As a discipline within Musicology, Historically Informed Performance Practice is supposed to be ‘scientific’. In Universities and Conservatoires, when we research and teach Early Music, it is expected that our work should be ‘evidence-based’.
In the hard Sciences, our knowledge and understanding are advanced by the Scientific Method: you observe some natural phenomenon; you develop a Hypothesis; you test your hypothesis in the laboratory. If your hypothesis fails, you develop a better one. If your hypothesis works, you continue testing. Eventually, a robust hypothesis deserves a status-upgrade: you call it a Theory, and you invite other researchers to review it and test it.
Science advances when some researcher (often a junior) tests an old theory to destruction, showing that a new theory is needed. Think of Galileo and the Pope. Think of Einstein and Newton. Think of Robert Donnington (The Interpretation of Early Music, 1963 free online here) – and others of his generation – and mainstream performance practice.
If we want to be ‘scientific’ and ‘evidence-based’ in our HIP music-making, then the Scientific Model is a powerful tool. Period treatises are the data-sets we must study, rehearsal and performance are our laboratory. We need to develop strong hypotheses, and try them out on the test-bench. Only the fittest theories will survive!
17th-century Italian music – Monteverdi etc. It’s generally agreed that the relationship between duple- and triple-time (white notation or coloration, with a variety of mensuration marks) is determined by proportions. But how, exactly?
There is scholarly debate about precisely how these proportions are to be understood. But there is academic agreement that a slow pulse (the Tactus) is maintained, whereas the quick-ticking internal beats will change. In modern terminology, the feeling is “bar=bar” (or half-bar becomes bar) rather than “beat=beat”.
Since there is no academic consensus on the precise rules, HIP performers are free to make reasonable choices for themselves. But for a choice to be respected as reasonable, it should satisfy these conditions:
1. The choice should be determined by notation. Given the same set of mensuration marks and note-values in another instance, the same decision should be made.
2. Once [your personal take on] the rule is understood, it should be possible for all performers to make an instant and unanimous decision, looking at their own part only. This is the only way 17th-century performers could have done proportional music with minimal or no rehearsal.
If your decisions are inconsistent, or produce beat=beat outcomes, you need to think again.
FORM A HYPOTHESIS
Actually, although the mensuration signs look complex, the situation is really quite simple. Once you have your steady Tactus beat (I would say something around minim=60, but you go ahead and take whatever tempo you find convincing), there are only three viable options. From slow to fast:
1. Sesquialtera (3 beats to 2 Tactus pulses, slow and difficult)
2. Tripla (3 beats to 1 Tactus pulse, medium-fast and easy)
3. Sestupla (6 beats to 1 Tactus pulse, very fast)
All you have to do is decide which of these works for the given example
TEST YOUR HYPOTHESIS
The next time you get the same notational situation, check that you are happy to take the same musical decision.
If a new instance of the same situation makes you dissatisfied with your previous decision, that’s the sign that your hypothesis needs to be modified.
But if your hypothesis continues to work in one instance after another, you can become increasingly confident about it. After a while, you could even call it a Theory, and invite others to test it too.
DEALING WITH THE UNKNOWN
In Early Music, there are certain facts that are widely known, and about which there is no academic debate (e.g. music of Monteverdi’s period was not conducted, it was guided by Tactus-beating and/or by the continuo [Agazzari 1607]). But even where there is genuine debate amongst specialist scholars, there is usually a substantial area of common ground with which students and professional HIP performers should be familiar.
Of course, just as in the hard sciences, no one individual can know everything. But in the average HIP ensemble, there is a huge amount of expertise available for the wise director to make use of, when he steps outside his own specialist area.
Even when I’m directing, I’m never ashamed to say “I don’t know”. And with colleagues, this is the best way to get high-quality advice: “I don’t know. What do you think?”
I’ve been refining and testing my ideas about proportions for some 30 years. For 5 years, early 17th-century Italian rhythm was a major strand of my investigation as Senior Visiting Research Fellow for the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions. Read more here… My hypothesis continues to work well, it hasn’t yet failed me. So I’m ready to call it a Theory now, and invite academics and performers to test it for themselves.
Have a look at this article, and let me know: “What do you think?”. Tempus putationis: getting back to Monteverdi’s time
LEARNING BY EXPERIMENT
If Musicology is a Science (in German, it’s called Musikwissenschaft), then rehearsal and performance are our experimental laboratory. Theory must be tested in Practice. This is the trendy new discipline of Performance Studies and Artistic Experiment, and Early Music leads the way, evidence-based and artistically tested since long before the 1960s. Read more about pioneering experiments in the late 19th century and George Bernard Shaw’s enthusiasm for Arthur Dolmetsch’s historical approach, here: Morris and Early Music: the Shaw/Dolmetsch).
But if you don’t have a theory, not even a tentative hypothesis, if you just make it up as you go along, or if you can’t even be bothered to take the notation seriously, then don’t expect to be respected as Historically Informed.