Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How to be HIP

I am blessed with some very wise commentors, so let me take up the conversation about my last post, which delved into the problem of authenticity, and expand a bit. Whereas with the two posts on "Depths and Dimness" I was trying to strike a cautionary note, here let me take a different tack.

The whole project of expanding our horizons outside of the music of our immediate surrounds and present time has been an incredibly fruitful one. What Mendelssohn started in 1829 by reviving Bach's St Matthew Passion, has expanded to include not only the music of Europe going back a millenium, but also to the few scraps we have of ancient music and the music of other cultures as well--not to mention music from the folk traditions of Bulgaria, Romania and so on. As long as we bear in mind that we will inevitably see things from where we are standing, we are so much richer for it.

My anonymous commentor brought up the idea of "historically informed performance" (HIP). Yes, we just might get an inkling about how differently music was performed in the past if we study the past. One of the first things that was noticed was that the instruments have changed. The revival of the harpsichord, which has been going on for nearly a century, now is an accomplished fact. There are harpsichord builders in many places and many fine professional harpsichordists and teachers and programs. We can purchase innumerable recordings of the complete works of Rameau and Couperin and many others performed by many different players. Playing on the harpsichord, it is felt, helps get "into the skin" of the musicians of the Baroque and helps us to sense how the music might have been played at the time. The same is true of the lute, the viola da gamba and a host of other instruments. Before I go any further, let's listen to a wonderful Baroque performance:

That is going to be so, so different if played on cello and piano. It is also interesting that some pianists are playing harpsichord music on piano with rather a different sensibility than they would have before our ears were filled with the sound of the harpsichord:

As my commentor said: HIP HIP hooray!

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