Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance, by John Butt. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xvi, 265 pp. - reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman in The Journal of the American Musicological Society, 59:2, Summer 2006. The text is revised here, so go to the Journal for the citation.


No review of John Butt's Playing with History for the Journal of the American Musicological Society would be complete if it didn't mention the Musical Times review by Peter Williams - specifically, the sentence that dismisses the book by saying, "If you want to know what some leading light of the American Musicological Society says or thinks, fine."1 This was not meant as praise. Williams accuses Butt of ignoring the interests of the "musician on the shop floor" in favor of the "modes of thought au courant in American university departments of music(ology)," presumably including the University of California at Berkeley, where Butt began the book.

But Playing with History is clearly not meant as a shop manual2, and it might well interest readers east of the Sierra Nevadas, or for that matter the Atlantic (Butt is now at the University of Glasgow). The book shows that the period-instrument quarrels are far from "intellectually exhausted"3 , and indeed that they can shed light on the nature of Western art music.

The book falls into three parts. The first critically reviews the debates on historically-informed performance (HIP, an acronym that Butt adopts); the second discusses values and assumptions within Western art music that bear upon HIP; and the third considers late twentieth-century cultural trends that influence or parallel HIP.

Section One's survey starts with Paul Hindemith and Nikolaus Harnoncourt and continues through such authors as Theodor Adorno, Peter Kivy, Roger Scruton, Laurence Dreyfus, and many others,4 notably Richard Taruskin. It demonstrates fluency in musicology, history, and philosophy (the last being of central interest to Butt, who uses Nietzsche's philosophy of history as a unifying theme). But what ignites the mix is the author's professional performance experience. Butt is an accomplished HIP keyboardist and conductor, and his time in the shop fuels devastating critiques of Scruton and Kivy, whose targets are shown to be no more than philosophical straw.

The critic who most engages Butt is another musicologist with performance background, Taruskin. Taruskin's writings were the impetus to the early-music debates and to Butt's engagement with them. Their power eventually led to the widespread sense that the debates were over. Butt aims to show that they should instead be taken as a spur to further thought. Butt devotes ten pages of his first chapter to analysis of Taruskin's ideas, identifying the anti-authoritarianism at the core of much of Taruskin's thinking.

After praising Taruskin, Butt argues that two of his points are problematic: "his desire to 'democratise' performance by catering to the needs and wishes of the audience, and his tendency to promote postmodernism as the answer to all modernism's ills" (p. 19; the latter topic is explored in chapter 5, discussed below). Butt quotes Taruskin's statement that he is "glad to see increasing impatience with an excessively production-oriented system of values in classical music and the proper reassertion of consumer values (yes, audience response) as a stylistic regulator."5 To this, Butt objects that "most of the evidence he cites for this shift in priority concerns changes at the production level rather than a revolution on the consumers' side: pluralism in the concert scene, the breaking down of the walls between the 'high' and the 'low' in the field of classical composition. In other words, the shift is in the direction of that which Taruskin believes the audience should want rather than unequivocal evidence of the people's will at work" (p. 19). (Butt does later find common ground when Taruskin expresses his own caveats.)

Butt's book was published in 2002, before Taruskin's The Oxford History of Western Music (2005) more thoroughly developed his ideas about a tension between democratic ideals and Romantic/modernist claims for the artist. The core intellectual difference between the authors remains, but another change since 2002 is that classical-music institutions have been more tangibly trying to re-invent their approaches to popular culture; more examples of democratization (see this link) arise all the time.The art and commerce issue, the conflict of Romantic and democratic ideals remains, but evidence of what consumers want is far more abundant, as is evidence of when producers have read audience expectations correctly or incorrectly or have failed and succeeded in influencing them.

The book's next main section, comprising chapters 2 through 4, considers core assumptions and beliefs of the classical-music world that have shaped the HIP enterprise and that have in turn, Butt argues, been influenced by it. He argues, characteristically, that one way in which HIP relates to the wider culture of Western music is to act "in the manner of Nietzsche's critical history, ultimately preserving the culture by calling some of its most cherished concepts into [question]" (p. 73).

Chapter 2 considers the concept of Werktreue and its Platonic assumptions. Butt notes that belief in the essentiality of musical works played a key role in getting HIP going, but also argues that HIP is paradoxically "enabling us to challenge this hegemony" (p. 72). It undermines "the a priori separation of work and performance" (p. 69). He discusses a number of thinkers, paying special attention to Lydia Goehr. To quote Butt: "Not only does HIP suggest that some earlier music is better understood in terms of event than abstract work (a point that Goehr strongly stresses) but it helps us focus on the role performance plays in defining all works. Even pieces which are strongly associated with the ahistorical, work-based view of music history are profoundly influenced by their performance history" (p. 69).

Chapter 3 addresses serving the composer's intention, another central motive behind the rise of HIP. After a literature review, Butt argues: "The whole concept of HIP brings up the issue of intentionality in a way that it has never been formulated before. It encourages us to rethink our customary sense of the relationship between composer, work and performer. Most importantly, it is an awareness of intention that helps us discover the human presence in composition, it can work as an antidote to the attitude of seeing musical works purely in formal terms" (p. 78). This concern with the human presence is central to Butt's view of HIP.

Later in the chapter, Butt pays respect to Randall R. Dipert's categorization of composers' intentions into low-level (involving details of instruments, fingering, etc.), medium-level (concerned with the intended sound), and high-level (concerned with producing a given effect in the listener)6 . Butt sees the categorization only as a "good starting point" (p. 87); he objects to it for a number of reasons, notably its hierarchical ranking of intentions (Dipert believes that the more conscious and deliberate intentions bind us more than others). As an alternative, Butt proposes a nonhierarchical division into two broad types of intention: active intention (which he defines as "a composer's specific decisions concerning such matters as instrumentation, tempo, dynamic, ornamentation, articulation, etc .- all of which may, or may not be, consciously notated"); and passive intention, which he describes as "those factors over which [the composer] had little control, but which he consciously or unconsciously assumed" (pp. 89-90). While the passive intentions tend to be less conscious, "this association is by no means fixed." The great value of the passive intentions is to help us "reconstruct the composer's mental and experiential world." The distinction implies, Butt argues, that "far from being synonymous with the notion of historical fidelity, [intentionality] actually works against it," as in cases where the composer's active intentions were impossible to realize at the time, or involved "a particular style of performance that did not pertain to local environments" (p. 91).

Historical study also shows that "authority in performance does not go merely from composer to performer but can quite often go the other way" (p. 93). That observation ties neatly to the fourth chapter, an original taxonomy of the purposes that notation has served in different eras. Instead of the conventional view of notation progressing towards increasingly exact specification of performance intentions, Butt posits five alternative purposes to which notation has been put at different times. They are:

(1) Notation as purposely incomplete, to allow the piece to be varied according to circumstances (an example is figured bass);
(2) Notation as fitted suit (an example is the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opera aria tailored to a particular singer);
(3) Notation as example (as in the piano-concerto movements for which Mozart wrote out embellishments for the use of others);
(4) Notation as a record of performing tradition: notation as description, in which the score notates music that is based on long-standing traditions (as in plainchant) or long-developed improvisations, as in some works of Messiaen;
(5) Notation as an alternative embodiment of the music, as in the case of Palestrina, who appears to have written for singers who routinely ornamented their lines, so that, says Butt, "much of the supreme refinement of Palestrina's compositional technique was designed more for the eye than the ear" (p. 119).

Butt sees this approach to understanding notation as "an antidote to perhaps the most significant change in the history of performance - the mass production of recording and broadcasting that has become ubiquitous since World War II. Only in this age, I contest, has it been possible for performance virtually to reduplicate notation and vice versa; only in this period has exact compliance with notation been widely seen as a virtue" (p. 122).

In the third and final section of the book, Butt considers forces in the larger culture that may have influenced why HIP arose when and where it did. Chapter 5 addresses HIP in terms of the modernist and the postmodernist. Regarding modernism, Butt writes, "Much recent musicological literature tends to view modernism as a consistent dogma based around objectivism, positivism, geometricism, depersonalization and the separability of the aesthetic realm from all other aspects of life." He responds, "While all these elements have at some point been relevant to modernism, they are by no means the only characteristics and, indeed, stand diametrically opposed to other elements of the movement. Moreover, if this modernist caricature is applied to the HIP movement there is unlikely to be more than the most superficial association since the depersonalized and autonomous view of art is fundamentally anti-historicist" (p. 132). Butt argues that modernism had its own "inspired antiquarianism" reflecting its own crisis in the process of "modernization."

While modernists "show a remarkable diversity of ideology and approach," he says, the diversity is even greater among postmodernists (p. 145). Butt criticizes "macabre disputes between scholars trying to be 'postmoderner than thou' " and the tendency for the term to be "bandied around by virtually anyone who wants to appear 'relevant' and up-to-date" (p. 20). He finds little worth in seeing postmodernism as a conscious style of playful self-awareness or concern with surfaces. Those who share this reviewer's disdain for the nihilism of Derrida will have nothing to cringe at. Butt is, however, interested in the postmodernist use of the Platonic term "simulacrum" and of the idea of "a distinct change in mentality, where many cannot distinguish reality from a presentation or creation of the media" (p. 156), and he is impressed by Frederic Jameson's idea of the postmodern as a "cultural reflex" that arises upon the "completion of modernization." Butt calls this idea "extremely productive as a means of understanding the phenomenon of HIP" (p. 162), and finds Jameson's views on our era's loss of a sense of history particularly relevant - Butt argues that the "historicist imperative behind HIP is basically a compensation for a waning historicity" (p. 163; he also examines HIP's "eerie resonance" with religious fundamentalism). He asserts that "the concept of HIP as a simulacrum of a lost historical past is the most convincing way of relating the movement to the conditions of a postmodern age, as something that is indeed an 'authentic' representation of a cultural situation" (p. 157). He concludes that HIP arises "at the crossroads of the modern and postmodern" when a "thoroughly modern development leads to a new mind-set" (p. 157).

Readers will respond based on their partialities, but it is hard to deny that the rise of HIP relates closely to larger cultural trends that are impacted by economic and technological changes. To understand these trends, it could well prove helpful to consider Jameson's hypotheses, which are uniquely testable among those considered postmodern.

Butt concludes the chapter by questioning the ability of many theorists of postmodernism to realize the power of memory in Europe, whose experience, he notes, "may be particularly complex" (p. 164; in Jameson's terms, modernization is not truly completed). This leads to the final chapter, titled "A Reactionary Wolf in Countercultural Sheep's Clothing?" which connects the rise of HIP, in the terms analyzed in chapter 5, to that of the Heritage movement. It is a valuable contribution to the social history of HIP, especially Butt's discussion of Great Britain and the Netherlands; he also discusses other European countries with insight. Connecting "American heritage" to American HIP (which is in any case more marginal than British HIP, especially outside of Berkeley and Boston) is particularly difficult, as Butt allows, although he sees the connection nonetheless. Later, he mentions in passing the idea of the British Heritage movement as a manifestation of "a romance of otherness" (p. 215). The idea seems especially worth exploring with respect to American HIP and some of its leading artists, such as Buffalo-born conductor/ harsichordist William Christie, who became the father of the HIP revival in France and an Officer and Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and Alan Curtis, who has devoted his later career to performance of Baroque Italian music by Italian singers. (Given how the observation might be applied to suburban American or British hip-hop and blues artists, future studies of HIP might want to consider rock criticism and some of its skeptical discussions of the concept of "authenticity.")

Butt considers implications of the Heritage impulse: does it represent a loss of confidence in the concept of progress? Is it reactionary or countercultural? His typically thorough review of the literature leads him to say, "What has been so striking in so many of the examples covered in this study is that different commentators can look at what is essentially the same cultural phenomenon and draw extraordinarily contradictory conclusions" (p. 217). His own conclusion is "optimistic." He sees Heritage and HIP arising "from a contemporary need that is both real and vital" (a stance Taruskin has long taken) and thinks that it "serves to ground us in the present through renewed engagement with the past and in a way that has never been possible or necessary before." He concludes that "the net benefit greatly outweighs the disadvantages" (p. 217).

Butt's evenhandedness in reviewing complex scholarly literature does not facilitate a graceful writing style; the same may be said of the pleasure he takes in uncovering hidden paradoxes and logical contradictions, which is one of his signal strengths. Yet the effort demanded is well compensated. Playing with History is a notable achievement, essential for any reader concerned with the history and implications of HIP, and of value to a wider readership as well.


1. Peter Williams, "Merely Players?" Musical Times 143, no. 1880 (Autumn 2002): 68-69.
2. Richard Taruskin criticized the Williams review over this point, in Musical Times 143, no. 1881 (Winter 2002): 5.
3. As was claimed in a 1999 survey of musicology edited by Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist, Rethinking Music (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 12.
4. For the sake of transparency let me note that the survey makes positive mention of my own book on the HIP movement, in which, in turn, Butt was interviewed. Butt also was series editor for my second book.
5. Richard Taruskin, Text and Act (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 47.
6. Randall Dipert, "The Composer's Intentions: An Examination of Their Relevance for Performance," Musical Quarterly 66 (1980): 315-25.