Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Harnoncourt and Historically Informed Performance


Photo of Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1980)

Nikolaus Harnoncourt passed away on 5 March 2016 at the age of 86.  He was one of the early proponents of the use of the authentic instruments, techniques, and practices that were in use at the time that a piece of music was composed.  This approach is called historically informed performance, or HIP.

Harnoncourt started his career as a cellist with the Vienna Symphony.  Later he founded a period-instrument ensemble, the Concentus Musicus Wien, in which he played cello and viola da gamba.  He left the Vienna Symphony to become a conductor.  He made a large number of recordings of classical music from the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, including all of Bach’s surviving cantatas, as well as a number of recordings from later periods in music history.

Harnoncourt and Christopher Hogwood were two of the key founders of the HIP movement.

Harnoncourt and Hogwood kicked the hornets’ nest.

While it now seems like a reasonable option to play music on authentic period instruments (or as close as possible) using the techniques known to the composer, when it was first proposed, HIP seemed outrageous, if not impossible.  Musicians needed to learn new (actually old, but new to them) techniques to accommodate authentic period instruments.  And they could be temperamental (the instruments, not the musicians, though, well, maybe).  Some people believed it would be impossible to play lengthy pieces using period instruments because of the challenges of keeping them in tune.  There was no shortage of critics.

The inception of the HIP movement came at a time when orchestration featured large ensembles and choirs, and slow pacing.  Think lush.  It made HIP ensemble performances seem sparse, thin-sounding, rushed.  It was a stark contrast to the prevailing style.

In addition to discussion (debate) over the use of period versus modern instruments, and the modern understanding of performance practices and techniques, there was the not-so-simple matter of pitch.

Today the note that is called A above middle C, the one toward the middle of the treble clef, is now defined universally as having the frequency of 440 Hz.  But that was not always the case.  In the Baroque period, the frequency of A might vary from country to country, even town to town.  That made it fiendishly difficult (if not impossible) for non-string instruments (strings could be adjusted appropriately) to perform with instruments tuned differently.

In the quest for authenticity, ensembles and orchestras sought to tune to what the composers would have heard—but what frequency was A at that place and time?  It could have varied from the high 300s to above today’s 440 Hz.  A “Baroque pitch” of A=415 Hz was settled upon by many ensembles.

There was also the question of the size of the ensemble at the composer’s disposal.  How big was Bach’s orchestra?  Clearly, not the size of the Berlin Philharmonic.  Researchers combed the archives for ledger entries for payments to musicians and accounts of performances to determine ensemble size.

How about Bach’s choir?  Another avenue pursued as a result of HIP was OVPP (one voice per part).  As with other aspects of HIP, OVPP has been a matter of discussion and debate.  As the name suggests, the choir is limited to one bass, one tenor, one alto, one soprano.  But what is gained and what is lost in limiting choir size? What would Bach use? One tenor? Three?  As many as he could get?

One thing I think we can all agree upon in terms of authentic performance practices, however, is that castrati are not coming back.

So which approach is “right”?  Depends on whom you ask.  Do a web search on “historically informed performance” or “one voice per part,” get yourself an authentic beverage, and get comfortable–you’re going to be there a while.  And it’s not necessarily a right or wrong issue.  I’m certainly not going to take sides, other than to say I think there’s room for any number of approaches, and the skill of implementation is key.  Instead, I’ll ask you this question:

Which performance speaks to you the most?

Do you like the luxuriously slow approach of conductors like Furtwängler or Klemperer from the mid-20th century, recordings with a massive orchestra and chorus; or less leisurely performances by any of today’s modern-instrument orchestras; or the more nimble approach of John Eliot Gardiner or Ton Koopman using period instruments, or Andrew Parrott’s or Paul McCreesh’s OVPP performances?  Or somewhere in between?  There’s a lot of listening to do.  Scroll down for some samples.

In memory of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, here is a 1964 recording of the Concentus Musicus Wien performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3, BWV 1048.


References (just a few of the myriad out there)

From the blog A415 and

Haynes, Bruce.  A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of “A”.  Scarecrow Press, 2002.


Suggested videos

I’m not suggesting you listen to all of them in their entirety, especially the Saint Matthew Passions (hours long!) but I wanted to give you a taste of the different sounds).

Parrott:  Bach Mass in B minor (OVPP)

Gardiner:  Bach Mass in B Minor

Harnoncourt:  Bach Mass in B Minor

Klemperer:  Bach Mass in B Minor (slow)


McCreesh:  Bach Saint Matthew Passion (OVPP)

Harnoncourt:  Bach Saint Matthew Passion

Gardiner:  Bach Saint Matthew Passion

Koopman:  Bach Saint Matthew Passion

Furtwängler:  Bach Saint Matthew Passion (slow)

Klemperer:  Bach Saint Matthew Passion (even slower)

Image attribution

Nikolaus Harnoncourt by Marcel Antonisse / Anefo (Derived from Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.


5 thoughts on “Harnoncourt and Historically Informed Performance

  1. Great post! By the way, my preferred version of the b-minor mass is by Herreweghe (his 3rd recording) and I cannot listen to non-HIP Bach any more

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow- well done, Chris! Lots of accurate info, and you are very wise not to take sides. He had his detractors, but was a marvelous musician and very important influence, quirky as his interpretations could be. Listen his his Mozart late symphonies on You Tube (with the Concentus Musicus)- really marvelous in many ways, if idiosyncratic. I tend to prefer the lightness of Gardiner, but that’s subjective. Saw him last in Houston decades ago, doing a program of Brandenburgs with about 10 players, mostly standing up.



    Liked by 1 person

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