I thought I might dip my toes into the water of one of the bigger arguments in classical music performance of the last 30 years. I don’t expect to resolve anything, but I do think that it is a worthwhile discussion to have, even without an ultimate resolution. What I would like to address is some of the ideas surrounding “Historically Informed Performance” practices (HIP). The music I thought we could use to compare viewpoints is the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica”.
In previous blog posts, I have written that the musical experience is a product of the composer, performer and the listener. The composer writes as many details as possible into the musical score to communicate his/her intentions to the performer. The performer adds a layer of interpretation and artistry to those original intentions, and the sum of that interpretation is delivered aurally to the listener. Each listener brings their own associations to the music they are listening to, and that is a very individualized element, unique to each person. All three elements come into play to shape the experience of the listener.
The aspirations of a “Historically Informed Performance” are to create music in a manner as authentic to the original time and place it was conceived. This would mean playing Beethoven’s music as it would sound in Beethoven’s time. One should use instruments as they existed in the 18th and 19th century (period instruments), played in the manner of the time, in orchestras the size they would have been in that day and age. Any marking or instruction written into the score by Beethoven should be strictly followed, and nothing unwritten in the score should be added. The composer’s intentions are the highest law in HIP practice. In the music of Beethoven, that would mean string sections with fewer player than modern orchestras, string instruments with gut strings, and played with little or no warming vibrato. The scores of Beethoven symphonies edited by Jonathan Del Mar are often preferred as being as close to the composer’s intentions as possible.
This is a little different from the sort of sound to which we are accustomed. Orchestras have grown since Ludwig’s times, and there have been some improvements in string instruments. String sections have more players, their instruments have steel strings which give off more sound, and that sound is usually warmed with plenty of vibrato. Conductors for years used the edition of Beethoven scores published by Breitkopf and Hartel that contained some discrepancies from the manuscripts. Conductors picked tempos for themselves, added plenty of rubato, inflection and interpretation of their own. This sort of performance has been labeled “big band” Beethoven, for the increased size of the orchestral ensemble. Many wonderfully moving recordings were made in this fashion, but they may not be exactly what Beethoven intended.
One of the greatest areas of dispute is with Beethoven’s metronome markings. Beethoven was given a metronome by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, who patented the invention. (He likely stole the design from a man named Dietrich Winkel in Amsterdam.) Beethoven loved the idea of more control over the performance of his music, but the markings in his score seem ridiculously fast and unmusical at times. Theories have been offered that either his metronome was malfunctioning or broken, that copyists mistook quarter-note markings for half-note markings, or that Ludwig’s progressing deafness limited his judgment in using his new tool. There is a lengthy, technical discussion of the matter in the article “Was Something Wrong With Beethoven’s Metronome?”.
So let’s hear what some of this argument sounds like in performance. Here is Beethoven’s Third Symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim with the Berliner Staatskapelle, in this 1999 recording. This performance shows preferences for some of the performance conventions that have grown over the last 150+ years since the music was composed. Barenboim often argues for finding the tempo from within the harmony and harmonic rhythm of the music. Many brilliant performances from great conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler were given using this line of thinking.
(Four of these videos contain performances of the complete Third Symphony. Please listen to at least the first minute or two of the first movement to get a flavor of what I am discussing.)
Now, compare that to this Roger Norrington performance with the London Classical Players. The 1980’s Norrington cycle is famous for strictly following the metronome markings that Beethoven wrote, some would say “no matter what”. This performance is on historical “period” instruments, played very dry with no vibrato. Take a listen
Norrington feels like he is racing through like a racehorse. Historically Informed Performance hopes to make an accurate reproduction, to get to some “truth”, and to strip away layers of editing, overly romantic interpretation and ganache that have built up over the years. HIP practice is sometimes only as good as the research behind it, as period performances try not to add anything that wasn’t proven to be historically accurate. Another very intelligent historical performance of Beethoven can be found by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. Hogwood uses a bit more of his own judgment in the area of tempo than Norrington.
Next, compare that to the lush sounds of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert Von Karajan, in the cycle recorded in 1963. This is Beethoven as we usually hear it, with a modern orchestra, on modern instruments, with a willful conductor.
How is one supposed to reconcile these very different performances? As a composer, I might be expected to like the idea of a strong devotion to the composer’s wishes. I do find the “historically informed” performances interesting from an academic standpoint. I also believe there has been plenty of heavy handed editing of published scores over the decades. But after a while, those dry gut string sounds just seem to wear on me. It is a little like having to listen to AM radio for an extended period of time, when I have clear crisp digital sound at my fingertips.
I escaped from a slavish devotion to HIP practices by thinking of the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Beethoven had arranged a concert at the Theater an der Wein. He had rented the hall during a holiday break to put on a concert of his own music. It was a financial investment to promote his own compositions and make some money of his own. He hired an orchestra and conducted the concert himself on December 22, 1808. He also performed as piano soloist, and every work on the program was a premiere of music he had composed. One might say the concert did not go very well, or one might say it was a bit of a disaster. The program was all of four hours long, and the orchestra only had one rehearsal! Not just four hours of music, but four hours of all newly composed music that no one had seen or heard before, to be prepared in one measly rehearsal. The concert was an absolute marathon, including the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, parts of the Mass in C major, the Choral Fantasy, and more The underprepared orchestra got so lost in the Choral Fantasy, Beethoven had to stop them and start over. Further complicating matters, the theater had no heat in the middle of a frigid Vienna winter, because it was a holiday break. The written program for the audience mislabeled the Fifth Symphony as the Sixth and vice versa, as if anyone cared after freezing their bottoms off for four hours while Beethoven antagonized the orchestra he hired.
Now, if we truly wanted to hear Beethoven’s Fifth as it was performed in the premiere, we would listen to an unprepared orchestra, in a hall with no heat, while we thought we were listening to something else and exhausted from an already lengthy program. This would be historically accurate, but no one in the HIP school of thinking suggests we shouldn’t improve on those conditions. I think it is reasonable to take some liberties as long as we assume some genuine artistic responsibility, and make thoughtful choices with the performance. Using modern instruments that just sound better is a choice, but one to be made with consideration as to how it changes the balance of the music. Ultimately, if it makes Good Music, it is worth a listen. Many brilliantly moving performances of Beethoven’s symphonies are wonderfully musical, even if they contain historical inaccuracies. If we only adhered to historical performances, a legendary recording like the Goldberg Variations by pianist Glenn Gould would never have gotten made. Bach wrote the Variations before the piano was ever invented!!
Still I think there is something to be learned from the HIP side of things. This recording by David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra is a bit of a hybrid. It uses modern string instruments, not historical replicas, but does use the Jonathan Del Mar edited scores for as much accuracy as possible. The number of players is scaled down from the modern norms to something closer to what existed in Beethoven’s time. Very brisk tempos, but the strings are allowed some vibrato. The end results are quite compelling. (I have no clue what the video is that is showing with the music, or why it is there, but this is the musical performance I wanted to share.)
The Beethoven symphonies are probably the most recorded orchestral pieces in the world. There seems to be no end to the number of versions available, and everyone can have their favorites. The point is not to have one single correct recording, but to all gain something from listening to different interpretations and come out better for it. It is the process of hearing and deciding what speaks to us and why that makes it worthwhile. Out of the eight recordings of Beethoven’s Third I have in my collection, the Barenboim is currently my favorite, with a legendary recording by Otto von Klemperer a close second. I reserve the right to like something different next month, and maybe something different the month after that.