Deconstructing and Discovering Classical Music Through Historically Informed Performance:
Scholar-Performer Christopher Hogwood Discusses His Art and Influences in an Interview With The Crimson
Christopher Hogwood is an unlikely classical music superstar. His rigorous training, in both music and classical literature, his insistence on the finer points of musicological research in his recording ventures, and above all his adherence to the notion of "historically informed performance" seem to cast him in the role of a scholar-performer rather than that of a popularizer.
And yet he is a popularizer. He is perhaps the best-known figure in the expanding realm of period performance artists, and through innovative programming and extensive involvement with the media, he has brought "authentic" performances to the masses.
His methods involve the reconstruction of what seventeenth and eighteenth-century music actually sounded like when performed. He explains: "In all periods, you only have a certain amount of evidence that is passed on to you. Some of it is the most direct--the composer's marks on the page--some of it is circumstantial--the instruments or the voices that he suggests--some of it is even one circle further out--the context or the assumptions of the time. If you put all those together, I think you can get a pretty good working diagram of the arena in which you are then free to stroll around."
If his method seems restrictive, Hogwood maintains that it is actually liberating: "I don't find it an inhibition; the interesting part of the policy is that the more I scientifically measure up the ground that's available, the more ideas strike me about what one can do. It's rather like having a limited number of lines and rhyme schemes when you write a sonnet: it doesn't restrict your ideas, it concentrates you ideas and in fact I think improves on some of your thinking because of the restriction that appears to be there."
The goal in view, however, is not an exact recreation of what someone in the eighteenth century would have heard, in the manner of an archaeological restoration, but rather an informed and sympathetic performance of a living piece of music. According to Hogwood, this has not always been clear.
"When the movement to use period instruments and to play in a style other than that of the modern conservatoiretrained, symphonically-minded player first started, it went up with a big wave of hot air and evangelizing. The tendency was for all of us to exaggerate the situation slightly and to make greater claims than one should for what we going on, in order to make a selling point and to convince the scarcely-thinking public that there was a movement under way.
"I think that's where people started saying [that we were trying to reproduce] 'the original sound' which, of course, is totally untrue. The original sound petered out somewhere around 1730; if it was a work being performed then, it lasted a matter of seconds. The 'original instruments'--many of them were modern copies of original instruments. 'Authentic instruments'--you looked and saw that the piece was written in 1730 and that the instruments were built in 1790. Too many specific terms had been applied to a rather general crusade."
Hogwood traces his interest in "historically informed" performance to his early activities and studies, and, above all, the influence of Cambridge musicologist Thurston Dart: "When I was at school and heard Thurston Dart talking on the radio, I really thought his stories of the detections of flaws and fakes and historical and musicological chain of investigation as he put it over was as exciting as an Agatha Christie, that all the more because I find Agatha Christie boring. So this was my sort of detective story.
"I had architecture and archaeology heavily on my mind. I was a classics student, and philology, in the sense that the rest of Europe used the word, was strongly there. I liked source material; I liked asking the question. I liked looking for contradictions of accepted views, and it was the way of thinking that lay behind classical scholarship and it was very much the way the Bob Dart behaved.
"He talked on, you know, you went and saw him and he pontificated rather, but taught one: 'my dear Christopher, what evidence is there that Bach wrote the chromatic fantasy and fugue--dear sir, who wrote the Jupiter Symphony?' He was sometimes showy, but very often asked just the right question that a kid that age needed. 'Stravinsky died 30 years ago and nobody has noticed'--this was while Stravinsky was still alive."
Musicologists such as Dart trained Hogwood to deal with musical texts. He only began to think about the importance of instruments after he was confronted with the testimony of different kinds of experts.
"For 10 years after Cambridge, I played for Neville Marriner with the Academy of St Martin's, and I really thought that was the most I would hear in my lifetime, getting the Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields to play without vibrato. I thought this sounded very lovely, but gradually people convinced me otherwise.
"A harpsichord maker convinced me that the noise I was hearing from the modern harpsichord I owned, colorful and varied though it was, was only an apology for the fact that no one sound on that instrument was a classical sound. He actually explained to me why, sitting at eighteenth century harpsichord, there is a classic quality to the sound, in that you don't need much variety with the style of playing and listening, which defends that instrument in its own right, and you don't need to apologize for it."
Hogwood's recordings have met with critical acclaim and commercial success beyond the wildest dreams of those who championed "authentic" performance during its infancy. And he hardly seems surprised. To counter the claims of those who disparage the period performance movement as a headlong rush into the musical past, he says: "this is not historicizing; it happens that this way of playing is the most modern way of playing this music." If his words don't convince his music will.