decades ago, a movement began in the classical music industry
to perform music on the instruments that were used during
lifetime. Unquestionably advanced by the advent of CD recordings
in the early 1980s, this marriage of scholarship and style
became known as "historically informed performance
But it encompasses more than just the proper choice of instruments
for the performance of music from the Renaissance, Baroque,
and Classical eras. Fine points of expression, articulation,
and even the way instruments are tuned play a large role
in what you are hearing tonight.
Probably for most of us it is the use of
these beautiful and, in most cases, truly antique and priceless
instruments that brings the most unique quality to these performances.
Rather than cataloguing all the well-founded and essential
reasons to use period instruments for this music, it is even
more compelling to consider why the use of modern instruments
would cheat us of the experience a composer like Bach or Handel
meant to give to us.
Instruments have evolved and grown over the
centuries, mostly because composers would present new challenges
to instrumentalists, and therefore to those who built their
instruments. When a composer like Bach or Beethoven would
write the most difficult passages that would tax the limits
of an instrument's responsiveness, within a decade or
so instrument builders found a way to accommodate the challenges.
In the Baroque period, musical phrases were
made up of strong and weak notes, falling on strong and weak
beats within a bar. When a violinist would move the bow in
a downward stroke across a string, the sound was stronger
than when the bow would be moved in an upward direction. But
eventually the lengths of musical phrases grew, and more notes
were meant to be played in a connected way, leading much further
down the line to a phrase's focal point. Accordingly,
the bows for stringed instruments were then made to create
the same amount of sound whether the bow was moving up or
And of course concert halls grew in size,
so instruments were made to play louder. In the 20th century,
some composers required sounds that acoustic instruments simply
could not produce; hence the genre of electronic music.
One of the most exciting sounds we hear from
these "early instruments", however, is the inherent
tension during the most climactic moments in a musical work.
If you haven't already done so, find a recording of
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony played by an orchestra of
period instruments, and listen to the most dissonant or loud
moments. You'll be glad to hear the instruments being
pushed to their limits, and you just might find the ease and
aplomb with which modern instruments and their players perform
the same passages to be lackluster by comparison.
Finally, a short note about antiques and
reproductions: while it is not uncommon to find violins
and 'cellos that are more than 300 years old being
played in orchestras like ours, very few surviving antique
wind instruments are still playable. Consequently, period
wind instruments are almost always copies of originals.