Advertise on ChoralNet 
ChoralNet logo
The mission of the ACDA is to inspire excellence in choral music through education, performance, composition, and advocacy.

20th century performance practice

Dear colleagues:
As I expected, this query drew many requests for a compilation!
Thank you to those who offered their ideas! I'm compiling them in this mail.
Hopefully it will stimulate more thinking for all of us on the subject.

Jerry Rubino
The Dale Warland Singers

I would have to say that "performance practice" in the context of the 20th
century would probably be a term most properly applied to the myriad
extended and experimental techniques and notational systems which have
emerged in the last 100 years. One need only briefly examine the repertoire
of the last century to realize that "performance practice," as purely
stylistic considerations (e.g., particular ornaments, articulations,
interpretations of tempo, rubato, etc.) cannot effectively apply to
contemporary music. This past century has been extraordinarily eclectic,
and particularly in post-modernist works, a great synthesis or juxtaposition
of styles and musical elements virtually guarantees that the notion of
"performance practice" as a unified, accepted approach to stylistic issues,
cannot truly have currency.

That said, there are tremendous challenges in approaching 20th-century music
in harmonic language, extended vocal and instrumental techniques, new
notational systems, and other innovations. Collectively, the consideration
of these issues might be characterized as "20th-century performance

I hope the above musings are of some value as you organize your thoughts.

I for one would certainly be interested in a compilation, although I have
no wisdom to offer. 20th century music (both composition and performance
practice) is so eclectic. We do, however, now have both modern built
acoustic as well as electronic/amplified/digital/electric instruments. The
electronic phenomenon is only later in the century of course. We also now
have recorded music (digitally late in the century), which allows a
performer or ensemble to play several less-than-perfect performances and
splice (old term for it) the best portions together for a more perfect
performance or to do several takes and choose the best.

20th century performance practice largely depends on what influence or idea
the composer had at the time of composition. Try to find out where the
composer was when they wrote the piece, if it was dedicated to a specific
choir or purpose, what sound did they have in mind, etc. The text of the
song is a major motivating factor as well.

For example, William Dawson's spirituals would call for a director to
consult pronunciation guides (either provided in the score or consulting an
ethnomusicologist for such information). A modern Latin motet would
probably be sung with a quasi-Renaissance sound in mind.

Good question. Obvious answer is yes. And it seems to me that over the
last 30 years, choral conductors who wanted to be in the know about this
went to study with Eric Ericson in Stockholm. I would start with someone
who spent a good deal of time in that influence. Seems to me you are in
the right place for that.

Since "performance practice" is "the way things are done," the interesting
comparisons are those that can be made with "the way things were done
differently" in other times and places.

20th century: You start with an existing choral ensemble. (I'll restrict
my thinking to choral here, including choral/instrumental.) That ensemble
will include high and low female and high and low male voices 95% of the
time, although all-male and all-female ensembles are still around and still
perfectly valid. Then you look for music (a) composed or arranged in the
20th century for such an ensemble, (b) composed in earlier times for a
rather different ensemble but adaptable, or (c) all too seldom, composed by
an active composer especially for your ensemble.

(19th century doesn't count because it was transitional and the source for
many 20th century practices.)

18th century and earlier: Either (a) you start with an existing ensemble
and music is newly composed specifically for that ensemble by active
composers, often including the leader. This would include church choirs of
any denomination, choirs maintained in the households of wealthy
aristocrats, but very seldom "public" or "school" choirs. In church
choirs, including university and royal chapels, women's voices are not used
because of church doctrine and long tradition. That results in music which
may use male altos (countertenors) as the highest part (i.e., Thomas Tallis,
Lamentations), or which clearly use high trebles (boys) above a more
compact sonority of adult males (i.e., Thomas Tallis, In nomine mass; many
Josquin sacred works). This music is intrinsically unsuited to modern SATB
choirs because it was conceived for a different musical instrument. Or (b)
you start with existing "generic" music that can be adapted to a variety of
performance options (i.e., Dowland lute songs expandable to part songs using
additional voices or instruments; anything touted as "apt for voyces or
violls"; opera or oratorio choruses for which ensembles are put together on
an ad hoc basis).

20th century: Choral singers, never having gone through the process of
organization and unionization followed by instrumentalists, are expected to
perform on an unpaid basis for the love of it. This leads to the use of
very large choral forces either borrowed at very little expense from
universities (i.e., Westminster Choir College) or scrounged together from
regional amateur choral societies (i.e., Mahler 2nd on May 1 in Roanoke).
The legacy from the 19th century is choral/orchestral repertoire that
requires very large choral forces.

18th century and earlier: Both singers and instrumentalists in the best
church jobs are paid professionals, which means that no more are hired than
are needed to do the job. Forces are small (both Bach and Handel probably
used no more than 20 singers and 20 instrumentalists). The same is true
for aristocratic houses. Haydn's chorus and orchestra at Esterhaza were
probably the minimum number required to produce good results, and no more.

20th century: Existing choral ensembles, anxious for good music to
perform, routinely perform music that was originally intended for
one-on-a-part or at most a few-on-a-part realization. This ranges from the
entire madrigal (both Italian and English), chanson, and lieder repertoire
of the 16th century back to the organum, conductus, and motet repertoire of
the late medieval period, when the choir's job was to sing the chants and
soloists performed the more flexible part music. 20th century composers
often write for publication, assuming generic ensembles and generic
acoustical venues.

l8th century and earlier: Composers wrote for immediate performance by
forces (indeed, by individuals) well known to them, in venues the acoustics
of which they knew intimately. While some music may have been published,
it was not created to be published but to meet an immediate need in a
specific time and place.

And so on. None of this may be helpful, but it might at least give you a
hook to start with.

What a funny query that was on Choralist, Jerry. I am not sure there is any
20th-c. "performance practice" other than a paranoid, slavish adherence to
the score, especially in early music, which is a product of people being
overly intimidated by the musicology police. I guess I've been influenced in
this regard by Richard Taruskin (to whose article in "Authenticity and Early
Music" I highly commend you), but he's brilliant, so why shouldn't I be

As for performing specific works of 20th-c. music, that's another matter.
You might say there's a PP for Stravinsky, another for Copland, another for
Reich, etc. But I'd say that the fundamentals of good PP haven't changed:
study the heck out of the score, do as much homework as you can re.
performing conventions of the time in which it was written, and finally
immerse yourself in the score and make it your own. What else is there to

In my experience of performing 20th century music, especially that of living
composers, there are two things I have found to be constant. 1.) Perform the
music exactly as it is written...unlike music from other periods....these
composers are usually very specific about their markings and it is
inappropriate to reinterpret their music without their permission. 2.) If
possible, talk to the composer. Ask questions...can we do it like
this....what did you mean by this...can they attend a rehearsal? I have had
many experiences where the composer has hated what they wrote upon hearing it
and rewritten entire sections of music for us...John Adams is still changing
his mind about tempos and markings for some oh is works. Composers are
usually flattered to be asked about their music and are generally very
helpful. Finally, keep doing new music....I love the Dale Warland Singers
because they perform so much 20th music and always do a great job....and make
it accessible for their audiences. Good luck and keep up the great work!!!

What a fun question. I think my short take on it would be a qualified yes.
You could organize your answer into a number of categories such as
notational aspects (i.e. the English practice of notating cutoffs with
tied notes), performance aspects of certain repertoire or choirs (3:2
ratio of bass and altos in Shaw's choirs or the blend and voice
classification theories of Father Finn, the Christiansens etc...), and
true performance practice issues such as accompanied or non-accompanied
performance of Schoenberg's "Friede auf Erden." What about revisions of
famous works like Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms?" Or dialect in
spirituals? Tone-syllables in Fred Waring stuff. The more I think about
it, the more fun this becomes. Just thought of another one - how about
Stravinsky's marked tempos and dynamics vs. his recordings? I would be
interested in what you finally come up with? Good luck!

Please post a compilation... this is an important topic. There certainly is
20th c. performance practice. Our musical views towards how music should be
performed is more definitely influenced by contemporary (20th c.) aesthetic
thought. e.g. using a large, medium or small ensemble to perform a work, the
musical articulations/ornaments have interpretations, how we use our voices
(tonal color, placement, etc.) the instruments used for accompaniment, etc.
Check out musicological, choral lit sources for research based data.
Good luck!

Since performance practice is really about what the notation *doesn't*
tell us, I think I'd focus on the last thing you mentioned, which is the
issue of interpreting 20th-c. notation. There's a wide range. If you
take an Arne Mellnas piece, for example, there's a whole set of
instructions you have to master in order to "do" the notation.
Stravinsky had some notions about doing only what was on the page (see
his Poetics of Music): since 20th-c. composers are more aware of the
need to give explicit instructions, one question is, do they succeed?
what do we need to supply? I think that's how I'd approach it.