Early Music and Historically Informed Performance Practice

Introduction to Historically Informed Performance Practice

flute player (probably Hotteterre)


What is historical performance? And why should we spend time studying and making sense of the historical source materials?

The sources provide many ideas to help performers today enrich and enliven their performances, to improve and refresh what they do.

My critical translation of Hotteterre’s flute treatise and some of his other writings presents (or restores) important evidence.

I also interpret (or demystify) the evidence in a commentary on the translations and the issues raised in them.

Author: Greg Dikmans

The study of performance practice

During the 1980s numerous writings appeared which look critically at the state of research into what has been termed historical performance practice (Dreyfus, Kerman, Kenyon, Haskell). In particular they discuss the problems associated with authenticity—what is it? is it achievable? is it relevant to the modern performer?—and the research methods used to attain it. They provide reviews of the progress of the Early Music movement/revival from its beginnings around the turn of the [twentieth] century to the present day and place the study of performance practice within the context of this revival. They examine the stage that has been reached and offer ideas and methods for how to continue.

A number of them are critical of the ‘positivist’ (Kerman) or ‘objectivist’ (Dreyfus) goal of amassing more and more facts. This approach was aimed at providing the “scientific” support for the concept of a “code of performance” of universal applicability ‘into which the score need only be plugged to set the music aglow with authenticity’ (Fuller: 117). It becomes clear that the empiricist methodology by itself is unhelpful in the study of performance practice. Laurence Dreyfus believes that a new approach should acknowledge that

historical performance … [is] an evolving and necessarily incomplete paradigm rather than a set of documented index cards set atop inferences culled from freshman logic texts (Dreyfus: 313).

But what is historical performance? Richard Taruskin is convinced that

“historical” performance today is not really historical; that a thin veneer of historicism clothes a performance style that is completely of our own time, and is in fact the most modern style around (Taruskin: 152).

Nevertheless he sees value for the modern musician in the study of historical evidence:

Really talented performers are always curious, and curious performers will always find what they need in the sources and theorists—what they need being ways of enriching and enlivening what they do (Taruskin: 203).

It is not the elimination of personal choice from performance [achieved by following the ‘rules’ to the letter and to the exclusion of all else thus clearing away accretions] that real artists desire, but its improvement and refreshment. And for this purpose original instruments, historical treatises, and all the rest have proven their value (Taruskin: 206).

The problem, then, is how best to proceed with the study of the performance of Early Music or indeed any performance style. First the essential distinction, implied in the preceding discussion, needs to be made between (historical) performance practice—research into how Early Music was performed by its contemporaries—and the performance of Early Music by modern performers.

Dreyfus discusses the problem in philosophical terms, regarding Early Music (and the study of performance practice which underpins it) as a ‘classical hermeneutic activity, in that it attempts to ferret out meanings hidden beneath the surface’ (Dreyfus: 321). He considers two poles of hermeneutics: the first takes the restoration of meaning as its goal (the ‘objectivist’ stance), the second attempts a demystification of meaning. He concludes that

Early Music cannot do without both modes of interpretation—restoration and critique—if it is to signify beyond a dead past and point to an idiom not yet invented (Dreyfus: 322).

David Fuller, in expressing a viewpoint shared by many scholars and performers, is more down to earth and practical. He notes the very different results obtained by some of the world’s leading exponents of Baroque music. These are performers

who piece together the documents and fill the lacunae with interpretation and conjecture. The results are variable, the music they know best being most successful (Fuller: 119).

He argues that the Early Music performer needs to revise his expectations, that he ‘expects too much if he thinks he can penetrate a dozen contrasting styles to the same depth as the one-track musician’ (Fuller: 119). His advice is to try to imitate the

few practitioners of Baroque music who do specialize, who do confine themselves to a narrow range of styles and who steep themselves, morning and night, not only in the music but everything that engendered and surrounded it. Of course they master the documents, but far more importantly they let the music and the instruments teach them everything they can. And they produce and produce. It is they who come closest to the music of the past by duplicating in a very real way, the experience of the old musicians who also lived with this same repertory (Fuller: 119-120).

This approach has much to recommend it and has produced many fine and convincing performances. However Fuller’s final statement takes it one step too far: a modern performer can never duplicate ‘in a very real way’ the experience of the old musicians and in attempting to do he fails to recognize that

at each stage [of the process of studying and making sense of the sources and the application of that study] his own contribution is that of a contemporary (i.e. 20th-century) musician, subject to the assumptions and tastes of his time’ (Leech-Wilinson: 13).

The performance practice of early 18th-century French flute music

My thesis addresses the need for specialised and critical study of historical performance practice undertaken by experienced exponents of specific repertoire using appropriate instruments. This approach is embodied in the ideal of the scholar-performer who can bring both objective and subjective insights to such a study.

I will not be proposing a code of performance that is relevant to all Baroque music, or to all French Baroque music, or even necessarily to all French Baroque flute music. Rather my aim is to reach a clearer understanding of how one particular performer, Jacques Hotteterre, approached the performance of his own music.

In doing so I hope to provide scholars with more accurate and detailed information than has been available to date, which can be then be used to inform their debates on performance practice. I also hope to provide practical help for the flute player (of both baroque and modern flute) who wishes to play Hotteterre’s music.

We are in a much more fortunate position in such a study than with, for example, the study of the performance style of J.S. Bach (see Fuller: f.n. 1, 139-140). Hotteterre was active as a composer, theorist, teacher, performer and instrument maker. Happily much of the relevant source materials relating to these activities have survived:

  • there is the music he wrote, published in beautiful and accurate engravings;
  • his three pedagogical works and the Avertissement to his first book of flute suites (Op. 2), which deal with the flute, recorder, oboe, musette and various aspects of performance practice;
  • and, no less importantly, a number of instruments which were made either by him or another member of his family.

The thesis comprises two main parts:

  1. The presentation (or restoration) of the evidence in a new critical translation of Hotteterre’s Principes de la flûte traversière and the Avertissement to Op. 2., as well as relevant sections from his other writings.
  2. The interpretation (or demystification) of the evidence in a commentary on the translations and the issues raised in them.