The value of diving into the historical context of any piece of music is different for each player, but most great players have some background knowledge of the composer and the culture that created the composition. A performer would be wise to research background information for each work they are learning. Researching about the composer, the culture of that composer’s time, and information about the compositional methods and performance practices used when performing the piece have a significant impact on how one performs a work. (Klickstein 43 but also Pujol 62).
Relevant performance practice such as use the of ornamentation, rubato, or slurs are critical to performance. For example, Renaissance lute music does not slur as much as other eras because lutenists from that time preferred the plucked sound and the ability to control dynamics that plucking gave. Music from the 19th century around the time of Chopin utilizes rubato differently than contrapuntal music from the time of Bach. Listening to players who specialize in a genre can be a shortcut to making your pieces sound more authentic to the genre. As rewarding and valuable as it is to read texts by scholars or source material from the time period of the piece you are performing, if you don’t want to specialize in 17th century Baroque guitar, listening to someone who does specialize in the genre and stealing their phrasing, rhythm, and ornaments can be a valuable learning experience and fast a way to quickly learn to play a genre with more authenticity.
Music theory is another important element that can shape one’s performance. Chord progressions in the renaissance differ from the types of chord progressions one would see in the Baroque. Counterpoint also differed between the Renaissance and Baroque. Music from 1750 onwards has a different melodic character given the decreased use of contrapuntal techniques and greater emphasis on block chords and alberti bass. Knowing information like this can help a performer more quickly assess a work and know what to emphasize in the music.
Compositional methods used for the music being performed are also important. The fugue has several specific qualities critical to understanding and performing it. The ability to hear multiple melodic lines as both independent and a cohesive whole is a critical element of the style. Knowing what a subject is in a fugue, a counter subject, and being able to hear changes to the subject such as inversions of the subject is critical to the genre and its performance.
The Baroque prelude on the other hand can be interpreted differently from the fugue. Preludes in Bach can often be played with greater rhythmic freedom than one would play a fugue with use of rubato to create a feeling of improvisation. Listening to a harpsichordist improvise a French prelude would be informative to any performer playing the works of Bach
A gigue and a bouree both originate out of French dance traditions. Knowing their particular rhythmic idiosyncrasies is crucial in making pieces in those dance styles sound authentic to the style. Listening to Julian Bream play Robert De Visee is a dramatically different experience than listening to Rafael Andia because of the rhythmic feel or “groove” that Andia brings to the music.
The classical sonata has a structure that became standardized. Knowing the difference between the exposition and development section can play a role in determining one’s interpretation. I often change tone colors for the main themes of the exposition as a play through the exposition a second time.
Knowledge of the composer’s biography may have less influence on one’s practice decisions then other parts of the research and analysis stage. Still, knowing information about the composer, the culture the composer grew up in, and the context in which the piece was performed during its time can create a richer experience of the piece. This information can also be interesting points to bring up in between pieces during concerts. Important philosophical views of the culture and musicians from the time period often shape the music composed during that time. The emphasis on rhetoric during the baroque had a significant effect on the way composers phrased in their compositions. The enlightenments emphasis on objectivity and clarity influenced composers to emphasize simple and clearer melodic lines and decreased use of ornamentation.