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Doing Historical Research in Music: Performance Practice

What's performance practice?

The term "performance practice" refers to the study of how music was performed in the composer's own day.

Research in this area has focused especially on earlier periods like the Middle Ages (where fewer other primary source materials survive) but also encompasses later periods up through the early twentieth century.

It can involve study of:

  • Contemporary (i.e., of the relevant time period) treatises on performance and theory
  • Iconography (the study of contemporary visual images of musicians and instruments)
  • Organology (the study of instruments)

 

Reference Sources

Encyclopedias

Encyclopedias like Oxford Music Online (available on our "Databases" page) give you an overview and some bibliography to get started.

See the entry "Performing Practice" in Oxford Music Online.

Entries for specific composers, periods, genres, instruments, etc. can also contain information on performance practice or performing conditions of the time.

 

Bibliographies

These can also contain references to studies on performance practice. Search bibliographies in the Library's catalog or WorldCat using subject headings like these:

  • Performance practice (Music) -- Bibliography.
  • Music -- Bibliography.
  • Music -- 16th century -- Bibliography.

Books

Books on performance practice can be searched in the Library's catalog or WorldCat using subject headings like these:

  • Performance practice (Music) -- France -- 14th century.
  • Music -- 500-1400 --Performance.
  • Music -- 16th century -- Performance.
  • Music -- Theory -- 17th century -- Early works to 1800.

 

Books on specific composers, periods, genres, instruments, etc. can also contain information on performance practice or performing conditions of the time. Try subject headings like these:

  • [Topic] -- History and criticism.
  • [Composer's name]
  • [Composer's name] -- Criticism and interpretation.

 

Don't forget that scholarly books have bibliographies and indexes. You can use these to identify more resources, and to quickly locate discussion of a specific work within the book.

 

Journal articles

Some journals specialize in early music, including performance practice issues.

Look for these on our "Journals" page:

Early Music

Early Music History

Early Music America

Recordings

Some recordings attempt to reconstruct the performance practice of earlier periods.

See the article "Early Music" in Oxford Music Online (available on our "Databases" page).

 

Some recording labels that specialize in early music performance:

Archiv Produktion (Deutsche Grammophon)

Das Alte Werk (Teldec)

L'Oiseau Lyre (Decca)

Florilegium (Decca)

Early and Baroque Music (Decca)

Antiqua (Hungaroton)

Music Antiqua Bohemica (Supraphon)

Gimell

Astree

Opus 111

Ricercar

Gaudeamus

Soli Deo Gloria

Chaconne (Chandos)

 

Caution should be used with older recordings of early music. Their interpretations have often been superceded by new evidence and scholarship. You may want to consult your instructor, or read reviews (see "Reviews" under Recordings).

Subject Guide

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Leslie McCall
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