by Bernard D. Sherman

Reprinted from The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael J. Kelly (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, four volumes). Copyright © 1998 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press. This material may not be copied or distributed without the prior permission of Oxford University Press. Online text updated and revised.

In Western classical music in the later 20th century, the word “authentic” has often referred to performances that use period instruments (or fascimiles) and that attempt to re-create period performance idioms. Since the 1960s this approach has been both influential and controversial. The debates have gone beyond performance practices to broad aesthetic questions. The latter debates led, eventually, to the retirement of this usage of the term "authentic."

History: Musical performance before the late eighteenth century typically focused on new compositions, about which posterity was not expected to care. (See Weber, 1992. Exceptions, he notes, were most likely in liturgical settings.) During the nineteenth century, however, public concerts centered increasingly on music by earlier composers. One reason for
this trend was the era’s new awareness of history, which helped bring forth the idea of a canon of masterpieces in music, with Beethoven and a few other composer holding classic status. Other crucial developments included: an unprecedented rise in prosperity (Maddison, 2001), sufficient to support widespread participation in art music; the growing significance of art music for the expanding middle classes; and the fragmentation of the musical public into diverse "taste groups" (Weber, 1979), with one group focused on respectful experience of the music of the classic masters. This group eventually, in the later part of the century, defined the culture of classical-music performance.

Lydia Goehr (1992) argues that the century brought a related shift: musical practice began to be governed to an unprecedented extent by the concept of the musical “work.” Earlier eras, she argues, were more likely to conceive of a piece of music as an act of performance, a carrier of a text, or a functional part of some other event such as an aristocratic wedding or a church service (although musicians had anticipated the "work concept" to varying degrees since the Renaissance). The work concept, by contrast, elevates a piece of music to the status of an autonomous, enduring, integral work of art.

Adopting the concept can, in turn, lead to a demand that performers be faithful to the works they play. A short (though not necessary) next step is to greater concern for honoring the performance intentions of the work’s composer. The ideal of serving the composer’s intentions instead of the performer's might also have gained strength from the increasing division of labor between the two groups, an example of a broader socioeconomic trend of specialization.

Technology also played a role in the ascent of composers' intentions. New printing technologies made sheet music inexpensive, so publishing became a primary means of disseminating music. As Weber points out, the growing public for sheet music was dispersed enough geographically that it could not be assumed to be familiar with the composer's performance style. Partly for that reason, the new importance of publishing contributed to the increasingly precise notation of performance instructions. It is clear that composers sometimes notated precise instructions simply because publishers expected these to be specified (Butt, 2002, p. 121) and because technologies of printing made it possible.

For whatever reasons, by the mid-twentieth century the composer's notation had come to control the performer’s playing to a degree not equalled in other performing arts (such as theater and dance). Admonitions to honor the composer’s performance intentions, though recorded as early as the fifteenth century, became common in the nineteenth century (Bowen, 1993) and dominant in the twentieth.

One can go a step further and insist on playing music with the instruments and styles that the composer used. Few nineteenth-century musicians took this step, partly because it does not follow necessarily from the ideal of being faithful to the work and its maker: many performers have believed that musical works possess an ahistorical essence, which does not depend on the accidents of period performance practice. Another reason for discarding period instruments may have been the nineteenth century’s general faith in technological progress, evident in ongoing re-design of musical instruments. Most musicians believed that they could serve works and composers best by using the latest instruments. Yet over the course of the nineteenth and especially the twentieth centuries, a growing minority of musicians believed that period instruments and styles were part of the essence of a musical work.

Again, the change of attitude probably had multiple causes. One might be an increasing disillusionment with modern life and with technological progress (the latter documented in Heilbroner, 1994). Another may be the rise of modern attitudes in hermeneutics and historiography, which could cast doubt on the assumption that modern playing styles and instruments are improvements, since one’s preference for them is considered to be historically contingent rather than neutral and objective (John Butt, personal communication, 1996). Also, Robert Morgan (in Kenyon, 1988) argues that the post-World War I advent of radical styles of musical composition, which seemed discontinuous with the past, contributed to a sense that the music of the past was no longer part of a living tradition and thus to be played in the current style, as most nineteenth-century musicians believed. Instead, masterworks of the past began to seem like heirlooms best preserved by being played in the styles of their own periods. (Other proposed motivations are discussed in a later section of this article.)

Attempts at historical performance began to occur regularly around the turn of the twentieth century, and became increasingly prominent over the century’s course (Haskell, 1988). The technological advances of recording played a critical role in allowing historical perfomers to reach large audiences of listeners, critics, and fellow musicians. It also allowed period instruments, which often produce less volume than modern ones and can be harder to keep in tune, to come across more effectively to listeners than they might in a modern concert hall. (That modern technology has been crucial to a historically oriented movement has often been called ironic. A similar instance is that modern travel technologies allowed influential performers to disseminate their approaches to many more musicians and listeners than would have been possible in the past.) Historical performance gained commercial visibility in the 1960s and 1970s, by which time it had become widespread enough to be known as the “early-music movement.” In the 1980s and 1990s it produced best-selling recordings of Bach, Handel, and even Beethoven; and a few of its performers succeeded in bringing medieval and Renaissance music to a much larger audience than it had generally reached before. The affected repertoire expanded backwards as far as pre-Gregorian plainchant and forward to include, eventually, music of Debussy and Schoenberg.

As historical performers began to play Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, “disputes over turf” arose with mainstream players (Kerman, 1992). These disputes sometimes exemplify what psychologists call ingroup/outgroup psychology (Brewer and Kramer, 1985). Thus, some of the kinds of thinking one finds in ethnic warfare could be found in both the mainstream and early-music camps: both were known to describe the other camp with simplistic stereotypes, and to impute maleficent strength to it and beleaguered virtue to one’s own camp (Sherman, 1997, p. 5). The self-righteousness of ingroup psychology may contribute in part to the moralistic tone of much argument for and against the early-music movement. In recent years, however, the turf disputes have softened, giving rise increasingly to what Alfred Brendel calls “true cross-fertilization” (1990, p. 224). Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a period-instrument pioneer, has conducted the leading orchestras of Europe regularly.

Dispute has also arisen over the aesthetic underpinnings of the early-music movement, often within the movement itself. The most influential critic, for example, has been Richard Taruskin (1995), a musicologist who for many years was a professional viola da gamba player and Renaissance choral director. The rest of this article will examine the issues raised by Taruskin, the gambist/musicologist Laurence Dreyfus (1983), the keyboardist/ scholar John Butt, the scholar and pianist Charles Rosen, the philosopher Peter Kivy (1995), and a number of others.

Debates over Authenticity

The use of the term “authentic” to describe historical performance may, perhaps, have originated by analogy to the term’s usage in musicology, where it refers to the assignment of authorship: this piece is authentic Bach, that piece spurious. But applied to historical performance it is “a baleful term which has caused endless acrimony” (Kerman, 1985, p. 192). The arguments against applying the term to historicism in performance have been influential enough that early-music performers now almost always enclose it in scare quotes, to indicate that they know better than to use the term naively (for convenience, I will use it without quotes). Critics have attacked not only the terminology, but also the goals and assumptions of historicist musicians. The critiques have taken many forms, but can be classified into three groups: those that question the possibility of historical authenticity, those that question its desirability, and those that examine the motivations of performers (Sherman, 1997, pp. 8–20).

Possibility. Some authors believe that it is impossible for us to perform music exactly as it was done in its own era. In a few cases, such as the use of castrati singers, it is obviously impossible (or repellent) to re-create a known practice. But more generally, evidence about period performance practice is almost never complete, so performers must go beyond what scholars can certify as historically accurate. Doing so involves the use of the performers’ imaginations—and modern musical imaginations differ almost inevitably from those of previous centuries (Taruskin, 1995). The incompleteness of the evidence could short-circuit attempts even to re-create only the audible parameters of a period performance, with no concern for how context affects musical communication.

But contextual factors do figure prominently in many other arguments against the possibility of authenticity. For example, one type of argument points to differences between modern and period experience in such realms as economics, politics, religion, and science; it argues (sometimes plausibly, sometimes not) that such factors affect how we play and hear music. Another contextual barrier to true historical re-creation is that our contexts of performance and listening—CDs, radios, and concert halls—are usually quite different from those of the past, such as feasts, church services, and salons. Such contexts affect the nature of performance; one plays differently for one’s private edification in a music room than for critics in Carnegie Hall (Rosen, 1990). Also, the advent of recordings increased audiences’ demands for technical perfection, as well as performers’ concerns with literalness, rhythmic precision, ensemble, and accuracy (Philip, 1991); it may be impossible for artists raised in the era of recordings to ever be as comfortable with the approximate as their historical forebears were.

Such factors may limit the historical veracity even of performances that are embedded in “historical reconstructions”—e.g., concerts that stage the liturgical ceremonies for which the featured sacred music was written. And liturgical reconstructions face another type of barrier to historical authenticity: the audience. At such reconstructions, most audiences know they are at a concert to be entertained or edified, rather than at a service to engage in worship. Moreover, few audiences share the emotional or theological associations that period audiences felt toward specific texts, chorales, or plainchant melodies. This is an example of another broad argument for impossibility, involving reception, which says that composers wrote for audiences whose experiences not only of music but also of much that music refers to differed from those of our time.

Desirability. Regardless of whether historical accuracy is possible, some authors doubt that it is an artistically worthy goal; they especially deny that it is a valid standard by which to judge performances. If one’s goal is to play exactly as was done in the period, these critics argue that period performances cannot be assumed to have been better in any meaningful way than modern, unhistorical ones. If one’s goal is to re-create period sounds, Charles Rosen (1990) points out that sound per se was usually not as central to the conception of early music as it sometimes is to later music. (An objection sometimes made to this argument, however, is that period instruments are often valued not as means of re-creating period sound per se, but as means for gaining a feeling for the articulation of musical phrases, or for gaining insight into the constraints that led the composer to write as he or she did; Levinson, 1990, pp. 390–408, makes a related case for period instruments, and it is central to Butt's arguments, 2002.)

As mentioned earlier, the ideal of historical authenticity does not follow inevitably from the ideal of serving the composer’s performance intentions. Most mainstream performers espouse the “composer’s intention” ideal as strongly as most historical performers do (though the degree to which either truly aspires to the ideal has been questioned by John Butt). And some historical performers seek not to serve the composer’s intentions so much as to revive period performance practices. But many link these ideals; thus arguments against the desirability of historical performance often reconsider the “composer’s intention” ideal. Some critics argue that the composer’s performance intentions are rarely clear or fixed (Taruskin, 1995, p. 54–55), and that even when precise they cannot be assumed to be superior to anyone else’s (ibid., p.190–93; Kivy, 1995, pp. 162–69). Dipert (1980) distinguishes between the composer’s “high-level” performing intentions (such as aesthetic effects) and “low-level” ones, which include the means for making those aesthetic effects audible; when these levels conflict, he says, we should give priority to the high-level ones. Kivy (1995, p. 30–46) distinguishes between the composer’s strong intentions and his mere wishes, suggestions, and weak intentions, which may include many details of performance. Sometimes a composer’s stronger intentions, such as wanting the most effective possible performance of his work for each given audience and concert situation, might be served best by not using the means available in his era. Butt (2002) proposes a non-hierarchical division into two broad types of intention: Active intentions (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 notated); and passive intentions, 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 value of the passive intentions, says Butt is to help us "reconstruct the composer's mental and experiential world"; but because some passive intentions couldn't or wouldn't have been realized in the actual circumstances of the day, "far from being synonymous with the notion of historical fidelity, [intentionality] actually works against it."( 91).

Another argument is that the performer’s main duty is not to the composer, who forfeits “ownership” upon publication, but to the modern audience (Taruskin, 1995, p.47). Modern audiences, we saw, may have different aesthetic backgrounds than period audiences; thus they may be better served by unhistorical performances. And “period ears” might not necessarily be preferable to modern ones for listening to old music (Kivy, 1995, pp. 214–17)—modern audiences may understand the music better in some cases, if not in others. Butt (1996), however, raises a concern, familiar from such modernists as Eliot Carter, about the “dictatorship of the marketplace" in arguing that audience appeal should not be priviliged. Indeed, Kivy (1995, p. 184) argues that utilitarian arguments can be used to defend a performer’s not simply catering to modern audiences—although without audience approval, he admits, a performance style will never prevail. Kivy also argues that it is understandable in our “culture of the author” that we expect performers to begin their musical preparation by considering composer’s performance intentions, even if they end up rejecting those intentions when other solutions seem to them to work better (ibid., pp. 185–86).

In practice (and sometimes in theory), many historical performers determine on a pragmatic, case-by-case basis whether it is desirable to use period performance practices. Admittedly, some try to use as much of the evidence as possible, and believe that this produces better musical results (though Taruskin argues—see below—that even these performers are unconsciously selective); but other performers distinguish between historical practices that seem to them beneficial or important to a successful performance, and historical practices that seem insignificant or even harmful. In a few repertories a consensus exists over the desirability of historical practices, but such repertoires are rare. The lack of consensus suggests that determining which historical practices are desirable is not an objective process, but is influenced by the performer’s (and the era’s) priorities and concepts of music.

A further reason that consensus is rare may be that an informed choice between modern and period practices or instruments often involves making trade-offs. Period styles and instruments usually have both advantages and disadvantages, as do modern instruments and styles. A fortepiano, for example, has a wider variety of articulations than a modern grand, but a narrower dynamic range. Which instrument one prefers will depend in part on which costs and benefits concern one most. Again, such valuation is generally influenced by one’s aesthetic priorities and beliefs, and not simply by the demands of the music.

Motivation. Some critics have looked not at the justification for the authenticity enterprise, but at the reasons why so many musicians undertake it. The most obvious reason is that the musicians are convinced that historical practice yields better performances; in a few cases (such as French Baroque music) this explanation is widely accepted. But critics have posited other, more complex and sometimes less conscious motives. We have already mentioned some of them—disillusionment with technological progress, the rise of modern hermeneutics, and a sense of separation from the past—but there are a variety of other proposed motives.

One of them is competition for attention and status in a field that is increasingly crowded. If great performers have already fully explored the mainstream style and repertory, one way to make one’s mark is to stake out new and unconquered musical territory either in repertory or in performance style. The primacy of recording has increased the urgency of this motivation, as the back-catalogs grow; historical performance allows one to be novel without being overtly willful (in violation of the norms of classical performance today). A related but less cynical formulation sees historical performance as an attempt to inject novelty into an ailing concert life, whose circumscribed repertory and performance styles were leading to atrophy. Many contemporary works had, since World War I, been unpalatable to the majority of listeners, and thus could not offset this trend, but the early-music movement could provide both approachable new repertory and new ways of playing familiar works.

The most widely discussed and debated motivation hypothesis is that of Taruskin. He posits a discrepancy between the conscious and the hidden motives of early-music performers. While performers think they are trying to use musicological scholarship to re-create the sounds of the past, what unconsciously motivates them, he believes, is the wish to create a style of performance that satisfies modern tastes. He illustrates this with examples of artists using historical evidence selectively, privileging evidence that accords with modern taste while ignoring or dismissing evidence that does not. Although Taruskin occasionally condemns instances of these processes, his defining position is to praise them: he says that they give historical performance its artistic relevance. It is a vastly greater thing, he says, to be the “true voice of one’s time” than to be the “assumed voice of history” (1995, p. 166). Taruskin has many critics, some of whom argue that his analysis of motivation applies to some but not all of early-music performance. Another one, John Butt, argues that Taruskin is right in saying that modern taste ineluctably conditions performance, but wrong in arguing that this taste specifically reflects the aesthetics of Modernism. Butt instead sees it at "the crossroads" of the modern and postmodern (the latter as defined, controversially, by Frederic Jameson as a "cultural reflex" that arises once the process of modernization is "completed").

Another idea is that historical performance motivates performers by giving them special latitude. This view argues that Western art music today places authoritarian demands on performers—above all, that they must honor the composer’s authority as embodied in the written score—but that these demands conflict with our artistic ethos of individual creativity and expression. Since period idioms are often believed to require inflecting the music in ways not indicated in the score (for example, by adding embellishments), historical performance may let a performer innovate without being censured for ignoring the authority of the composer (see Dulak, 1993, 1995, and Sherman, 1997, pp. 19-20). Others argue, however, that historical performance might actually increase the authoritarian demands placed on performers, by adding (or, at times, substituting) the authority of musicology to the other demands already present. (Marc Perlman and Laurence Dreyfus have developed arguments related to this point, as yet unpublished.)

Another approach relates the motives of historical performance to other changes in modern attitudes toward the past. Butt (2002, pp. 164 - 217) relates the rise of the period-instrument world to the "Heritage" movement of architectural preservation; he illustrates specific causal connections in Great Britain and the Netherlands. He sees the mentality involved as reflecting a compensation for a sense of historical disorientation.

One might also note the similarities with other musical trends to which the term "authentic" is sometimes applied. Middle-class America's adoption of the blues has favored what seemed a raw, "primal" style (e.g., that of Robert Johnson; Wald, 2004), which fit a sense of authenticity - a myth of the noble primitive - but Elijah Wald has shown that this is worlds apart from what black artists and audiences of the era preferred or what Johnson represented to them (Wald reports on the young Muddy Waters singing more Gene Autry than blues songs, and Delta audiences loving pop standards). Could the roughness of the period-instrument performances of Harnoncourt in the 1960s and 70s have appealed in a similar way to audiences for whom Karajan had come to feel slick and overly civilized? We might also note the growing interest in "world music" - the music of non-Western traditional cultures - which may have appealed to white middle-class audiences, partly by association with a sense of rootedness and authenticity. Parts of the early-music movement may relate to what the ethnomusicologist Marc Perlman refers to as "singing someone else's song" - the mastering the music of a foreign tradition, as in the American ensembles devoted to performing authentic Gamelan music. HIP performers like William Christie, in his work in France on French Baroque music, and Alan Curtis, in his work in Italy on Italian Baroque music, may represent a similar phemonenon, although one with a very different relationship to social class. (Christie's work seems to embrace the romance of traditional European aristocratic rank, quite in contrast with those who wish to perform authentic South American folk or popular music.)

Despite their contradictions, all the above motivations may operate simultaneously, perhaps even within a single musician. And other motives have been suggested or claimed. As implied in his comments on intentions, Butt (quoted in Sherman, 1997, p. 175) says he is concerned as a performer with historical issues to the degree that they help him understand the composer’s creative process.

The Future of Historical Performance
Some of today's most distinguished historical performers agree that their own work will someday appear to reflect the tastes of our time rather than of the historical eras being reconstructed. Perhaps the very concern with historical verisimilitude will appear a peculiarity of our time. On the other hand, some of the historical performers’ work might well be considered to have improved the performance of some repertoire, and some may even come to be regarded as historically accurate. Meanwhile, certain trends in historical performance have increasingly influenced mainstream performance. Other trends may turn out to do so; the revival of the art of improvisation, in music ranging from the medieval instrumental pieces to Mozart concertos, may become influential and, if so, would be a significant legacy. This may be the sort of legacy that Goehr (1992, p. 284) has in mind when she speculates that the early-music movement may be positioned to provide modern musical life with an alternative to the “work” concept. (Taruskin [1995, p. 13] complains that historicist performers have often applied the “work” concept anachronistically to music from eras that did not themselves possess it; he particularly welcomes these experiments in improvisation [ibid., pp. 284–89].)

Some historicist performances might be remembered for musical excellence, unrelated to historical accuracy. Even the critics mentioned above have often lavished praise on specific performers. The most important legacy of the historical performance movement may be those performances that attain authenticity in the senses more often used in the arts: those of conviction, self-knowledge, spontaneity, and emotional honesty.

—Bernard D. Sherman


Bowen, José A. “Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Wagner as Conductors: the Origins of the Ideal of ‘Fidelity to the Composer.’” Performance Practice Review 6 (1993): 77–83.

Brendel, Alfred. Music Sounded Out.. London, 1990.

Brewer, Marilyn and Roderick M. Kramer. “The Psychology of Intergroup Attitudes and Behavior.” In Annual Review of Psychology, v. 36, edited by M. Rosenzweig and L. Porter, pp. 219–43. Palo Alto, 1985.

Brown, Howard Mayer and Stanley Sadie, eds. Performance Practice: Music before 1600. London, 1989.

Brown, Howard Mayer and Stanley Sadie, eds. Performance Practice: Music after 1600. London, 1989.

Butt, John. “Acting up a Text.” Early Music 24 (1996): 323–32.

Butt, John. Playing with History. Cambridge, 2002.

Dipert, Randall. “The Composer’s Intentions: An Examination of their Relevance for Performance.” Musical Quarterly 66 (1980): 205–18.

Dreyfus, Laurence. “Early Music Defended against Its Devotees.” Musical Quarterly 69 (1983): 297–322

Dulak Michelle. “The Early Music World Circles Its Wagons Again.” New York Times. (June 11, 1995): C 24.

Dulak, Michelle. “The Quiet Metamorphosis of Early Music,” Repercussions 3 (Fall, 1993): 31–61

Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. Oxford, 1992.

Haskell, Harry. The Early Music Revival: A History. London, 1988.

Heilbroner, Robert. Visions of the Future. New York, 1994.

Kenyon, Nicholas, ed. Authenticity and Early Music. Oxford, 1988.

Kerman, Joseph. Contemplating Music. Cambridge, Mass., 1985.

Kerman, Joseph. Introduction to “The Early Music Debate.” Journal of Musicology, 10 (Winter, 1992): 113.

Kivy, Peter. Authenticities. Ithaca, NY, 1995.

Levinson, Jerrold. Music, Art, and Metaphysics. Ithaca, NY, 1990.

Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: A Millenial Perspective. Paris, 2001

Morgan, Robert. “Tradition, Anxiety, and the Current Musical Scene.” In Authenticity and Early Music, edited by Nicholas Kenyon, pp. 57–82. Oxford, 1988.

Philip, Robert. Early Recordings and Musical Style. Cambridge, 1991.

Rosen, Charles. “The Shock of the Old.” New York Review of Books (July 19, 1990): 46–52.

Ross, Alex. “Visiting Musical Ghosts in Search of Answers.” New York Times, (March 30, 1997):

Sherman, Bernard D. Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers. New York, 1997.

Taruskin, Richard. Text and Act. New York, 1995.

Wald, Elijah. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. New York, 2004.

Weber, William, The Rise of Musical Classics in Eighteenth-Century England. Oxford, 1992.

Weber, William, Music and the Middle Class. New York, 1975.

Back to home page