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The Sound of History. Historical consciousness and current interpretation by Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Project leader:
Emil Bernhardt

Project period:
2016 –

Research centre:
NordART

Approach:
Research

Topic:
Aesthetics of music, Music theory, Performance practice

Fellowship project
Ph.D in Performance Practice

How could Harnoncourt make performances that were both historically conscious and aesthetically relevant? Ph.D. research fellow Emil Bernhardt will study and describe this in his project.

The Austrian conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929–2016) is often regarded as a pioneer within the historically oriented performance practice. Educated as a classical cellist, Harnoncourt in 1953 formed his own ensemble, Concentus Musicus Wien, which soon became well known for experimenting with old instruments.

Complex relation to historical knowledge

However, Harnoncourt’s relation to history and historical information is more sophisticated than the ideal of historical correctness may perhaps indicate. Although influenced by historical sources, Harnoncourt is primarily searching for how to make the old music sound anew. Instead of reconstructing the past, his main focus is on the expressive power of the musical works, and through the study of historical material he is constantly challenging the established understanding of their beauty.

A central point in this work is the notion of music’s speech character, the idea that music is a language that conveys meaning and can be understood. From a musicological point of view this triggers not only a critical scrutiny of the relation between music and meaning, partly historically based, but also an investigation of the influence of the linguistic and rhetoric approach on musical practice and performance.

Actualized history

This project takes at its point of departure the idea that Harnoncourt’s art of interpretation primarily consists of a particular combination of historical orientation and aesthetic actuality. Bernhardt will argue that Harnoncourt, in his interpretations in quite an outstanding way was able to make a historical awareness part of a performative situation. History is then not only something that is (re)constructed, but rather something with which the musician is confronted. This will again influence how the historical awareness becomes part of the musical performance, which for the listener becomes the object for an aesthetical experience.

Project issues

The project’s aim is to develop an understanding of this particular combination – of historical knowledge, language, rhetoric and meaning on the one hand, an aesthetic actuality, musical expression and performativity on the other. Questions of central importance will be: What is at stake in the interpretations of Harnoncourt, what constitutes their particular expressive power? How should one understand his relation to history and the weight on music’s linguistic and rhetoric elements? How is the relation between historical orientation and aesthetic actuality in a performance to be understood, and how does the historical awareness become an object of aesthetic experience? How are these elements combined in the notion of musical performance?

Theoretically and methodologically the project connects to disciplines such as music history, analysis and music philosophy. Moreover, it will seek to develop the research of musical performance and interpretation, also within a historical perspective.


Photos by Werner Kmetitsch and used by kind permission of the Styriarte Festival.

Project leader

Emil Bernhardt

Emil Bernhardt

Research Fellow

Performance Practice



Last updated: 18. October 2016