How HIP is your classical music?

(No valves on our horns, please. We’re too HIP for that.)

Among the most remarkable developments in classical music over my 35-year career has been the integration of HIP into the classical mainstream.  No, I don’t mean that a bunch of cool Brooklynites have infiltrated the concert hall — though don’t look now, but that’s happening too, and not a moment too soon.

I’m referring instead to HIP as the acronym for “historically informed performance,” a subset of the ever-expanding world of “early music.”  Actually, while all “early music” is by definition HIP, not all HIP is “early music” – but we’ll get to that later.  Specifically, HIP refers to performances of musical works that apply research into the sound and aesthetic of the time and place from which the works came, in order to recreate them as faithfully as possible.  

Of course, all performers claim to recreate whatever music they’re performing as faithfully as possible.  The difference is that HIPsters attempt to short-circuit the musical game of telephone by which the way works of past centuries get played is constantly modified over time by the changes in instruments, styles, tastes and other factors, and to go straight to the original work in its pristine state.  You’ll frequently hear such metaphors as “like cleaning the grime off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel” to describe and justify HIP, though such metaphors confer more authority on HIP than it often deserves.  And sometimes, the claims the HIPsters make for themselves are filled with more self-regard and chutzpah than common musical sense.

For instance, when the great pianist Richard Goode plays music by Beethoven, Goode’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher, and with which Goode has engaged in the profoundest way for decades, it is not HIP.  Goode, you see, insists on performing Beethoven on modern grand pianos, placing him outside the HIP pale.  Meanwhile, many far inferior pianists (I could name names but won’t), whose peformances haven’t one-tenth the authority of Goode’s, earn their place in HIPdom by playing on the fortepiano, the piano as it existed in earlier times such as Beethoven’s.  Which perfomer gets closer to Beethoven’s intentions?  I know which one I’d choose.  And by the way, there are also many wonderful and revelatory HIP renditions of Beethoven’s piano music, as well as stylistically perverse Beethoven performances on the modern grand, so it works both ways.  It’s just that the listener would be wise to regard HIP claims of superior authenticity with a healthy dose of skepticism.  The proof, as always, is in the music, not in the words about the music.

Now, when I say HIP, do I mean performances on “original” or “period” or “authentic” instruments — violins with organic “gut” strings, keyless wooden flutes, valveless trumpets, etc., such as you hear every day on NEPR?  Sometimes, but not always.  You’ll also frequently hear on NEPR performances in which the sound and ideas of the original instrument movement are employed by mainstream musicians, and applied to performances on modern instruments (i.e., the instruments as they exist in the modern symphony orchestra).  This is what I meant by the “integration of HIP into the classical mainstream.”  No longer are HIP performances relegated to the early music ghetto, with its festivals, journals and specialist scholar/musicians, though these things still exist.   Rather, as happens whenever one musical culture encounters another, their ideas and sounds intermingle, and new hybrids emerge.  And to my ears, these hybrids include some of the most exciting new performances of the old classics now available to the listening public, though some criticisms are also in order.  I’ll get to some of each, and go further into how HIP and the mainstream differ, in our next thrilling blog post.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, let me leave you with a good example of a HIP hybrid (a musical Prius?), the Cuarteto Casals playing Haydn on modern instruments, but using a matched set of Classical-era bows.  And the bows aren’t just for show.  They really make a difference in how the music is shaped and sounded.




  1. Anonymous says

    Sadly, the only thing more condescending in this blog posting than the not so clever use of “HIPsters” to describe serious-minded, passionate, and extremely capable musicians are the exaggerated examples and misguided conclusions that profoundly mischaracterize the relationship between early and modern music performance practice, especially today, but also at the genesis of the early music movement in the 20th century.

    For example, among the very many early music practitioners I know, no one uses the Sistine Chapel reference as you say they do, to the extent they ever did (you’re perhaps choosing the words of one or two extreme thinkers to mischaracterize the norm). The same musicians dedicated to period performance practice are often well-versed in, and carry a deep respect for, musicians who embrace a more modern approach (including the likes of Richard Goode, Rudolf Serkin, Jascha Heifetz, et. al. ).

    In fact, many period performance musicians also are active in modern music playing, and more and more modern musicians are doing some period playing as well. This isn’t anecdotal, but it characterizes the situation and the mind-set of those involved. Don’t forget as well that many of the founding members of the early music movement were themselves well-respected and very capable modern players, such as the great baroque violinist Jaap Schröder – they weren’t/aren’t uninformed sub-culturalists.

    This is an interesting topic, but it needs to be discussed in a more in-depth , nuanced, and not-so-snarky manner — avoiding so many tiresome and outdated cliches that attempt  to split the controversy down the middle and misrepresent the extreme as the norm.


  2. John Montanari says

    My goodness, I seem to have struck a nerve!  Though you don’t identify yourself, I would guess that you are a strong advocate, perhaps performer, of early music, and have a strong personal stake in the way such performances are interpreted.  My intended audience, on the other hand, is the general classical listener, for whom these are matters of interest, but not life or death.  As to the Sistine Chapel analogy — the Mssrs Hogwood, Gardiner, Norrington, Manze, et al., have used this or other self-flattering analogies to grant their performances greater authority than others.  It is not a coincidence that these gents all are in or approaching the senior set, since you don’t hear this kind of stuff that much anymore from later generations, thankfully.

    As to whether this topic needs a more serious discussion, mine is one of probably at least 1,000  now available on the internet, each making a contribution, none definitive (except those I agree with, of course).  You may add your own if you feel this strongly about it.

    But yes, the supposedly separate worlds of HIP and “modern” performances, at least of some central repertoire, are converging.  If I have time before my retirement, I will point to some recent examples for which I have nearly unreserved praise.

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