(Note: This post has been edited for clarity as of 5:45 PM Eastern on 27 Jul.)
Along with a host of changes political and cultural, the early 1960s brought with it an increased interest in, and performance of, so-called "early music," a term referring originally to music of the Baroque period (c. about 1600-1750) and before, which was later extended to include music written during the Classical period (c. beginning around 1750 or thereabouts, and extending into the first quarter of the 19th century). With this new interest there arose simultaneously a movement dedicated to performing this music as it was performed at the time of its creation utilizing instruments of the period or modern copies thereof as well as performance styles and practices declared period-appropriate.
The movement first went under the inoffensive name of Early Music Movement which name, however, soon morphed into the decidedly offensive designation, Authentic Performance Movement, thereby implying, of course, that performances of early music not in conformance with the movement's tenets were, by very definition, inauthentic. When referring to this movement its critics quickly took to enclosing the term authentic in scare quotes, and so the battle lines were drawn and the battle begun; one which continues up to this very day, albeit with less acrimony and a softening of both sides, the movement now self-defensively going under the cleverly devised stealth name of Historically Informed Performance (HIP, get it?), a perfectly innocuous because meaningless title as it's applicable to all responsible performance of music of any and all non-contemporary periods.
Most insufferable about the HIP movement, as with all such movements in any domain whatsoever, are its True Believers in that such always insist on unwavering adherence to the movement's tenets; consider the movement, themselves, and the movement's followers and supporters morally superior entities; and count as reprobates and cultural barbarians all who reject or register objection to the movement's doctrinaire tenets and agenda.
Informed objection to the tenets and agenda of the HIP movement are manifold, and run along lines aesthetic as well as specifically musical. Chief among the informed objections is the objection that no amount of scholarly research, no matter how thorough, can result in authentically reproducing performance conditions today that are the equivalent of earlier periods, not the least difficulty being the utter impossibility of reproducing a period-authentic audience. There's also the lesser, but still potent, objection that the available historical evidence is always fragmentary and therefore modern-day performance based on this evidence always involves modern-day musical and intellectual imaginations and sensibilities, a further and insurmountable bar to genuine period-authentic performance. And then there are those objections grounded in the question of whether, in the first place, it's even desirable to strive to attain a period-authentic performance.
For my part, I'm among those music-lovers who, in agreement with many performing musicians, believe profoundly in the idea that every piece of music is an individual work of art (i.e., an individual-created aesthetic work, good or bad) that possesses an inherent aesthetic and musical nature more or less readily discoverable absent any knowledge of, and independent of, period performance practices or the social and cultural milieu existing at the time of the work's creation. And while, that belief notwithstanding, I've a certain sympathy with certain HIP objectives, I find certain of its motives as well as performances done in compliance with its doctrinaire tenets largely suspect.
My initial encounter with a HIP-style performance was the first-ever "authentic" performance of Messiah recorded for a major record label. It was done for RCA Victor in the mid-1960s by Robert Shaw with the Robert Shaw Choral (the names of the soloists and the orchestra elude me at the moment). The performance was breathtaking technically, but thoroughly bloodless musically and emotionally. As things developed over succeeding years, it almost seemed that this provided something of a template for much HIP-compliant early music performance, and that raises certain troubling questions.
Such as, Why, for major instance, are doctrinaire HIP readings almost always done at tempi significantly faster than is the norm for modern-day mainstream readings of the same works, especially in light of the fact that the scores for music of the Baroque period and earlier include no tempi indications of any kind? And intimately connected, Why are doctrinaire HIP readings so markedly absent the expressivity and nuance characteristic of modern-day mainstream readings of earlier music? Surely it can't be the case that scholarly research has uncovered the astonishing fact that all period early-music performance was uniformly arid emotionally, or that human emotion and response to music then was of a markedly different character from now. The very idea is manifestly absurd. Further, the typically breakneck tempi of a doctrinaire HIP reading suggests that performance groups of earlier periods were technically of the sort that could handle routinely and adeptly such breakneck tempi when all the best evidence suggests that the typical performance group of earlier periods was largely inferior technically compared with the technical proficiency of today's typical performance group. (I pass over as too ridiculous for consideration in the original period performance the well-known performance "trick" that music played over-fast covers up a multitude of performance inadequacies vis-à-vis the music itself.) Additionally, doctrinaire HIP tempi seem to fly in the face of the fact that instruments of earlier periods were much less easy for hands, fingers, and lips to negotiate securely and accurately at speed than their present-day descendants.
Clearly, there's a decided stink in the air concerning this business.
So, is there good and plausible justification and explanation for this seemingly historically insupportable doctrinaire HIP practice of breakneck tempi cum emotionally arid performance? Well, I can think of one, much as I wish it weren't so plausible: a commercial and ideological staking out of turf. For an audience, nothing segregates a HIP performance more quickly and more surely from its mainstream competition than those breakneck tempi cum emotionally arid readings. And nothing could be a more clear and forceful rebuke of the mainstream "Romantic tendencies" so reviled by the HIP ideological cognoscenti.
Two hits for the price of one, so to speak.
Cynical, you say? Well, perhaps. But if there exists a less-cynical, equally good and plausible justification and explanation for this doctrinaire HIP practice that seemingly hypocritically and ignobly flies in the face of the historical evidence, I'd like to know what it might be. I, for one, can think of none except, perhaps, that such readings conform to and suit our 21st-century musical sensibilities rather or more than the musical sensibilities of the periods to which HIP performances purport to be true. That, at least, has the virtue of being an honest justification.
UPDATE: Classical music critic Jessica Duchen comments.