Forum for historically informed performance practice in South Africa

Starting in the middle of the last century, an exciting renewal in the performance of Western art music gathered momentum, initiated by leaders such as Nicolaus Harnoncourt in Austria, the brothers Kuijken and Anner Bijlsma in Holland, and Gustav Leonhardt in Germany. Ever more musicians became dissatisfied with the performance of pre-romantic music with the instruments and the performance aesthetics of the mainly romantically determined music conception of the day, and searched for new ways in interpretation and performance.

By researching the early treatises about the performance of music on the one hand, and using the instruments for which the music was originally composed on the other hand, an approximation to the original sound of early music was attempted. The initial phase of the movement was characterized by a willingness to experiment, by extreme viewpoints, and even by dogmatism.

Today, the movement has been accepted in the mainstream by both musicians and the public of the Western world. In fact, it has already become established practice to perform music of a certain era with the instruments and according to the performance practice of that time.

The result is by no means the presentation of sterile museum pieces. On the contrary, this new approach has resulted in an unprecedented injection of energy and renewal on all levels of the music life, from performance to musicology, and has given impetus to a new, existential searching for the essential message behind all music.

Historically informed performance practice is still a fringe phenomenon in the South African music scene, and is viewed with reservation, if not suspicion, by educational facilities and the public alike. This situation increasingly puts our music students and graduates at a disadvantage when pursuing further studies or career opportunities overseas. Since the early nineteen eighties, a few pioneers, notably John Reid Coulter (harpsichord), have worked hard to establish the concepts of historical performance practice in South Africa and to break down the resistance against it. In the meantime, the group of proponents has grown and includes an increasing number of young musicians.

A very encouraging development in the past year is the positive attitude toward historical performance practice at some music departments such as at the North West University and the University of the Free State. In the private sector, the Dome Arts Retreat has supported the movement with courses and master classes in instrumental technique and performance practice, using experts both from Europe and South Africa.

The Exponents of Early Music in South Africa

John Reid Coulter

John Reid Coulter is one of South Africa's leading exponents of historical performance practice. He completed his studies in harpsichord with Jacques Ogg at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. He is well known as an adjudicator at music festivals and as a composer has won numerous awards. He has taught at the universities of Potchefstroom, Witwatersrand, Pretoria, and the University of the Free State. As soloist and continuo player, he has performed in the Netherlands, Norway and Germany. His baroque ensemble Banda di Giovanni has premiered a number of works in South Africa, the most recent being the cantata Apollo e Dafne by G.F. Handel in 2004 and the Serenata à tre Mio cor, povero co' by Antonio Vivaldi in May 2007. John has an avid interest in the building of early keyboard instruments and has built a number of harpsichords and a fortepiano.


Hans Huyssen

Hans Huyssen was born in Pretoria. After obtaining a B.Mus.-degree from the University of Stellenbosch he continued his studies in Europe finally completing a Masters degree in composition with Hans-Jürgen von Bose at the Musikhochschule München. Through Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s seminars at the Mozarteum in Salzburg he became involved in Period instrument performances and for several years performed and toured extensively with various Early Music groups as Baroque cellist and continuo player. Hans Huyssen received bursaries from the Steinbrenner-Foundation, Berlin, the Bavarian Ministry of Culture, a SAMRO Special Merit Award and a prize from the Ernst von Siemens Foundation. He is co-founder and director of the ensemble così facciamo, which performs early and contemporary music on period instruments. He has also directed various Baroque opera productions. His ongoing relationship with historically informed performance of early music and thus the emphasized awareness of the relationship between historical contexts and specific musical styles, has led him to a very personal approach towards contemporary music: He regards it as the Period music of our time and strives to reconnect it to its various historical roots, some of which were often imprudently cast aside in the wake of confusion caused by fashionable ideological concepts. With his activities as composer, cellist and conductor – which are mainly determined by the two poles of ancient and contemporary music - he adamantly defends his stance that both fields should not be approached in isolation but do yield exceptionally valid expressions, if seen in each other’s context. After all, a concert hall should neither be a museum nor a laboratory. Lately, a renewed interest in various African musical traditions has become another important facet of his work. Aware of the dangers of superficial cross-culture mixes, he has contextualized elements of African music- and time-perception in several compositions. Pursuing a relevant South African form of contemporary music caused him to return to this country in 2000, after having lived in Europe for 14 years. He is currently appointed at the German School in Cape Town. 

Gerhard Benadé

Gerhard Benadé studied in the natural sciences and mathematics whilst also pursuing studies in the modern bassoon with Leendert Booyens and Fanie Jooste in Potchefstroom. In 1995, he settles in Germany as free-lance bassoonist, and continues his bassoon studies with Albrecht Holder. Since 2001, he also plays the historical bassoon instruments curtal, baroque bassoon and classical bassoon, studying at the Musikhochschule Trossingen under Christian Beuse. In 2005, he returned to South Africa to found the Dome Arts Retreat, enhancing further education opportunities available to South African musicians with regular courses, master classes and concert projects.

Selway Robson

Selway Robson As an accomplished performer, the wish to make his own instruments led Selway Robson to suspend his initial career as an electronics engineer. He had graduated from Southhampton University with an honours degree, having first obtained a mechanical engineering diploma with distinction, at the Bristol Aeroplane Technical College. To date he has completed over forty handmade instruments of the harpsichord family, as well as a dozen pipe organs. These have gone to satisfied customers worldwide, including the UK, Europe, Australia and Japan, as well as throughout Southern Africa. Apart from the keyboard instruments he creates, Selway Robson plays the baroque oboe and bassoon, and regularly performs in a baroque ensemble near Cape Town.


Merryl Monard

Merryl Monard is a masters graduate of the Conservatory of Amsterdam, where she studied between 2004 and 2006 with Abbie de Quant (flute) and Marten Root (traverso). She also has a masters (cum laude) in performing arts from the University of Pretoria. Merryl has a keen interest in early music and period instrument performance. While a student in Amsterdam, Merryl gave performances with period ensembles and orchestras, and has continued to do so in South Africa, most notably with John Coulter’s Banda di Giovanni. In 2007, Merryl was overall winner of the ATKV Muziq competition. Additionally she won a prize for her rendition of a Bach sonata on traverso with the harpsichord accompanied of Inette Swart. Subsequent to these awards, Merryl was interviewed on Classic Fm and appeared in the September ‘08 Classic Feel magazine. Merryl regularly plays with local orchestras and ensembles, such as JMI, Salon Music and the JPO. She has had several compositions dedicated to her, not the least of which is December Fragments (2003) by the celebrated South African composer, Stefans Grové.

Erik Dippenaar


Erik Dippenaar studied music at Stellenbosch University and subsequently at the Royal College of Music in London. He was based in London until 2011, where he was primarily active in chamber music, performing mainly with Florilegium, The London Handel Players and l’Avventura London. He also worked for English Touring Opera, the Little Baroque Company and Ensemble Serse on a regular basis.  During 2008/2009 he was appointed as Mills/Williams Junior Fellow at the RCM. Since returning to Cape Town, he plays a leading role in Early Music in the Cape. He currently is Artistic Director of the Cape Town-based baroque orchestra Camerata Tinta Barocca and a part-time lecturer in Western music history and historical performance practice at the University of Cape Town. He is presently studying towards a PhD in music at UCT, focussing on the role historical domestic keyboard instruments played in the colonisation process in Southern Africa.



The aims of the forum are:

1. The promotion of the performance of all music with due regard to the context in which and for which it was composed at musicians and at the general public. This included music of all eras, from the earliest beginnings of western music – Gregorian Chant – through the Renaissance, the early and late Baroque eras, the Classical and Romantic eras up to contemporary music and in particular including the folk music of all nations. Music is always relative to a particular cultural context and its performance calls for knowledge of and sensitivity for this context.

2. The coordinating of activities relevant to historical performance practice, the organizing of concert tours and master classes by overseas musicians, providing performance and educational opportunities in South Africa, and establishing a core group of expert musicians in the country.

3. The establishment of a forum for the advertisement of concert, educational and musicological activities in the field, and bringing together South African musicians sharing a passion for historical performance practice.