In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Performance Practice in Western Art Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Essays (Including Festschriften)
  • Dictionaries
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Origin and Objectives of Performance Practice
  • Choosing a Score: Urtext, Facsimile, or Edited Score?
  • Performers’ Guides
  • The Voice and Singing Style
  • Mechanical Devices and Recordings as Documents for Performance Practice

Music Performance Practice in Western Art Music
Mary Cyr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0189


Performance practice (or performing practice, from the German word Aufführungspraxis) is a field within musicology that is primarily concerned with how music is or was performed. Its chronological boundaries are not fixed, but traditionally most research in the field has centered upon music composed before 1750, often referred to generally as “early music.” Early interest in performance practice was supported by the production of scholarly editions, a movement led by German musicologists in the 19th century. British and French scholars contributed to that effort and also contributed to a growing literature of articles and books on interpreting musical notation. By the middle of the 20th century, interest in performing and recording early repertories brought instrument builders, performers, and listeners into the picture, which in turn brought new questions and controversies to the fore. Since 1980 or thereabouts, researchers have extended the definition of early music to include Classical, Romantic, and post-Romantic music. Thus, a work written centuries ago may have many different performance practices associated with it over time and as performed in different geographical locations. The tools for studying performance practice range broadly to include primary sources such as original printed and manuscript sources, instruction books, historical accounts of performances, and surviving examples of the musical instruments themselves. Important evidence can also be found in images and other iconographical sources. Study of existing evidence has brought about a vast secondary literature that provides important information for scholars, performers, instrument builders, and other individuals who are concerned with music as realized in performance. Since much of the surviving evidence continues to be discovered, and reinterpretations are often required, our understanding of how music was performed is ever-changing, and of necessity, there may be more than one interpretation of any given work or historical practice. The objectives of the field continue to be reformulated and altered as new information comes to light. Concepts such as the pursuit of authenticity in performance and the use of modern instruments versus “original” instruments have undergone shifts in meaning and today are generally replaced with discussions about “historically informed” performances and “mainstream” versus “period” instruments. A central objective of performance practice in any period remains the attempt to determine how much and what types of freedom individual composers envisioned for their works.

General Overviews

Two types of general overviews exist in the secondary literature on performance practice. One is a comprehensive overview of performance in all periods of music history such as Reidemeister 1988 and Gutknecht 1994. The two-volume Brown and Sadie 1989 is an outstanding guide to the entire field, and its inclusion of an overview of the 20th century was groundbreaking. The second type of overview is usually somewhat more limited in scope but nevertheless remains important as a critical overview. One of the most influential works in this category was Dart 1954, which laid the groundwork for many subsequent investigations. Donington 1977, one of several books by this author, remains a significant milestone in the field. Butt 2002 is a more recent example of the second type of general overview demonstrating that, half a century after Dart and following an intense amount of research on many of the issues he raised, new controversies emerged in this rapidly changing field of inquiry. Cohen and Snitzer 1985 and Kelly 2011 are addressed to early music enthusiasts in a more general way than the previous studies. Kelly concentrates on Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music, whereas Cohen and Snitzer include Classical music as well.

  • Brown, Howard Mayer, and Stanley Sadie, eds. Performance Practice. 2 vols. New York and London: Norton, 1989.

    Issued in the New Grove handbook series, but does not duplicate articles in The New Grove Dictionary. Each volume is organized by historical periods: Medieval and Renaissance in Vol. 1 (Music before 1600), and Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th Century in Vol. 2 (Music after 1600). Essays by individual scholars offer both breadth and detail.

  • Butt, John. Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511613555

    A critical overview of “historically informed” performance and one of the first sources to introduce this term into the literature. Butt raises philosophical issues in a wide-ranging and provocative discussion of arguments representing both the proponents and detractors of the movement. Emphasis is placed on the centrality of the work, the significance of the composer, and the inherent difficulty of considering a composer’s intentions. Largely addressed to musicologists who are also performers, but also useful for graduate students and experienced players.

  • Cohen, Joel, and Herb Snitzer. Reprise: The Extraordinary Revival of Early Music. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1985.

    A comprehensive survey of how performance practice came to be established from the early 20th century onwards, its definition (early music here defined as that composed between 1100 and 1800), major performers in the field, and a few significant issues that remain open to controversy, especially the Authenticity Debate and the Voice and Singing Style. Directed mainly toward musicians who are new to the study of performance practice and to mainstream performers who are curious about its goals.

  • Dart, Thurston. The Interpretation of Music. London and New York: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1954.

    A classic statement of the “problem” of how to perform musical works, each attempt being a unique and different experience. Chapters on the editor’s task, sonorities, and extemporization are particularly revealing. Organized in reverse chronological order, beginning with style in the 18th century, ending with the Middle Ages.

  • Donington, Robert. The Interpretation of Early Music. Rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1977.

    Extensive coverage of written and unwritten conventions of ornamentation and accompaniment, as well as a great many other areas related mainly to music from 1500 to 1800. Six new chapters in the 1977 edition deal with aspects of authenticity, opera, and the ways that performance practice has changed. First published in 1963; a new version was also published in 1974.

  • Gutknecht, Dieter. “Aufführungspraxis.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d rev. ed. Sachteil 1. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 954–986. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1994.

    An extensive, up-to-date treatment of performance practice, with sections on each period and critical evaluation of the literature. The section entitled “Historischer Űberblick” (historical overview) is especially valuable, as is the extensive bibliography.

  • Kelly, Thomas Forrest. Early Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199730766.001.0001

    Covers the basics, including issues that arise in performing the music within each early style period (Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque) and unwritten conventions such as improvisation. Includes a brief history of the early music revival, its personalities and institutions, conductors, and recording artists. A good starting point for students, listeners, and performers.

  • Reidemeister, Peter. Historische Aufführungspraxis: Eine Einführung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1988.

    Covers the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque eras, with emphasis on the last-mentioned. The first chapter, on the current state of performance practice, is particularly valuable, as are the extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources and the list of treatises.

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