Music & History

I’ve been thinking lately about how my musical education as a young person primed me to embrace intellectual history as enthusiastically as I have.

My long-term interest in classical music (that frustrating catch-all term) includes a significant interest in baroque music and historically informed performance. From a very young age I was drawn to Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, and others, including somewhat obscure names that I dug up on Youtube and in piles of sheet music.

It became clear to me early on that there are a range of approaches taken to the interpretation and performance of baroque music. It was fascinating to compare different versions of the same piece and consider what had gone into making each sound as it did. Why did some conductors and performers care about historical accuracy? Why were others unconcerned?

When I was 13 I received a life-changing Christmas gift from my father: a recording of Handel’s Messiah, the 1959 one conducted by Malcolm Sargent with the Huddersfield Choral Society and Liverpool Philharmonic. The booklet inside the CD case had a blurb about the recording and the artists, which included discussion of choices made to not stick to original instrumentation and to abridge the work. I read it over many times. I was fascinating by this glimpse behind the curtains. I had no idea that so much about classical music performance was up for debate.

Youtube, live performances, and my own experiences as a violist and a chorister have shown me many different productions of Messiah over the years, performed with a range of soloists and ensembles and performance philosophies. Some of these have been historically-accurate performances, where everything from the kind of instruments used to interpretation of written directions to use of vibrato is carefully considered, with a view to recreating the kind of sounds a 1740s audience would have heard when listening to Handel’s glorious new creation

Every time I hear Messiah it’s like hearing it for the first time, yet of course so very familiar. It is still Messiah regardless of how it’s performed. I’m still profoundly moved whether I’m hearing a baroque ensemble or an orchestra in a modern configuration. Comparing the aesthetic qualities of the different performances I’ve seen over the years is quite enjoyable.

And yet, and yet. If pressed, I will opt for a historically informed performance. I want something nuanced and thoughtful, not bloated and verging on a kind of performative self-consciousness (Yes, We Are Performing A Very Famous Piece). Not the kindest appraisal and not universally correct, but correct enough to have shaped my preferences.

Thinking about these things so deeply as a young person surely went some way in making me extremely receptive to the ideas of Cambridge school intellectual historians. Quentin Skinner urges us to uncover the often neglected riches of our intellectual heritage; when I heard that for the first time I thought, you know, I think I understand what you mean.


I think there is a very interesting comparison to be made between historically informed musical performance and contextual intellectual history. It’s not one-to-one, for many obvious reasons, but there is something there. Musicians and historians in these traditions are both working to uncover, restore, and re-create the past as faithfully as they can. They are each piecing together a puzzle of sorts. They seek to leave modern prejudices behind and carefully collect and collate evidence that shapes their output in the image (for it will only ever be an image) of the past.

Similar questions face each type of historical enquiry, especially when these contextualists of either field are perceived as elitist or antiquarian. Why does it all matter? Who cares? Essays, operas, concerti, treatises of the past: their authors are long dead, and so are their target audiences.

But consider the riches we uncover by taking slow and careful hands to the task of excavating the nuances of past thought. If a composer intended a note be played this way and not that, it can transform a piece of music entirely. We show respect to the composer’s vision by seeking to reproduce their music as faithfully as we can, and we are rewarded richly for doing so. Or, if present-day political rhetoric is backed by the authority of a long-dead theorist whose work can’t possibly be considered to be supporting it, this appropriation needs to be challenged and original intentions of the author revealed. We in the present day are then forced to use our own brains to address our own issues instead of asking a giant of the past to do it for us.

Perhaps I just deify the author too much. I want to know what Bach meant when he wrote what he did. I want to hear what he wanted his music to sound like to an audience. I want to understand our intellectual heritage of a given topic rather than crudely wondering what the texts on that topic can offer in the present day. No one in the past was writing specifically for me, and I don’t believe there is anything to be gained from treating their work as though they were.

Listen to Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12 in the hands of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra under Paul Dyer, and then to the Münchener Bach-Orchester under Karl Richter. Listen especially to the aria, the third movement. It’s a beautiful piece of music, in either rendition, but hear how different interpretations transform a piece entirely:

I have a particular affection and respect for Richter style interpretations of baroque work, but it’s hard to deny the sheer brilliance and sophistication of the Brandenburg Orchestra’s playing. They draw out tensions and beauty that aren’t present in other interpretations.


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