Whatever Happened to HIP?
Whatever Happened to HIP?
The views in this article – many of them gestating over a long period – have been inspired by my work as a specialist early music historian and critic. The word ‘specialist’ is significant, used not to imply superiority but rather to distinguish my approach from that of mainstream critics, who have rather different parameters. The very word ‘criticism’ is starting to sound old-fashioned and indeed I have been berated in print for referring to myself as a critic rather than a ‘reviewer’. The writer had a point. Genuine musical criticism is today a rare commodity, having been largely replaced by reviews that are at best often superficial and at worst ill-informed or mere reportage. Not that the blame lies wholly with those of us that pursue the craft. Music criticism (or reviewing!) is today a sadly tarnished occupation, generally allowed too little space to express itself in print and too much space on the Internet.
Many who have been a part of or who have followed closely the early music revival of the mid-20th century since its inception have noted in more recent years some disturbing trends. With the gradual inevitable loss of many of the outstanding scholar-performers of the early years of historical informed performance (HIP) has come a marked dwindling of the questing spirit that marked so strongly those first decades. Complaisance, or even active opposition to change, perhaps born of the movement's acceptance into the mainstream, has for too many become the order of the day. Gone is the questioning, the need to probe further. In this article I want to examine some of the ways in which I believe too many of today's early music performers lack the rigorous approach of their predecessors.
The One-Size-Fits-All Baroque Violin
(and Hole-less Trumpets)
If any single topic illustrates the lack of progress made by the period instrument movement it is the continued use of what we blithely term the Baroque violin, an all-purpose, gut (often wound) strung instrument used by most players for any music composed between around 1600 and the end of the following century. Yet over that period extensive changes involving instruments, bows and playing technique took place. For most of the 17th century violins had a lower bridge, used thicker strings with less tension and were played with shorter bows and in a position well below the shoulder. They produced a tangy sound, less brilliant than their successors, designed to fit into a consort with other string instruments, but equally suited to the virtuoso Italian violin music of the 17th century. One of the first widely-circulated recordings to demonstrate the value of using a correctly set-up instrument was the recording - issued some 25 years ago - of Biber's so-called 'Mystery' Sonatas by John Holloway, one of the great early pioneers of the period instrument revival. Yet despite the continuing reference value of that set and Holloway's subsequent recordings of similar repertoire, there have - with honourable exceptions - been few successors or emulators. This applies particularly to the Continent, where I'm not aware of any violinist or ensemble that has sought to experiment with 17th century playing styles; apologies to any performer(s) I wrong. Indeed, only recently I had the profoundly depressing experience of hearing an outstandingly gifted young violinist participating in the eeemerging early music competition at the Ambronay Festival playing 17th century Italian virtuoso repertoire on a generic 'Baroque' violin in a style more suited to Paganini than Marini. More depressing still was the fact that few in the hall evidently had any notion that what they were hearing bore little semblance to HIP, an impression enhanced by a rapturous reception and subsequent award of the audience prize.
That the all-inclusive 'Baroque' violin still exists asks questions not only of performers who for a variety of reasons have failed to respond to the challenge of using different instruments and different techniques, but to those who are (or should be) informed arbiters of taste - early music administrators and critics. A closely related topic is that of the hole-less or 'real' trumpet. Research here is perhaps less advanced and seems to be still confined to relatively few enthusiastic players. I'm not going into details here, since they are complex and in any event have been explained in a series of articles by Mike Diprose, a leading practitioner, with far more clarity (and wit) than I could hope to muster: [ Suffice it to say that the results of mastering these fiendish 'real' high clarino trumpets produces such a markedly darker, richer 'ensemble' sound that it is little short of astonishing that so few period instrument directors insist on employing trumpet players who have taken the trouble to master the demands of playing them.
Of Singers and Singing
Still the bane of HIP? Well, in some ways, yes, they are. Yet to be fair things have improved in some areas. There are now certainly far more singers with a mastery of many of the vocal techniques of the Baroque, among them a remarkable crop of countertenors with the capability of taking the dramatic roles that were once the province of the castrato. Today most singers attempting the repertoire can now sing rapid passaggi and ornamentation with precise articulation. However problems not only remain but we’ve created a few new ones along the way. The opening up of the repertoire has resulted in an increase in the number of 'mainstream' singers essaying it, too often singers whose control of vibrato is found wanting and who are incapable of restricting it to its legitimate use as an expressive device. There is, too, the eternal problem of singers who have not learned that excursions to the upper register do not involve an explosive increase in volume. During the Baroque period this fault in technique was widely criticised; in Observations on the Florid Song
(trans. London, 1743) the famous teacher Piero Tosi was quite clear on this point: 'Let him [the singer] take care, however, that the higher the Notes, the more it is necessary to touch them with Softness, to avoid Screaming'. Umm… But the biggest flaw of all remains the inability of the majority of singers to execute a proper trill. And let us not fool ourselves that this is a matter of taste. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was an absolutely essential part of the technique of a singer. You have doubts? Here's Tosi again: ‘Whoever has a fine Shake [trill], tho' wanting in every other Grace, always enjoys the Advantage of conducting himself without giving Distaste to the End or Cadence, where for the most part it is very essential; and who wants it, or has it imperfectly, will never be a great Singer, let his knowledge be ever so great. The Shake then, being of such Consequence, let the Master, by the Means of verbal Instructions, and Examples vocal and instrumental, strive that the Scholar may attain one…’ There is nothing ambiguous here. In the view of one of the influential teachers of the first half of the 18th century (and Tosi’s views were broadly those of the time) you cannot be a complete singer if you cannot sing a trill. Far from striving to turn out singers who have attained a trill, the masters (and mistresses) of our conservatoires apparently have little interest in attending to this crucial aspect of vocal technique, instead sending into the world singers who will skate over written-out trills and ignore cadences and fermatas that positively scream out for them.
What is a Chorus?
Like any other discipline music has its disputes. In the case of early music, with its close relationship between scholarship and performance such disputes are frequently long running and intensely fought. None more so than the question of Bach’s choir. In 1981 the American scholar and musician Joshua Rifkin – better known to the musical world at large for putting the music of his compatriot Scott Joplin on the map – published a paper in which he argued that the ‘choir’ Bach used to perform his sacred works was not a choir in the modern sense at all, but rather an ensemble of solo singers that sang both the choral and solo sections (the arias), with no or only very occasional support from other singers (ripienists). Rifkin’s findings were widely greeted with a mixture of derision and horror, but a few musicians and scholars showed great interest, some having themselves already independently started to examine the topic. In particular the British scholar and conductor Andrew Parrott took up the question, his further research culminating in the publication of The Essential Bach Choir (2000), a book that still demands to be read by anyone remotely interested in Bach’s sacred music. Unsurprisingly, Parrott’s book met with violent opposition, notably from German scholars and critics anxious to preserve a performance tradition dating back to Mendelssohn’s time. Others, less hide-bound, showed considerable interest and a few conductors started to follow the lead of Rifkin and Parrott in performing the music with one-voice-per-part (OVPP), among them Sigiswald Kuijken and Paul McCreesh.
Today, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting OVPP, a strong aversion to it remains, albeit aversion that has singularly failed to advance a convincing counter-argument. What I find most extraordinary is its trenchant character, its refusal to accept the prima facie evidence and simply say, ‘yes, we see that is how Bach [and of course his Lutheran contemporaries] performed his sacred music, but we like the old choral way of doing it and so do thousands of choral singers. They and their audiences should not be deprived of the opportunity of singing and hearing some of the greatest and most uplifting music ever written’. Indeed. But I’m not aware that any proponent of OVPP has ever suggested they should be, any more than that people who play Bach on the piano should be locked away in a deep dungeon. But as Parrott himself has written, ‘one of the most unattractive features of our discipline is an intellectual cowardice born of an unwillingness or inability to listen or think afresh’. Admittedly those words were written in a different context, but they serve well in the face of the intransigence and dishonesty of those musicians and critics that refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence on OVPP. As a postscript to the topic, it should be noted that the question of OVPP extends far further than Bach, the sacred works of Monteverdi, for example, being a case in point.
Of Diverse Things
In 1999 Decca made a recording of Handel’s Rinaldo (1711) conducted by Christopher Hogwood. The string strength of the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) on that occasion was: 6 first and 6 second violins; 2 violas; 5 cellos and 1 double bass, a total of 20. Either by accident or design (probably the latter, given the conductor) the disposition was remarkably similar to that of the string section of the orchestra of the Queen’s Theatre in London in 1710: 5 – 5 – 2 – 7(!) – 1, a total of 20. In 2015 Warner/Erato made a recording of Handel’s Partenope (1730) in which the strings of the Italian orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro numbered 13 violins and violas, 2 cellos and a double bass, a tiny ensemble totaling 16 players compared with the strength of the Kings Theatre orchestra c. 1730: 24 violins; 3 or 4 cellos and 2 double basses, a total of 29 or 30 players. Even allowing for the fact that not all the players on the books of the Queen’s/King’s Theatre may have been available for all performances, comparison between the forces of the AAM and Il Pomo d’Oro reveals a remarkable discrepancy when evaluating HIP performance, which of course includes (or should include) careful consideration of the type and strength of the forces involved in performances contemporary with the work concerned. In fact, rather than become more HIP orchestral directors have shown an increasing disregard for such considerations, preferring to add spurious continuo instruments (records of Italian opera orchestras in the 18th century do not anywhere list the employment of a plucked continuo instrument of the lute family, let alone a harp) to a thin body of strings. Those responsible for such impoverished string sections will not unreasonably point to the difficult economic conditions under which they operate today. Still, that does not obscure the fact that scant service is presently being done to the operas of Handel and his Italian contemporaries by performing them with wretchedly undernourished string sections and exaggerating the contribution of the plucked continuo in a manner more befitting the 17th than the 18th century. The message to directors is loud and clear: if you want claims to be working under the HIP banner to be taken seriously get rid of those theorbos and harps and employ at least a couple more violinists!
Un-HIP opera orchestras are not the only anomalous case of instrumental disposition. It is now widely accepted that the use of a 16’ instrument (double bass) in 18th century chamber ensembles is anachronistic, and indeed one needs only to hear such elephantine rumbling within such a context to appreciate just how out of place it is. Yet early music chamber groups including such a superfluous addition abound and indeed are still being formed, especially I believe in Europe.
There are other topics that might fall within the range of this article, not least the vexed question of countertenors and their role (or lack of it) in music before Purcell, and academic arguments surrounding transposition in the 17th century. These issues have generated (and continue to generate) much passionate debate and have important ramifications for performance, but are of a complexity that extends beyond my present brief. We might also touch on more subjective topics such as tempo. Here increasing mastery in early instrument techniques has encouraged a new breed of directors – mostly French or Italian – who will take allegros at tempos rivaling the speed of a TGV and slower movements at a pace that would be left standing by a tortoise, often in the name of creating entirely spurious expressive effect.
Pitch is another consideration that has been lazily treated by the early music movement. The oboist Bruce Haynes, another great (and sadly late) pioneer, noted in his seminal book on the subject (A History of performing pitch: the story of “A”, ) that in the early days of the revival a pitch of A-415 was adopted as its cornerstone, distinguishing it from higher modern pitch, A-440. Yet A-415 was by no means a universal pitch, which varied not only throughout the period in question, but also differed geographically. One example must suffice. Have you ever wondered why Rameau’s sopranos sometimes sound uncomfortably high? Well, there is a simple answer. In the mid-18th century the Paris Opéra used a pitch of around A-385, rather lower than A-415 and of course significantly lower than A-440. Of course some performers use the lower pitch, but many others don’t. In fact in the wake of Haynes’ important book few musicians appear to have looked further into the practical application of its findings. Just as one-Baroque-violin-suits-all, so one-pitch-suits-all.
Today’s early music movement can at times appear somewhat smug, to give the impression that now its major battles are won all it has to do is gather the plaudits of an admiring world. (cf. Twitter). So let me end by quoting some wise words of Bruce Haynes, written some three years after his book appeared. They will serve admirably as a general summation for the present essay. ‘If we are interested in original sonorities, if we want our instruments to act and feel as they did when they were first played, and our voices to function as they did for the composers who conceived their parts, it seems we must at least consider the possibility of renouncing the great convenience of a single hard-earned pitch standard. As in many other issues of historical performance, what once seemed a single brave step later turns out to be merely the first of several’. It is high time for early music to take a few more steps.
1] 'The king's chamber pitch' - Early music performer: Journal of the National Early Music Association No 12 (2003).
This educational site is funded almost entirely by a few sales from our Shop and the donations of those who value and appreciate its content. If you can help by making a donation your generosity will be greatly appreciated. Should you prefer to make a $ or euro donation you can do so on the Home Page.