Historically informed performance

Performance on period instruments is a key aspect of HIP, such as this baroque orchestra (Photo: Josetxu Obregón and the Spanish ensemble La Ritirata)

Historically informed performance (also referred to as period performance, authentic performance, or HIP) is an approach to the performance of classical music, which aims to be faithful to the approach, manner and style of the musical era in which a work was originally conceived.

It is based on two key aspects: the application of the stylistic and technical aspects of performance, known as performance practice; and the use of period instruments which may be reproductions of historical instruments that were in use at the time of the original composition and which usually have different timbre and temperament.[1]

Because no sound recordings exist of music before the modern era, historically informed performance is necessarily derived from academic musicological research. Historical treatises, as well as additional historical evidence, are used to gain insight into the performance practice of a historic era. HIP performers will normally base their interpretations on scholarly or urtext editions of a musical score, unencumbered with suggestions or changes made by editors in later eras.[1]

Historically informed performance can trace its roots to the late 19th century, but was principally developed in a number of Western countries in the late 20th century. Initially mainly concerned with the performance of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, it has since come to encompass music from the Classical and Romantic eras as well. The practice has been a crucial part of the Early music revival movement of the 20th and 21st centuries. Quite recently, the phenomenon has begun to affect the theatrical stage, for instance in the production of Baroque opera, where historically informed approaches to acting and scenery are also used.[2][1]

There are some critics who contest the methodology of the HIP movement, contending that its selection of practices and aesthetics are a product of the 20th century and that it is ultimately impossible to know what performances of an earlier time sounded like. For this reason, the term "historically informed" is now preferred to "authentic", as it acknowledges the limitations of academic understanding, rather than implying absolute accuracy in recreating historical performance style.[3][2]

Early instruments

Historical collections of preserved instruments help researchers (St Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh)

The choice of musical instruments is an important part of the principle of historically informed performance. Musical instruments have evolved over time, and instruments that were in use in earlier periods of history were often quite different to their modern equivalents. Many other instruments have fallen out of use, having been replaced by newer tools for creating music. For example, prior to the emergence of the modern violin, other bowed stringed instruments such as the rebec or the viol were in common use.[4] The existence of ancient instruments in museum collections has helped musicologists to understand how the different design, tuning and tone of instruments may have affected earlier performance practice.[5]

As well as a research tool, historic instruments have an active role in the practice of historically informed performance. Modern instrumentalists who aim to recreate a historic sound often use modern reproductions of period instruments (and occasionally original instruments) on the basis that this will deliver a musical performance that is thought to be historically faithful to the original work, as the original composer would have heard it. For example, a modern music ensemble staging a performance of music by Johann Sebastian Bach may play reproduction Baroque violins instead of modern instruments in an attempt to create the sound of a 17th-century Baroque orchestra.[5][6]

This has led to the revival of musical instruments that had entirely fallen out of use, and to a reconsideration of the role and structure of instruments also used in current practice.[original research?]

Orchestras and ensembles who are noted for their use of period instruments in performances include the Taverner Consort and Players (directed by Andrew Parrott), the Academy of Ancient Music (Christopher Hogwood), The English Concert (Trevor Pinnock), the English Baroque Soloists (Sir John Eliot Gardiner), Musica Antiqua Köln (Reinhard Goebel), the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra (Paul Dyer) and La Chapelle Royale (Philippe Herreweghe).[7][8][9][10] As the scope of historically informed performance has expanded to encompass the works of the Romantic era, the specific sound of 19th-century instruments has increasingly been recognised in the HIP movement, and period instruments orchestras such as Gardiner's Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique have emerged.[11]


A variety of once obsolete keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord have been revived as they have particular importance in the performance of Early music. Before the evolution of the symphony orchestra led by a conductor, Renaissance and Baroque orchestras were commonly directed from the harpsichord; the director would lead by playing continuo, which would provide a steady, harmonic structure upon which the other instrumentalists would embellish their parts.[12][13] Many religious works of the era made similar use of the pipe organ, often in combination with a harpsichord.[14] Historically informed performances frequently make use of keyboard-led ensemble playing.

Composers such as François Couperin, Domenico Scarlatti, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for the harpsichord, clavichord, and organ.

Among the foremost modern players of the harpsichord are Robert Hill, Igor Kipnis, Ton Koopman, Wanda Landowska, Gustav Leonhardt, Trevor Pinnock, Skip Sempé, Andreas Staier, and Colin Tilney.


During the second half of the 18th century, the harpsichord was gradually replaced by the fortepiano, a precursor to the modern piano. As the harpsichord went out of fashion, many were destroyed; indeed, the Paris Conservatory is notorious for having used harpsichords for firewood during the French Revolution and Napoleonic times.[15] In the 20th and 21st centuries, the fortepiano has enjoyed a revival as a result of the trend for historically informed performance, with the works of Beethoven and Schubert being played on fortepiano.[16]


A Viola da gamba by Thomas Cole (c.1680)

A vast quantity of music for viols, for both ensemble and solo performance, was written by composers of the Renaissance and Baroque eras, including Diego Ortiz, Claudio Monteverdi, William Byrd, William Lawes, Henry Purcell, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, J.S. Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, Marin Marais, Antoine Forqueray, and Carl Frederick Abel.

From largest to smallest, the viol family consists of:

  • contrabass or violone
  • bass viol (about the size of a cello)
  • tenor viol (about the size of a guitar)
  • alto viol (about the size of a viola)
  • treble or descant viol (about the size of a violin).

Among the foremost modern players of the viols are Paolo Pandolfo, Wieland Kuijken, Jordi Savall, John Hsu, and Vittorio Ghielmi. There are many modern viol consorts.


Recorders in multiple sizes (contra-bass, bass, tenor, alto, soprano, the sopranino, and the even smaller kleine sopranino or garklein) are often played today in consorts of mixed size. Handel and Telemann, among others, wrote solo works for the recorder. Arnold Dolmetsch did much to revive the recorder as a serious concert instrument, reconstructing a "consort of recorders (descant, treble, tenor and bass) all at low pitch and based on historical originals".[17]