Historically informed performance is growing both in popularity and influence in the classical music world, thanks to scholar-performers like violinist Rachael Beesley. Words About Music participant Paige Gullifer spoke to her at National Music Camp.
Historically informed performance (HIP) has evolved into something of a specialisation in the classical music industry. Yet, for all its growing popularity, HIP is still usually reserved for use in dedicated contexts, though elements are beginning to become more widespread.
For most young musicians, any attempt at applying a historically informed approach is usually imposed after they have learnt the piece. Rather than a ‘historical approach’ being taken, often a modern interpretation is given select ‘historical’ characteristics.
I recently spoke to Rachael Beesley, co-founder and concertmaster of the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (ARCO), and a HIP specialist. In her time at National Music Camp 2020 she shared her ideas and expertise with students.
For camp’s first orchestral concert, she tutored the second violins through Sibelius’ Symphony No.2 and her addition of portamenti to the part both shocked and pleased the players.
“I’d hear students say: ‘Oh, are we really allowed to do that!?’ – these days portamenti have often been associated with poor technique, but they’re so expressive and were used quite freely.”
This is evident in a number of early Sibelius recordings, many of which are easy to hear on Spotify or YouTube. They allow us to not only grapple with primary sources, but hear how techniques and concepts translated into practice.
Despite the fixed nature of these recordings and interpretations, Beesley maintains we have to understand historically informed performance as a constantly evolving practice, particularly as this conversation opens up to younger students.
The early introduction of these ideas is imperative: she notes that the disbelief some students feel over these additions is directly related to the surprise that they’re being encouraged to make big decisions about the music they’re playing. “It’s about encouraging a culture of playing with personality,” she notes, “and not simply complying with what’s on the page.”
The idea of introducing historical elements to performance early in the rehearsal process is not intended to perplex students, rather to provide them with a wider selection of interpretations and skills. Beesley admits that some ideas, such as more freedom in terms of ensemble unity, often go against her nature, as the opposite approach is ingrained in what she’s been taught.
“Pushing boundaries has been really important. I remember one particular performance that just fell apart; we pushed the freedom of our parts a bit too far. It was terrifying at the time but it was important to really challenge ourselves like that.”
That’s often the essence of effective historical performance – dynamism. We often approach early music with a fixed mindset, as if there is only one interpretation; a ‘one stop’ baroque approach. The pressures of competitive audition culture, the growing weight of tradition and the need to encourage substantial audiences are having the same effect today; we’re losing diversity in our interpretations, and in our skillset.
Take, for example, the skill of classical improvisation; as an element of our musical upbringing, it is virtually obsolete. It has no place in the current audition or orchestral environment, and as such has fallen out of educational foundations. We are, however, producing musicians who are technically proficient and competent sight-readers, simply because of the way in which we now consume and interact with music. It’s a trade-off, and one we must be conscious of.
Ultimately, for Beesley, there’s no longer any excuse to be uninformed. The ease of access to information, audio content and primary sources is greater than it has ever been in music history. And naturally, will only continue to get bigger. The more adaptable the musician, the better suited they are to this modern climate.
The more awareness we have and the more care we take simply to absorb this information, the less the narrative sways from mere ‘preservation’ and the more it becomes engagement with a living, breathing art form. A historically informed approach discounts this idea of untouchable art, or the fear of ‘sacrilegious’ interpretations.
It makes what we all do relevant and conscious. It makes us proactive, worthwhile musicians.