Playing with history: HIP


Having belatedly educated myself about the HIP (“Historically Informed Performance”) movement (in which I played a modest role) by reading Richard Taruskin, I now continue to learn by reading

  • John Butt, Playing with history: the historical approach to musical performance (2002).

I recommend this informed review by Bernard Sherman (another perceptive figure in early music scholarship), so below I’ll just cite a few points that interest me in my various hats (for one of which, see here).

I’ve already mentioned Butt’s thoughts on performing the Bach Passions, as well as related posts like Bach and Daoist ritual and Alternative Bach.

Indeed, among all the sources that Butt assesses he is closest to the ideas of Taruskin, expanding on them perceptively and less polemically. But he also rigorously unpacks the views of a wide range of pundits on both sides of the notional fence, surveying the HIP tendency in the broad context of 20th-century (and earlier) social and political change, philosophy, architecture, the Globe Theatre project, and the Heritage movement. So this is a far wider topic than “mere” music.

He begins with Hindemith and Adorno. The latter

sees the fledgling movement to restore older instruments and performance practices as part of a wider cultural malaise in the wake of the depersonalizing forces of industrialism and late capitalism.

Adorno was

surprisingly accurate in diagnosing a move away from the culture of progress and ever-renewing modernity towards one based more on restoration and recycling.

He related the early music culture to totalitarian politics, regarding baroque music as a form of levelling mediocrity. But as Butt counters,

The various forms of historical restoration, of which HIP is an obvious component, are, I believe, an “authentic” expression of our contemporary cultural condition bringing new experiences and insights into our world.

He moves on to discuss the writings of Laurence Dreyfus (predating Taruskin’s crucial insight on the present significance of HIP) and Robert Morgan.

By overthrowing accepted models of musical taste, HIP threatens many of the supposed certainties of civilised society. Indeed critics both of the avant-garde and of HIP analyse the phenomena as though they were pathological disorders.

Butt notes that HIP’s early prescriptive “counter-cultural” stress (equality of members, under no conductor, avoiding virtuosity) didn’t always tally with early social realities. Morgan characterized the growth of the movement by “an extraordinary degree of insecurity, uncertainty, and self-doubt—in a word, by anxiety”, along with an increasing diversity in compositional style and multi-culturalism. Such a view suggests that

with no purposes of our own we can no longer interpret the past, only passively reconstruct it within the culture of the museum.

While the HIP scholar/performer typically wishes to return performance to a lost Eden, Morgan, in turn, laments the loss of an age in which stylistic difference was unnoticed owing to the strength of one’s own tradition. Both these facets of the past are, of course, equally unrecoverable.

So Butt is more optimistic:

The interest in past music and practices, far from signifying a failure in the present condition, might actually reflect the luxurious possibilities opened up by modernity.

The opening up of historical context implied by the very venture of HIP (and anything else connected with the culture of “Heritage” and restoration) does not automatically bring with it, or enforce, the original political connotation.

Butt debunks the false dichotomy between History and Heritage, and reflects on issues involved in the restoration of paintings, criticizing the work of Peter Kivy and Roger Scruton’s nostalgic yearnings for an aristocratic order (YAY!).

While even a putative recreation of the “sound” of early music cannot recreate its effect on the historical listener, HIP opens up more possibilities to experience it in new, challenging ways. Far from the clichéd criticisms of the “objectivist” drabness of HIP, plenty of performers use improvisation, and one might argue that

there is now generally more freedom and latitude in interpretation within HIP than in virtually all “mainstream” performances within living memory.

Butt cites Michelle Dulak:

The “vinegar” that record reviewers once found in “period” violin tone has turned to honey in the hands of the latest generation of players… this new sound-quality is not just a retreat towards “mainstream” ideals, but a distinct new timbre, gentler than the “modern” string sound, more plaintive and more resonant, more suggestive of the physical gestures of performance.

He notes that

it is impossible to predict how any particular ideology of HIP will influence the quality of the resulting performance. […]
It is clear that the best performers are excellent because of their insights and talents as performers, not necessarily because they are good historians in the professional sense.

After exploring Werktreue and the “composer’s intention” in Chapters 2 and 3, in chapter 4 Butt unpacks notation. As HIP studies themselves show, notation makes an imperfect guide to practice. Butt rewrites the history of “notational progress”. The tendency since the 19th century for the composer to exercise increasing control over both notation and performance has earlier antecedents. But today, just like “mainstream” musicians (and unlike earlier ones), HIP performers add markings (bowings, dynamics, even fingerings) to their parts in rehearsal. Even in the early decades of the 20th century, orchestral bowings were still not standardized, although some baroque composers had prescribed it.

Notation may be purposely incomplete, encouraging alternative renditions (an obvious instance being the figured bass). It may serve as a “fitted suit”, as is the case even with Italian opera. Notation may merely offer the performer one particular possibility rather than an immutable ideal—Robert Levin’s brilliant interpretations of Mozart are a salient instance. Much liturgical organ music, too, “represents models of an improvisational art by famous masters”. Notation may also not be the starting-point but the result of a performing tradition: Butt adduces not only Gregorian chant but also Messiaen’s Messe de la Pentecôte (1950—WOW!):

According to the composer himself, this was the product of over twenty years improvising at the church of Saint Trinité and the energy expended on its notated composition was such that the composer ceased to improvise for several years subsequently.

Butt’s thoughts on early repertoires, in which memory played a far greater role, may lead us to consider notation in other parts of the world, like China, where oral tradition is dominant and notation of minor importance, serving largely as an aid to memory.

Indeed, he notes affinities with ethnomusicology (for some sources, see here). Citing Bernard Sherman’s Inside early music: conversations with performers, he notes:

Some of those interviewed treat their field somewhat like ethnomusicologists trying to understand a foreign culture. […]

It cannot be fortuitous, I believe, that HIP and ethnomusicology flourish at the same time; a sense of cultural disorientation is assuaged by trying to ascertain something certain about the past and by trying to assimilate an entirely “other” culture.

Butt refers to the inspiration that early-music performers (perhaps we might say early early-early-music performers) like Barbara Thornton have taken from “primitive” singing traditions (cf. Jordi Savall, and do read Benjamin Bagby’s thoughts here). While this certainly applies to the medieval branch of the scene, generally I find a latent rather than explicit kinship between the two disciplines.

Chapter 5 provides a useful tour of the knotty issues of modernism and post-modernism, adducing a wide range of post-industrial cultural manifestations including the Arts and Crafts movement.

Butt’s stimulating final chapter takes its title from Lucy Lippiard’s definition of retrochic:

  • “A reactionary wolf in countercultural sheep’s clothing”?—historical performance, the heritage industry and the politics of revival.

Not only does he point out antecedents earlier in the 20th century, he shows that the tendency goes back much further in history.

It’s topical to read his account of Solesmes—“the most spectacular musical revival of the 19th century”, central to the restoration of Notre Dame and other movements following a threat to the French sense of historicity in the aftermath of the Revolution. Butt finds still earlier instances in Germany and England. Despite the growth of HIP following the disruption of war, Butt finds the whole phenomenon more complex than the “trauma thesis”. He gives illuminating instances from architecture, along with the preservationist debate, and cites Lowenthal’s The past is a foreign country. He comments:

The outcry in England over the demolition of a 1930s Firestone factory in 1979 could not have been greater had the threatened object been a prehistoric monument.

This reminds me of Molvania:

With a keen eye to period detail, this disused building has been painstakingly restored to its original form. Why the owners of Spakiegjo bothered is a mystery, as the place was only built 12 years ago and used to be a video rental shop.

Following World War Two,

Many German city centres were rebuilt with varying degrees of fidelity to the originals. Western European planners who had not experienced such a degree of cultural trauma saw such measures as perversely nostalgic. To many, the large bombed sites gave an opportunity to get rid of unpleasant memories.

Modern urban planning is symptomatic of the complexities that bedevil the entire heritage industry, where “liberal causes are easily converted to conservative ends and vice versa.” Again, Butt relates this to HIP.

The British destruction of both country houses and vernacular architecture (such as the lesser Georgian houses of Bath) happened on an unprecedented scale during the 1950s and early 60s. The national stock of country houses was reduced by 10%, and the general demolition of pre-20th-century buildings far exceeded anything that German bombing had achieved.

But he goes on to qualify the causes of the heritage phenomenon and the subculture of HIP. Under “Heritage as cultural decline and pessimism” he observes:

The critique that historicist architecture is often too uniform, that ancient city centres are all too frequently decked out with the same cobblestones and Victorian light fittings, contains more than a grain of truth, exactly as many of us have observed the uniformity and levelling of interpretation that characterises a large proportion of historical performances. But it is surely wrong to assume in consequence that this is the essential “mainstream” of historicist movements and that any exceptions to the levelling rule are happy accidents.

Butt discusses the contrast within preservation movements between overly “clean” restorations and those that attempt to fabricate the patina of age. But he also observes:

A seemingly perfect copy of an historic instrument—or a reconstructed theatre—is not, by its very nature, going to force the performer to play in a sterile manner (or in a particularly “authentic” manner, for that matter).

The HIP enterprise may be seen as

a starting point for experimentation, an opening of options that could not have been envisaged, rather than a form of closure that more strictly delimits the definition of a work or repertoire.

Arguing for the insights afforded by performance, Butt comments:

Professional history not only tends to fetishize the written record but it also tends to be practised in complete detachment from the material environment.

He disputes the romantic concept that “invented traditions” are somehow inferior to continuous ones.

A stimulating final section concerns “heritage as reactionary politics”, probing whether the original political context is necessarily part of the restored form.

The argument against the preservation and recreation of context is based on two beliefs that can be held separately, but —more often than not—intertwine. The first is the familiar modernist view that considers context to be irrelevant to art that is truly great, and the second is the view that the context brings with it the political implications of the original situation and thus evidences a reactionary stance and prolongs a backward political system.

Heritage movements have often had conservative agendas, but again the picture is complex.

Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement originated as a radical and socialist movement, but it attracted many who did not share Morris’s politics, such as Tories who saw in Old England not an ideal egalitarian utopia untarnished by industrialization but an organic social herarchy.

The early (and folk) music movement evolving at just that time had a similar range of supporters, from the high Tory Hubert Parry to the Fabian Cecil Sharp. Butt cites Richard Luckett, who observed that the movement

proved equally attractive to reactionary traditionalists, to liberal socialist waverers such as Rupert Brooke […] and to dogmatic believers in the virtues of anything that appeared to emanate from the common people.

In Germany national heritage was appropriated by the Nazis, which accounts for the comparatively slow growth of the HIP movement there until the 1960s.

Several figures within HIP, as it stands at the beginning of the new century, seem purposely or otherwise to embofy the political context of the music with which they are most closely associated: one hardly needs to name [Oh go on!] conductors who are neo-aristocrats in the Netherlands and Austria, absolute monarchists in France, and self-proclaimed enlightened despots in England.


It is equally easy to find counter-cultural figures in early music, those who espouse environmental movements and those who see HIP as specifically the venue for democratised music-making. […] But the point begins to emerge that HIP may well be able to turn the autonomous musical work into an “ensemble” of historical elements without the original system of values necessarily emerging. Our bourgeois ability to abstract an artwork from its context thus still seems to work, even if a few aspects of that original context have been retrospectively added to the field surrounding the phenomenon identified as the work.

Butt further explores the complexities of the Heritage movement as it has evolved since the Thatcher era. As heritage products and HIP recordings and performances became economically profitable, “nicely thwarting the anti-modern motives of many within the movements”,

Heritage became, by definition, an element of the new conservatism which espoused anything that made a profit in the free market. […] In other words, it is the wider economic system, not a hidden reactionary elite, that lies behind the success of Heritage.

After a final tirade against Scruton, Butt stresses:

To believe that older artworks, buildings, and practices inevitably repeat or prolong past injustices is to take a monolithic view of meaning that is simply evaporating before our eyes.

The complaints of those resisting HIP founder on the assumption that musical expression is eternal and universal. But the scene keeps evolving, and it’s far from monolithic.

These movements arise from a contemporary need that is both real and vital. But in the face of all the traditional epistemological objections to reconstructing the past “as it really was”, it is clear that they cannot return us to some prelapsarian state. Nevertheless, the notion of the uncomplicated restoration of past performance practice is paradoxically both erroneous and prodigiously productive.

Like Taruskin, Butt favours pluralism and belittles sanitized performance. His account is thoughtful, generous, and optimistic. In its enquiring style it rather reminds me of Janet Radcliffe Richards’s wonderful book The sceptical feminist, where by insisting on a rigorous philosophical analysis beyond facile ideology she confirms the case for feminism.

* * *

My own paltry experience may make a relevant footnote (for a suitably reserved view of my Chinese Goldberg Variations, see here). I entered the HIP scene simply as a performer (not an academic) because, at the time, it seemed more creative than many bland repetitious performances of the symphonic canon. We found we could make satisfying sounds on the instruments, and it seemed new, imaginative, and stimulating. Of course, this changed; as the scene lost some of its counter-cultural vibe, and it became more of a career choice than a lifestyle (which is not intrinsically to diminish it), a new orthodoxy emerged that could sometimes be as bland as the style from which we were fleeing (see here, and here). So what was our deeper “agenda”? As Butt notes, it wasn’t unified. And despite my concurrent involvement with fieldwork in China, I was hardly aware of the underlying links with ethnomusicology and politics.

Meanwhile in China, which has both continuous and invented traditions of its own, there is a certain vogue for “recreating” the music of the Tang dynasty; but such issues are barely on the agenda—neither performance practice nor all the wider social and political elements involved. And while some Chinese scholars have taken a critical approach to the heritage industry, romantic flapdoodle still reigns—as you can see from numerous posts under the heritage tag.