Period Instruments: Why Bother?

It is probably fair to say that interest in period instruments began during the first few decades of the twentieth century, but that their impact was not really felt on the everyday listener of classical music until the 80s. Despite the fact they have been around for some time, the question of whether to use period instruments or not is still open to debate. Indeed, while some scholars and performers believe that these instruments can provide a more historically accurate rendering of a piece, some think that their use is nothing more than academic, taking away from the beauty and emotional depth of a piece. For me, the question of whether we should or shouldn’t use period instruments is, however, irrelevant.

Let me try to explain by posing a question: does the use of a 18th-Century clavier or harpsichord to play Bach’s Preludes and Fugues render the performance more historically accurate? On the one hand, it seems logical to say yes, the harpsichord, say, being an instrument that would have been employed at the time and for which the work was composed. So, from the vantage point of the composer it seems sensible to employ a “period” instrument. But, does the use of a harpsichord provide the modern-day listener with a more historical hearing of the work? While for contemporary listeners of Bach the harpsichord was a “household” instrument, its sound epitomising many works for keyboard, for us the equivalent is the piano. To my ears, the harpsichord is imbued with a sense of history, of a time gone by and, thus, gives the piece with an almost antique flavour. This is perhaps not the effect intended by Bach – these pieces being fiercely difficult and sounding very modern for that time. For the modern day listener, then, it may be that Bach on piano more closely mirrors the “intended” effect originally created by a harpsichord back in the 1720s.

So, although the harpsichord may theoretically sound more historically accurate, the way in which we hear and understand the piece may be no more “accurate” than if it were played on piano, perhaps even less so. In theory, a piano rendering of a Bach fugue could have an emotional effect similar to a listener contemporary with Bach, more so than if it were played on a harpsichord. Fundamentally, we are a different audience, with different tastes, and different wants and needs. Could we ever truly experience an “authentic” performance of Bach when our ears have experienced the works of Wagner, Schoenberg, and Metallica?

So, why bother; why bother with period instruments at all? Why not just use the more modern and technologically advanced versions of these old-hat instruments? Well, my answer – perhaps surprisingly – is because they can offer so much. Although period instruments may not produce more historically accurate performances, they do open up new soundworlds and new ways to listen to familiar pieces of music. Using a period instrument can ask us to rethink performance and compositions. What may be easily played on an oboe, is not necessarily easily accomplished on the crumhorn (if an oboe can even be considered its closest musical relative) and vice versa. Indeed, while it is all very well playing Mozart and Beethoven on a modern Steinway, an early piano confronts the performer with questions of how best to go about sustaining notes and what the dynamic range of the piece should and can be.

To my mind, although period instruments do not take us back to the 1600s, they do offer up new ways of listening to and interpreting pieces. And for me, there is nothing more interesting than listening to a familiar piece afresh, and a particular favourite of mine in this respect is Bach’s Prelude in C, often romanticised on piano, but fantastic and crisp when played on the harpsichord.


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