocal style’. No vibrato at all on violin can lead to a tight left hand. Vibrato also serves to help project the sound and play with a louder tone – the same reason a singer uses it, and also to beautify or sweeten the sound. Sure, if you’re a bowed string player and don’t want to use it at all, that’s fine. Good for you. But don’t dictate to others how they should sound in order to be legitimate and ‘real’ in playing early music. That is not true. Same goes for conductors, and even ‘historically informed’ audiences. Don’t imagine you are more virtuous or historical for preferring no vibrato. If you feel that way, you’re deceiving yourself. Truth is important.


    • You are the dodos, because your concept of opera is brainless, just as they were. You can’t justify even ONE of these moronic productions to me. I don’t want to watch opera to learn what the director’s psychosis of the month is.


  5. David Jansson says:

    Every composer lives, developes and creates in his or her time and is influenced by and reacts to the accomplishments of earlier generations. He or she can not, however, imagine future soundscapes from several generations ahead. Thus, the composers intentions are found closer to how he/she or the musicians of that time performed their pieces. Many factors are at play, that affect how the music sounds and what it conveys;
    -Expected ornamentation

    Now, I firmly believe that everyone is at liberty to play whatever music in whatever fashion that pleases them and their audience. Bach on a Steinway grand, Bach on Moog synthesizers as well as Bach on a period harpsichord tuned to proper temperament.

    But, it’s always a good idea to try to explore the sources first. To see what may be hidden between the lines in the scores. If the composer still lives you can simply ask about performance tips or requests, but regarding those from the past you must do it the HIP-way, throgh academic research, theoretical and practical. This requires effort and time, but will always be rewarding. And pays respect as well as tribute to the composer in question.

    Once you know the rules, you may break them. This applies to learning any classical artform, or when getting a drivers licence for that matter.

    When you’ve come as close as you possibly can, then switch on that Moog…

    //David Jansson


    • So explain to me why no one today can play Bartok’s music the way Bartok did or conduct Ravel’s Bolero the way Ravel did, even though we have RECORDINGS to tell us how. On top of which, the argument in favor of consistent straight tone is bogus. It never happened in the 18th century except among INFERIOR orchestras that audiences hated to listen to,


  6. David Jansson says:

    Well, only Bartok could play Bartok’s music exactly the way Bartok did. That is why us musicians today have to approach his works through the available sources. Luckily, in the case of Bartok there is plenty. He is part of a generation that was more comfortable with recordings, than those born in the first half of the 19th century. We can listen and learn. The recording quality was also improving in the 30’s and 40’s. He gives very precise notation and instructions in his scores. A few people that met him may still be alive. The colleagues of his have left valuable documentation.

    My point and basic approach is the very same, regardless of time period; come as close to the composers intentions, then do as you please. Some things you find in your research will stick, and some won’t.

    Another factor is regional variation, which was much greater in the 18th century than now or in Bartoks time. This goes for vibrato. And by the way, in the sources many different types of vibrato are discussed, far more than the modern musicians apply. The founders of ”modern” performance practise, after the great wars are more uniform in playing. Joseph Joachim, born in the 1830’s, premiered the violin concerto by Brahms. He was also a very prominent teacher and wrote in his printed violin treatise that the straight tone is the regular one. Vibrato is considered a colouring or ornament, which goes for practically any string instrument treatise of the 19th century. The earlier Geminiani was different, as mentioned, but again using heavy gauge open gut strings and only letting your hand vibrate is quite different.

    As a violinist I am a bit disturbed by the fact that big names such as Heifetz did not care about research in a practical or musicological manner. Many things get lost in the process. The same thing goes for repertoire. If you dig deeper you will find a far better context and very exciting stylistic connections, not to mention some fantastic music that has been unknown to the general public. Bach’s Air or Eine kleine Nachtmusik are not bad but somewhat worn out.

    I should also point out the fact that playing with 17th or early 18th century gear is an eye opener, in my case open gut strings and convex clip in bows. That is what they used back then, we know that much. Some passages are virtually unplayable with a modern screw mechanism bow. Like I said, you must try to learn what can be learned and then you’re free to discard it. Applied musicology if you will. The aforementioned Joachim also played on open gut strings, at least on e and a, as did practically all string musicians until the early 20th century. It changes the sound, that is simply the case.

    Reinhard Goebel tried to find ”the true performance” for over three decades with his Musica Antiqua Köln and now conducts modern orchestras. That is respect, in my humble opinion!


    Liked by 1 person

    • Reinhard Goebel was a GREAT conductor, as were Stefan Mai, Gustav Leonhardt, Helmuth Rilling and Michael Gielen, but only Leonhardt used constant straight tone in his performances. My point is that the teaching of historically-informed performance practices is not only flawed but often incorrect. And there is no reason why “only Bartok could play his own music like him.” If you work hard enough at anything, you will achieve your ends.


  7. David Jansson says:

    An interesting example is the Sevcik Lhotsky quartet that recorded in the 1920’s, music by Dvorak and Smetana. In the case of Smetana they use a fair amount of vibrato;

    But in Dvorak they play very straight;

    The portamenti are quite extreme and the major thirds are very pure overall. Would I play that way? Not exactly, but some things undeniably add to the flavour. The gut strings give a nice touch though, with distinct articulation and rich in overtones. And they play very fast and make a few cuts, because oft he limitations of old records.

    I don’t think that neither Dvorak nor Smetana gives vibrato instructions. But the composers mentioned in previous posts, namely Bartok and Ravel do. Ravel in his string quartet explicitly instructs (only) the second violin to use vibrato in one short passage in the first movement. Tchaikovsky does the same in his F major quartet, op. 22. Bartok on the other hand tells the performers of his quartets to play ”non vibrato” as an effect at times and then gives a call when to switch back to ”vibrato” again. That is an interesting difference in what the composer expects of his performers.



  8. John Butler says:

    I think that HIP, when properly handled, can cast older music in a new light. I agree that overdoing it can take away from the music its emotional effects and some of what many think is the beauty of the sound. For myself, I don’t want J.S. Bach played by Glenn Gould on a piano, accompanied by huffing and puffing, or even without the latter. Would anyone dare play Chopin or Liszt on a harpsichord? I can’t comment on much that has been said above because I am no music scholar, but can we ever actually know exactly what Haydn’s or Handel’s music sounded like when they were alive? HIP (assuming they’re actually reading Geminiani, Leopold Mozart and others) is surely just a good/ intelligent approximation, isn’t it? If it pretends to be more, it’s merely academic or pretentious. I wish I could come up with a more informed opinion of the article, which I enjoyed thoroughly for its passionate conviction even if I wasn’t entirely convinced. This is a conversation all genuine classical music lovers should have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So why do so many musicians play JS Bach on a modern piano? I suppose Glenn Gould established his own personal histiorically-informed tradition, eh? And why do string players refuse to use vibrato on sustained notes? They’ve been doing that since the 18th century. And why don’t singers develop singing methods and techniques that emulate those of the singers who originally sang certain roles? There are just too many holes in the HIP doctrine that are ignored, but I do agree that a few groups and musicians “do it right.”


      • John Butler says:

        Of course, you’re right about vibrato in C18, but I’ve even heard it in C17 music played on modern instruments. You probably know this anyway, but there are several singers who actually study what is known about their predecessors’ styles of singing (I have some CDs of them) and come up with interesting results. I think Vivica Genaux has done it, and Cecilia Bartoli, amongst others. As for Glenn Gould. . .well, no further comment on that one, except to add Angela Hewitt as another Bach pianist who deserves condign punishment. But she plays great Chopin! In the end, I’m rather ambivalent about people playing music written after about 1780 on modern pianos (sometimes I’ll take it any way I can get it that’s affordable), and confess to owning Murray Perahia’s set of Mozart piano concertos as well as Jeno Jando’s Haydn sonatas. I do recollect (I believe correctly) that J.S. Bach wasn’t too keen on the state of the art Cristofori instruments that Frederick the Great showed him, but just because Bach used the term “Klavier” doesn’t mean his pieces should be played on just any old “keyboard” handy, such as a synthesiser (I would have shot Wendy Carlos) or an electric harpsichord/ piano.


      • Tom Huygens says:

        Historically informed? I would call Gould many things, but historically informed is not one of them. Even informed as such seems a stretch.
        When Bach wrote a gigue or a menuet, those movements were named so for a reason. They were existing dances, with specific rhythms and tempi. You can’t just ignore that. When Rachmaninov asks for an allegro, you don’t play it slowly either.


      • Tom Huygens says:

        So you acknowledge that Gould deliberately ignores the wishes of the composer? You call that “a new tradition”, I call that respectless and lack of musicianship.


      • Hey Tom, try listening to the MUSIC instead of the PERFORMANCE PRACTICE. Does any jazz musician today play the old repertoire with the klunky, out-of-tune instruments of their forebears? And stop trying to tell me that jazz is different. It’s not,. It’s music, and music is meant to sound enjoyable. Only a little of the HIP practice is enjoyable to my ears. Not one conductor as ever managed to equal Karl Richter’s recordings of Bach’s sacred cantatas, which did not use straight tone or whiny little choirs. ‘Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results.


      • Tom Huygens says:

        If you don’t realize that Bach is not jazz, just like Schubert is not Rachmaninov or Ella Fitzgerald is not Rossini, you’re just proving to us that you have no clue of what you are talking about.

        You are yelling and ranting in an extremely aggressive and rude manner, about things clearly above your level. It’s sad to read. Very sad.

        PS ask any mathematician out there… Well tempered tuning is actually the less tuned out there. Apart from octaves, not a single interval is tuned pure, they are all out of tune. Go figure…


      • Oh my God, your brain can’t make an analogy. Besides the fact that Clifford Brown’s improvisations are as brilliant as Bach’s or that even the most sophisticated classical pianists often admit that Art Tatum could play rings around them, it’s the historicity of the thing. C.P.E. Bach said that his father often (but not always) used HUGE forces when he conducted his cantatas at St. Thomas Church, and we know that he often went on “organ tours” of other churches just so he could play the most up-to-date instrument with all the stops he didn’t have on that little wheezebag he played in his church. You’re just a culture snob. There’s no hope for you.


  9. FV says:

    So, in brief, because so many ensembles are not taking the use of historical informations seriously (by conveniently ignoring what doesn’t fit their agenda), it means… the whole HIP movement is a fraud? People are doing it badly, so the whole thing is bad? I don’t get this kind of argumentation. I see it many, many times, but I still don’t get it. Those interpretations are “incomplete” precisely because they don’t use the sources in their entirety. They create a weak, non-working interpretation by taking a pinch of historical informations and stuff the rest with random elements, creating conflicts and incoherences everywhere, that they will have to resolve with even more compromises, ending in a dysfunctional monster, like a failed genetic manipulation. The solution to this is, to my opinion, either to give up HIP completely, or to dive in as radically as possible. The “half-HIP” aesthetic is an absurdity, but its first victims are not the “modern” players: they are those who try to do HIP with honesty and passion.

    Also you should try to find a time machine to go back to 2020 from the late 70s you’re apparently trapped in: I’ve been studying early music for years (and quite recently), and had several lessons on vibrato, improvisation, relativity of pitch, analysis of early 20th century recordings and other such topics. I’ve seen one of the baroque violin teachers of one of the most prestigious HIP institutions give a lecture in a big Symposium on how the “modern baroque” aesthetic has little to do with actual historically informed performance. No one teaches “straight tone”, “authenticity”, playing everything at 415, etc anymore. This is completely, utterly irrelevant. If the situation is getting better in HIP schools, but stubborn and ignorant people still fantasize about debates that have been closed for decades, what can we do?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, now, aren’t you full of academic blather. As comedian Jack Pearl used to say, “Vas you dere, Sharlie?” No, you vasn’t, and neither vas I, but the people who wrote about performance practices at that time were, and the majority of them agree with me.


  10. Robert Berger says:

    Interesting article which makes a lot of good points . Bartok indicates in certain passages of his works such as the string quartets – senza vibrato , which is because he wanted a special effect .
    Also, there have been some HIP performances and recordings of Wagner’s music, such as Norrington’s album of overtures and preludes , which is OK but in no way preferable to the recordings of such Wagnerian greats as Furtwangler, Kanppartsbusch, Solti, Karajan and others .
    A live performance of Der Fliegende Hollander with a small period orchestra of only boy 55 players has been released on a label I can’t recall. I haven’t heard it but would certainly like to .
    On youtube, there is video of a period instrument Das Rheingold with Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment . Interesting, but the orchestra doesn’t sound very different at all from the great orchestras of Vienna, Berlin, the Met, Dresden and Munich et al .
    Recently , the French HIP group “Les Siecles ” under Francois Xavier Roth has released “HIP ” recordings of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and even music by Debussy, Ravel, Mussorgsky/Ravel ( Pictures ) , and even Also Sprach Zarathustra ! , and these and their live performances are on youtube now . Joe van Immerseel has actually released HIP recording of Carmina Burana ! and Gershwin ! If you want an authentic Carmina , listen to the classic recording conducted by Eugen Jochum , supervised and approved by Carl Orff .


  11. John Butler says:

    I suppose in the end it boils down to the old cliche– taste. I never liked Beethoven until I heard HIP performances; modern instruments made it sound heavy and ponderous, but one can’t deny the musicianship of people like Bernstein or Beecham when they conduct performances of older music. Bernstein’s live version of Haydn’s “Missa in tempore belli” is absolutely riveting, although I own the HIP version on Naxos. I have Jochum’s “Carmina Burana,” and you are quite correct, but even Gershwin playing Gershwin doesn’t do anything for me, I’m afraid. He is simply not to my taste. And I’d still like to shoot Glenn Gould for playing Bach on a piano.


  12. Thomas Hewn says:

    That’s the best bloody write-up on this subject that I’ve had the pleasure of reading! But – alas – the damage is done, and nothing will eradicate such a massive and thoroughly assimilated dose of dope!


    • Thank you. As you can see from the replies, I have been ambushed by the brainwashed HIP crowd. Hopefully, after I am dead and gone (which won’t be too many more years, thank goodness), some balance and sanity will come back to classical music performance. After all, these things seem to move in 30-year cycles.


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