Performing early music using historic techniques and instruments

Frederik Magle

Staff member
This is a follow up/spin-off to the introduction thread by Thomas Dressler

"Corno" asked Thomas on basis of the original post (see link above):
Interesting interests you have there. - What do you hope to gain in the knowledge about how music was performed in "times long since passed"? The "rise" of the Orchestra of the Age og Enlighthenment and similar "original/periode instrument players/groups" over the past years have sparked some interest into the field of musical reception/perception and while also amateur/semipro groups have attempted performance of classical works on period instruments I've rarely been inspired by the performances other than the quaint sound coming from these instruments (especially the oboes and clarinets, which are somewhat weaker in sound than today's instruments) when being played by a non pro. But then again periode performances are not only about the (copies of) old instruments but also the phrasing, tempo and in pre 1750 music the ornaments in particular. Interesting field... no doubt, but I've yet to discover the real reason in this historical pursuit other than the satisfaction in the knowledge of how things did sound, or how we think it sounded.
To which Thomas Dressler replied:
There are a couple things I could say regarding the things you mentioned. First is that, yes, I believe there have been quite a few less than inspired performances on period instruments. From having spent many years with people who do this, I know there are some who are more concerned with technique than inspiring musicianship. But I think there's more to it than just that. There are plenty of people performing in historic styles who are very strong musicians. And there are plenty of boring performers who play modern instruments.

Let me say here that I was about 18 when I became interested in period performing styles, and the reason I got so excited about it was that to me, the music became more vivid and made more sense. I remember the recordings out in the 1970s of, say, Haydn symphonies or string quartets were painful to me. I thought I just didn't like the music. But when I heard period performances of it, I realized it was the performances I didn't like. To me, using modern performing styles for old music is like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. It just doesn't fit. And from years of performing this way, I feel it is more expressive, and more emotionally fulfilling. It's not just about hearing quaint sounds, but about swimming with the musical current rather than trying to paddle upstream.

Another thing which needs to be taken into account is the tendency of people to not like what they're not familiar with. This was especially true 20 years ago when period performances were still a bit unusual. Nowadays it doesn't sound so strange to people. We need to remember that music is NOT a universal language, or at least musical style is not universal. A person may be very fluent in one style but not understand when first hearing another style. And in classical music, this is true of music from one's own culture but from eras in the past. Take language as an example. I don't know how fluent everyone here is with English, but when a modern person tries to read Shakespeare's works for the first time, it's difficult to understand. Some of the words look the same but mean different things, some words are completely different. This is true also of our own musical styles from the past. Is it better, then, to take Shakespeare and translate it into modern English? I suppose some people would say yes, but my own preference is no, we should learn to understand Shakespeare's English. The same is true, in my opinion, with music from the past.

Interestingly, if you ever attended a performance or maybe more than one performance of a Shakespeare play, you'd know that even with the old English, with good acting, the meaning comes across. The same is true, in my opinion, with period musical performances. Some performers are good at making the music understood in it's intended "dialect" because of the way they play it. This is what I strive for as a performer.

The things I said also apply to music from the 19th century, I believe. Our modern interpretations of Romantic music are very different from what Brahms, for instance, had in mind. So I try to apply the same ideals to 19th century music, also.
To which I will reply here - starting a seperate thread in order to make this discussion more visible (guests and members looking to discuss early music interpretation will most likely look for it here in the Classical Music Forum):

I basically agree with most of what you say Thomas, but I will just offer my view on the following:

To me, using modern performing styles for old music is like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. It just doesn't fit.
My own view is slightly different (the way I read your take on that): To me a great modern interpretation can be as musically stimulating as a great historical one. They will of course have different qualities and expressions but both can be enriching in their own way. In both cases the prerequisite for a musically stimulating performance are the thoughts and musicality/musicianship put into it, as you also mention. I fully agree that using generic modern interpretation on early music is not good, there should always be a point and personal intrepertation behind any good performance.

In any case I VERY much enjoy listening to great performances with period instruments, tuning and phrasing. To hear, to mention just one example, The English Concert with Trevor Pinnock performing J.S.Bach's Brandenbourg Concertos is to me a most uplifting musical experience.

Thomas Dressler

New member
Re: Performing early music using historic techniques and instrum

I may be a bit of a purist on this subject, but the way I look at it, the old composers who are long gone are not with us to say what they wanted. It is up to us to bring their music to life again, and in my opinion, we should try to figure out what it is they meant to say. It is often argued, for example, that "if Bach were alive today he would use modern instruments--swell pedals on organs, etc." Yes, I do believe that may be true, although we really can't know what he would like. But the fact remains that he lived in the time he did, and wrote for specific instruments and with specific styles in mind. If he were writing for modern instruments and performing styles, it is my belief that he would write his music differently.

This is not to say I think it cannot be done effectively with modern instruments. There are some very good recordings of modern orchestras playing older music and doing it very well. I would say that the very best of the newer recordings (in my opinion, that is) show that the conductor is familiar with older techniques and is able to make them work with modern instruments.

A very good example of this is the Beethoven Symphonies recorded by the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under David Zinman. These are very good recordings in my opinion. Also, Herbert Blomstedt made some excellent Beethoven recordings with the San Francisco Orchestra. I haven't heard any of his newer ones with the Gewandaus Orchester, so I can't comment on those. But his San Francisco recordings demonstrate a very good understanding of the techniques of Beethoven's day, and they are exciting, musically. Older conductors, such as Otto Klemperer for a single example, often had a very strong attunement to the music that transcended their lack of real knowledge about the old performance practices. Yes, those recordings are sometimes wonderful, and often spotty. Very good in places and not so good in others because they didn't really understand the aesthetic of the old days. Blomstedt and Zinman are, in my opinion, good examples of more recent conductors who combine knowledge of older styles with modern instruments and very strong musicianship.

That being said, the only way to TRULY learn the old techniques is to study old treatises on how to play, and practice them on old style instruments. A keyboard player cannot really learn old fingerings on a modern style keyboard. But you can learn them on an old style keyboard (smaller keys) and then use that technique on modern keys. And for me, being a bit of a purist I guess, the most exciting recordings use the old instruments and the old sounds. The Pinnock recording of Bach's Brandenberg Concertos is one of my favorites, by the way!

Tom Dressler


New member
Re: Performing early music using historic techniques and instrum

As Frank Zappa has said, (which you may or may not agree with)Classical music was designed to meet the entertainment needs of dead kings and popes. Something needs to be done to it to make it more appealing to a contemporary audience if it can be revived at all. That's what the masters did and thought. Why shouldn't we?


Theodor Ulieriu

New member
Re: Performing early music using historic techniques and instrum

Hello, my name is Theodor Ulieriu and I`m studying ancient history. Early music is, however, one of my great passions and I can say, without being a professional, that I have some knowledge concerning this subject, and especially French Baroque. I strongly agree to Thomas`s opinion, concerning period instruments and period techniques - all these are visible especially when talking about French music, which was forgotten for a long time, much longer than Handel, let`s say. Well, the few performances from the `50s or `60s of Lully or Charpentier are so dull and unexpressive when compared to the ones of Les Arts Florissants etc!!! This could be a hint that maybe works that we are aqquainted, such as Handel`s Messiah or Vivaldi`s concertos may as well have sounded different in 1750... And this is what great performers like the ones I mentioned above, or Il Giardino Armonico, Rene Jacobs`s Concerto Vocale, Minkowski`s Les Musiciens du Louvre and many many others are doing.
What about their performances, do you find them attracting?

Regards, Theo