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 (in 2014); go to the Journal for the published text if, for some reason, you really really want it.


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 reads, "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 accused 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)," in particular that of the University of California at Berkeley, where Butt began the book.

Williams knew, of course, that Playing with History wasn't meant as a shop manual 2, and that it is permeated by John Butt's experience as a performer. What Williams couldn't abide was the book's "assimilation" of American musicology's "intellectual dependence" on some "arbitrarily selected European fashions, usually non-British" - that is, on what others have called the "fashionable nonsense" of  postmodernism. I do understand his aversion. Yet from my midwestern perch it's clear that Butt would have had to address this current of thought even if he had never left his native UK (he is back there now, teaching at the University of Glasgow and directing the Dunedin Consort). After all, postmodernism was deployed to the front lines of the early-music wars by the most influential of combatants, the Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin. More to the point, Butt's treatment of the topic is neither perfunctory nor cowed by Left-Coast fashion, which he puts down memorably - and his engagement with one American postmodernist leads, as we'll see, to a useful hypothesis about why historically informed performance (HIP) became a force in the late 20th century. Far from being a distraction, Butt's nuanced treatment of po-mo exemplifies what makes Playing with History an unusually convincing brief for HIP. It combines rare fluency in philosophy and history with even rarer experience in primary musicology research and with exceptional achievement on the shop floor, in roles ranging from continuo gruntwork to solo stardom to top-level conducting. By integrating these inputs, Butt demonstrates that far from being "intellectually exhausted"3,  HIP yields significant new insights into the study and practice of musical performance -  and even into the very nature of Western art music.

Butt organizes Playing with History into three sections. The first critically reviews the debates on HIP; the second discusses values and assumptions within Western art music that bear upon HIP; 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 and Laurence Dreyfus4. Particularly devastating are Butt's critiques of Roger Scruton and Peter Kivy, whose targets are shown to be philosophical straw. The critic who engages Butt most is Taruskin, himself a musicologist with performance background. While the power and brilliance of Taruskin's writings led many to assume that the HIP debates were settled, Butt believes that these writings cry out for further analysis, which he then provides in ten pages of the first chapter. It focuses above all on the anti-authoritarianism at the core of much of Taruskin's thinking.

After praising Taruskin, Butt takes issue with two of his ideas: "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 second topic is explored further 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's book was published in 2002, before Taruskin further developed his ideas about a tension between democratic ideals and Romantic/modernist claims for the artist in his The Oxford History of Western Music (2005). Another change since 2002 is that classical-music institutions have been tangibly trying to democratize and to increase their connections to popular culture. Conflicts between art and commerce remain nonetheless, as do the core intellectual differences between the authors. Butt the performer has found his own resolutions: his onstage manner since his California days has presaged the relaxed, informal style now sought by many classical musicians; but his playing has never sought to meet an imagined popular audience halfway. Instead, Butt has applied his musicological ideas and interests without apparent compromise. As it happens, audiences have responded by buying enough copies of his recordings with the Dunedin Consort to turn them into international best-sellers.

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 - notably the ideals of fidelity to the work and the score and service of the composer's intentions.  They illustrate, Butt argues, how HIP has acted "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 examines the concept of "fidelity to the work" (Werktreue). Butt notes that belief in the "essentiality" of musical works played a key role in the rise of HIP, but that HIP is paradoxically "enabling us to challenge this hegemony" (p. 72). Specifically, he argues, HIP undermines "the a priori separation of work and performance" (p. 69). Paying special attention to Lydia Goehr's influential idea that "some earlier music is better understood in terms of event than abstract work," he extends it significantly by arguing that HIP "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). [emphases added]

This perspective chimes with some of the projects undertaken by Butt and the Dunedin Consort: reconstructions of Messiah as premiered in Dublin, of Acis and Galatea and Esther as they sounded when unveiled at Cannons, of Mozart's Requiem in its first performances in Vienna, and of Bach's St. John Passion in the context of a Good Friday service. Perhaps one value of these recordings lies not in archaeological re-enactment so much as in undermining our tendency to think of these familiar pieces as stable and perfected: we can hear how in their own era these works were kept in creative flux by the realities and contingencies of performance.

Chapter 3 addresses another core value of classical musicians, the service of composer's intentions. While this ideal was part of what motivated HIP, Butt argues, HIP in turn allows us to understand the nature of composer's intentions with new psychological clarity and complexity. "The whole concept of HIP," he writes, "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).

While Butt pays respect to Randall R. Dipert's categorization of composers' intentions into low-level ones (details of instrumentation, fingering, etc.), medium-level ones (concerned with the intended sound), and high-level ones (concerned with producing a given effect in the listener)6 , he sees the categorization as only a "good starting point" (p. 87). He raises several objections to it, above all to its hierarchical ranking of intentions. While Dipert believes that the more conscious and deliberate intentions bind us more than others, Butt prefers a nonhierarchical division into two broad types of intention:

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).

To classical performers, Butt's next argument may seem yet more radical: that 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. In place 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 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 heavily 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 have influenced why HIP arose when it did and where. 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 on the contrary that modernism had its own "inspired antiquarianism."

While modernists "show a remarkable diversity of ideology and approach," he says, the diversity is even greater among postmodernists (p. 145). Butt derides "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 scorns seeing postmodernism as a conscious style of playful self-awareness or concern with surfaces. He is, however, interested in the postmodernist use of the 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 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), particularly Jameson's assertions about our era's loss of a sense of history. Butt argues that the "historicist imperative behind HIP is basically a compensation for a waning historicity" (p. 163; he also convincingly examines HIP's "eerie resonance" with religious fundamentalism). Butt posits 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).

I probably am less postmodernist than thou, but even I have felt that those who embrace HIP are motivated in part by a sense that modern life has lost some of the depth and authenticity they attribute to the past.  In trying to understand that sense, I found Butt's engagement with Jameson illuminating. [An afterthought: Butt has since written a book, Bach's Dialogue with Modernity, that situates Bach's St. Matthew Passion at the crossroads of the modern and the pre-modern mindsets; as it demonstrates, Butt's concept of what modernity entails is both detailed and precise.]

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 to that of the Heritage movement. It's a valuable contribution to the social history of HIP, particularly in Europe, especially Great Britain and the Netherlands. As Butt allows, it is more difficult, though still useful, to connect "American heritage" to American HIP (which, outside of Berkeley and Boston, is far more marginal than British HIP).

Regarding American HIP, I would emphasize an idea Butt mentions in passing: understanding the British Heritage movement as a manifestation of "a romance of otherness" (p. 215). I find such romance especially pertinent in understanding American HIP and some of its leading figures, 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 Michigan-born conductor/ harpsichordist Alan Curtis, who has devoted his later (ex-pat) career to performance of Baroque Italian music by Italian singers. Given how the observation might be applied to affluent 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" and thinks that HIP "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." (While Taruskin, by contrast, saw HIP as representing thoroughly modern taste, he saw that taste as specifically Modernist in a form typified by Stravinsky in the interwar era.)

Butt concludes that "the net benefit [of HIP] greatly outweighs the disadvantages" (p. 217) The same may be said of the book's prose style: Butt's evenhandedness in reviewing complex scholarly literature is a signal strength, as is the pleasure he takes in uncovering hidden paradoxes and contradictions, but they require care from the reader. I far prefer this rigor to the glibness so common in HIP debates, and I felt richly compensated by it. Playing with History is a remarkable achievement, essential for any reader concerned with the history and implications of HIP, and unmissable for those interested in the philosophy of music.


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.