Sorting out the instruments of Beethoven’s time

Sorting out the instruments of Beethoven’s time


norman lebrecht

September 26, 2020

Welcome to the 122nd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Quintet in E flat opus 16 (1797)

The period instrument movement, which began soon after the Second World War, gained momentum in the 1960s as an argument for playing music in its authentic pitch and timing and as a rebellion against a stale and stodgy orchestral establishment which applied the same dimensions to Mozart as to Richard Strauss. Pioneers of the socalled revolution included the cellist Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who raided Vienna junkshops for instruments he could use in his ensemble, the British keyboard player Thurston Dart, the countertenor Alfred Deller and the Dutchman Gustav Leonhardt.

Dart’s disciple Neville Marriner adopted a midway position at his Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, where Christopher Hogwood broke away to insist on ancient instrument and authentic practices, no matter how scratchy they sounded at first. The Sixties were rife with disputes and experimentation. These energies released attracted new audiences and performers. By 1970 the movement had won most of its battles. Period practice dominated the performance of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart and knocked insistently on Beethoven’s door. Hogwood was among the first to record his nine symphonies in ‘historically informed’ mode.

The period warriors continued to disagree on practically everything – tempi, repeats, the size of orchestra, whether Beethoven’s metronome was reliable. No two performers thought the same and this diversity created confusion and inconsistency. The sound could be raw and the logic tenuous. The conservative scholar Roger Scruton wrote that ‘the effect has frequently been to cocoon the past in a wad of phoney scholarship, to elevate musicology over music, and to confine Bach and his contemporaries to an acoustic time-warp.’

By the end of the 20th century, mainstream conductors had assimilated period ideas and what was once revolutionary in Hogwood’s hands became routine in Vienna Philharmonic recordings with Simon Rattle and Andris Nelsons. The war had been won, but the establishment had stolen its spoils. In Beethoven, the public preferred to hear big orchestras playing instruments that were made by leading brands in the 19th century to small bands with modern craft replicas of valveless horns.

Paradoxically, it is with the least sophisticated wind and woodwind instruments, the ones that are hardest to play with requisite accuracy, that Beethoven sounds best. The E-flat quintet for for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon and Piano was an attempt by the young Beethoven to show Vienna that anything Mozart could do in the popular K452 quintet, he could do a darn sight better. He had yet to write a symphony, but this quintet gives fast-forward glimpses of the Eroica and other works yet unborn. On the whole, he is writing pure entertainment. How did her perform it? That’s where we are reduced to guesswork.

Until the 1950s there was not much debate. Listen to the distinguished but distinctly old-fashioned Dennis Brain Ensemble and you will quickly hear how clunky the best London players of that era can sound, playing without any awareness of period lightness. Brain (1921-57) was the most brilliant horn player of his time with a sound that could light up an orchestra; in this chamber setting it is simply too big and no adjustment is made for the size of the room in which Beethoven would have played. It’s very much bull in a china shop.. The same lack of proportion applies to the very witty and entertaining Friedrich Gulda with the sober winds of the Vienna Philharmonic, too formal by half.

Now try Octophoros (2006) with the pianist Jos van Immerseel and light floods in like a visit from Goethe. Everything seems to fit, the pitch to the tempi, the seats to the curtains. The concluding rondo is playful as a calf on a sunny Sunday. Not all period ensembles get it right. I am unconvinced by the Academy of Ancient Music with Robert Levin where the sense of humour has gone missing. We do need to feel that Beethoven and his audience were enjoying themselves. It’s not enough just to have the right instruments and tempi: even a frivolous piece like this needs personality and that’s sorely lacking in the Consortium Classicum(19770 with clarinettist Dieter Klöcker.

But move into the next century and you’ll see how comprehensively the old guard stole the period clothes. The British pianist Stephen Hough with players of the Berlin Philharmonic has spot-on period tempi and a featherlight sound, with modern instruments and no fuss. The wheel had turned full circle.

Here’s some more enlightenment:

Four-hand piano sonata in D, opus 6 (1796-7)

Where does Beethoven first introduce the opening of his fifth symphony? At the start of this unpretentious six-minute piece for four-hand piano, dated 1796-7, a decade before he wrote the symphony. The pieve was long unknown and almost all recordings of this work are recent. I recommend Lang Lang and Christoph Eschenbach in an exhilarating live performance in Vienna. If you want a more serious approach, go to Louis Lortie and Helene Mercier in an Aldeburgh recital. Most recent of all and not yet on Idagio, there is a marvellously refreshing account by two British pianists, Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith, on the Delphian label.




  • Die Meistersinger says:

    I have the consumption…and the only cure is more valveless horn!

  • period says:

    the period instrument movement – or however you d like to call it – started much earlier .. actually in the end of 18th century, and Brahms (and others in Vienna) had a huge impact on it. Speaking about instrumentalists already in the 1920s people like Landowska but also in Berlin Schünemann, Hindemith and many others were leading pioneers. Also the german ‘Jugendbewegung’ in the 1920s were stongly linked with the period instrument movement, which is forgotten today but still alive (both in good and less intersting ways).

    • Dan oren says:

      18th century??

    • Sixtus says:

      And one should definitely not forget the Orgelbewegung that started in inter-war Germany. In many ways it was as influential in establishing some guiding principles of HIP as the various instruments based on historical models pioneered even earlier by Arnold Dolmetsch. Experience with historical instruments (of old or new manufacture) have been crucial to the understanding of the various 17th, 18th and 19th century treatises on performance that form the basis of current-day, historically-informed practice.

  • sam says:

    It’s interesting that the Berlin recording you recommend is not with the principals winds of the Berlin.

    For that, you’d have to go with the Berlin principals (those under Karajan)

    So for me, the most interesting comparison is comparing recordings by the principal winds of Philadelphia (under Ormandy)

    to those of Vienna in your above selection with Gulda.

    For me, therein lies the “personality” difference you wanted to hear, among the different schools of wind playing, American, Viennese, German…

    (I’m not convinced — historically, musicologically, or musically — that this piece has to be “light” or with a “sense of humor”.)

    • William Safford says:

      The members of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet may not be the principal players, but the quintet is excellent.

      The single finest live performance I have ever heard of a wind quintet–and I have heard many, from Ensemble Wein-Berlin to the New York Woodwind Quintet–was the Berlin. That performance blew my mind.

      They have recorded everything from the Aho quintets, to Wolfgang Rihm, to Schuller, to Hindemith, to Barber, and much more. Members thereof have recorded yet more–a recent discovery of mine was a work written for them by Stephen Hough for piccolo, contrabassoon, and piano.

      Mind you, I have no argument with those Fabulous Philadelphians! Alas, I’m too young to have heard them live.

      My preference is for the Mozart over the Beethoven, but I’m glad that we have both in our repertoire!

  • Lunchtime O'Boulez says:

    The big difference with HIP is the winds and brass blend clearer, the strings do not sound Mantovani a la Herbie anymore.

  • Doc Martin says:

    Just listen to those horns in the Eroica!

    Beethoven “Eroica” – Orchester Wiener Akademie – Martin Haselböck

    Landhaussaal, Palais Niederösterreich, Vienna 19/2 2017.

    • christopher storey says:

      Well, it’s interesting, Doc Martin, but I cannot convince myself that the weedy sound does justice to this , arguably the greatest musical work ever written

      • Doc Martin says:

        Why, give a clear reason argument, not a bland statement. Remember in 1805 they only had valveless horns. It more or less sounded that way. They are not using an 80 strong band, with Mantovani legato, because the wee place in Vienna can only hold 40 + players.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I have been to a concert with this group. Absolutely superb and thrilling.

  • mary says:

    From the video: “it takes a hill side of sheep” to make the gut string of the E string on a historical double bass.

    But to be truly historically informed, are the sheep historical species of sheep untreated with modern antibiotics, grazing on historical species of grass and vegetation untouched by modern fertilizer, drinking unpolluted historical water, breathing unpolluted historical air?

    THAT’s the sound I want to hear from Bach.

    • Ulick Magee says:

      I would very much doubt gut from organic sheep would make any difference in sound compared with gut from conventional farming.

      Have you done acoustic investigations and published in a peer reviewed journal? You have no evidence at all.

      • christopher storey says:

        I think a sense of humour is needed to understand the significance of Mary’s post

      • Marfisa says:

        I cannot decide whether Mary’s comment is about the environment, or about the fallacy in recreating historical performance. And I cannot decide if your reply is serious or tongue-in-cheek. Am I losing my sense of humor?

      • Tom says:

        You make a valid point. Mary thinks wrongly the type of farming, environment and water makes a difference, to the gut, however her thesis is not supported by any actual evidence. Statistically, I would say no significance difference between conventional and “organic” gut. Mary needs to present us with clear evidence before making specious comments.

      • Stan says:

        Yes I would say not a lot. This talk on gut strings says gut vs nylon does make a difference to the sound. Mary is off her bap completely and water being a compound H2O would not change at all from Bach’s time to 2020!

      • mary says:

        It has been scientifically proven with 99.99999% certainty that organic sheep baaaa more melodiously with greater resonance, and in tune, compared to non-organic sheep and a controlled group of wild sheep, as judged in a double-blind test of shepherds, casual hikers, environmentalists, loggers, all of whom were blind-folded, including all of the participating sheep, so that no participant knew the identity of any sheep and therefore could not discriminate on the basis of color of coat, organic black sheep were equally preferred to organic white sheep, even after the blindfolds were taken off.

        In a followup study, all organic sheep were able to find a mate, and they all preferred other organic sheep, whereas non-organic sheep ran toward the slaughterhouse (even though they were blindfolded) upon hearing the baaaaa of other non-organic sheep.

      • Alan Glick says:

        Actually, Mary does give us evidence of having a finely-tuned sarcastic wit.

    • Garech de Brun says:

      A whole hill of sheep, we have loads here in Connemara. They only get meds when they get sick and their guts make grand sausages too.

    • Doc Martin says:

      The species of sheep does not change, the Breed does! We have the same species of sheep, that Bach’s time had, but different breeds! Science not your forte. Your illogic is breath taking.

    • Doc Martin says:

      Water in 1750 is H2O, water in 2020 is still H2O, wise up!

    • Doc Martin says:

      Water in 1750 was H2O, in 2020 it is still H2O, wise up.

      • Genius Repairman says:

        Everyone is missing the point. The great JS Bach would only allow his works to be played on divine instruments with strings derived from holy sheep from Heaven itself. The wood came from the jub jub tree and harpsichord strings were sourced from angel harps. I was informed of this by a rather elfin Bach enthusiast a little fired up by a combination of listening to the St Matthew and the Goldberg on the same day whilst drinking chardonnay.

      • Mr. Knowitall says:

        During WWII, in Germany, an H2O2 water was developed and when provided to sheep resulted in a far heavier sounding gut string.

    • William Safford says:

      I dunno, that’s a bit of a stretch. It would take a lot of pluck to make that happen. Anyone who claimed to accomplish it is stringing you along….

    • Doc Martin says:

      It does NOT take a whole hill of sheep to make one gut string for a double bass, I don’t believe it at all without metrics and evidence.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Can’t you see the contradiction in the statement: “The war had been won, but the establishment had stolen its spoils. In Beethoven, the public preferred to hear big orchestras playing instruments that were made by leading brands in the 19th century to small bands with modern craft replicas of valveless horns.” The public, sir, is not ‘the establishment’! It is the customer.

    • Garech de Brun says:

      The old 19th century big orchestra approach to the classics and earlier baroque, reminds me of what Victorians did to Georgian furniture.

      They covered it in horrible lacquer, once it was removed the original wood finish can be restored and seen clearly. HIP in a sense has done the same thing, bit like picture restoring.

      • Dragonetti says:

        So true! The only problem with some of the original performers, particularly in the 70s, was that some of them may well have had the ‘correct’ instruments but they just weren’t as accomplished as the mainstream players. Sorry to say that and besmirch some of the pioneers but it was the case. No names or pack drill naturally. Let sleeping sheep gut lie!
        Now however everything has changed. I have trouble listening to some older recordings of baroque music in particular. Truly horrible. Having said that I’m quite OK with either interpretation from Mozart onwards as long as there’s a nod in the direction of phrasing and tempi. Personal choice and nothing else.

        • Garech de Brun says:

          Yes standards of HIP playing has improved greatly since the days of Leonhardt, Hogwood et al. HIP is a process of constant learning and improvement. Far more is known about instruments, playing techniques, ornamentation in baroque opera and in Mozart etc than back in the early days.

        • Patricia says:

          Seating also makes a difference. Mozart always wrote for strings “divisi.”

      • Patricia says:

        I remember Christopher Hogwood saying the same thing years ago.

  • Garech de Brun says:

    Beethoven in his Missa Solemnis asks for clarinets in C, instruments which have now become obsolete in modern orchestras. Harnoncourt’s last recording uses them.

    • William Safford says:

      Not quite obsolete. Certainly obsolescent, but I know clarinetists who own and occasionally play on modern clarinets in C: not only for works such as Beethoven 1 or Missa Solemnis, but other works such as Mahler 4 and the late Strauss wind serenades.

      • John Payne says:

        Also C clarinets would always be used for the C parts in Arabella, Capriccio, Ägyptische Helena, Daphne, Frau ohne Schatten (at least at the end of the opera) and sometimes for Rosenkavalier. They are sometimes used these days for the C parts in Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi operas, more than say 30 or 40 years ago. So not obsolescent in the opera pit.

      • Garech de Brun says:

        It was Harnoncourt who said they were obsolete in the Sony CD booklet. I assumed he knew what he was on about, well maybe not used as much.

        • William Safford says:

          He’s not that far off. They are pretty rare. Most often, C clarinet parts are played on Bb clarinets, but some people do employ the C clarinet. There is a subtle tonal difference, sort of in between the sound of a Bb and an Eb clarinet.

        • William Safford says:

          Followup: just for fun, I just poked around on the Buffet-Crampon website.

          Of course there are the Bb, A, and Eb clarinets, as well as the low ones.

          Not only will they sell you a C clarinet, but they will sell you a D clarinet. I didn’t know that D clarinets were still in production. I haven’t seen one in years (that I know of).

  • Lunchtime O'Boulez says:

    Now folks listen up to this.

    Ludwig van Beethoven
    Missa Solemnis, D major, Op.123
    Hofkapelle Stuttgart and Kammerchor Stuttgart

    Dir Frieder Bernius


    Johanna Winkel, Sopran
    Sophie Harmsen, Alt
    Sebastian Kohlhepp, Tenor
    Arttu Kataja, Bass

    Recorded live 13.10.2018, Dom zu Brixen

  • Sixtus says:

    I disagree with “By the end of the 20th century, mainstream conductors had assimilated period ideas and what was once revolutionary in Hogwood’s hands became routine in Vienna Philharmonic recordings with Simon Rattle and Andris Nelsons.” My problem with the Rattle and Nelsons Beethoven cycles is precisely that they are “routine” in the post-Weingartner-Toscanini vein (as opposed to “routine” in the post-Wagner-Furtwangler-Barenboim vein). If one insists on modern instruments and a big-name conductor who often obtains HIP-like results, I’d turn instead to Chailly/Gewandhaus (despite his eschewing of modern urtext scores). And if one wants modern instruments and a slightly less big-name conductor (but one who understood better than most bigger names the insights provided by the HIP movement) there are the two cycles conducted by Mackerras. The first was from Liverpool and the second and better-recorded with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. You’ll have to search for them–the Liverpool EMI set isn’t online and might be out-of-print and the SCO set is from snobbishly-streaming-service-phobic Hyperion.

  • Liam Allan-Dalgleish says:

    Anyone who criticizes Dennis Brain should get one. This nonsense of taking the outlook of the 21st century, with such insightful folk as this Dell’Omo guy at Rider University and Institute of Stenography selling of the campus of Westminster Choir College to the highest bidder and destroying thereby one of the artistic treasures of the world, is an example of the barbarism we have slipped into in our “enlightened” times— not to mention this lunatic in Washington—and called it “progress by regression.”

    • William Safford says:

      I see nothing wrong with critiquing Dennis Brain, or any other musician. (I substituted “critiquing” for “criticizing,” since the latter word often has a negative connotation, and a critique can be positive, neutral, or negative.)

      Dennis Brain was a very talented hornist who died too young.

      He also played an approach that does not differentiate the styles of, say, Beethoven vs. Richard Strauss as much as we are used to today.

      Of course, since the topic of this blog entry touches on the instruments of Beethoven’s time, it is fair to say that it is abundantly clear that Brain is playing a valved horn. A fun aspect of listening to natural horn players is hearing how they adjust their scale to play notes that do not appear in the harmonic series. Skilled composers crafted the horn parts to make these into expressive moments. Hearing Brain play them cleanly certainly lends accuracy to the performance, but removes that original-instrument character. Performers on modern horns can, if they so choose, at least partially replicate that sound. Brain chose not to (or, perhaps, the idea never occurred to him to do so).

      The recording has positives and negatives. The clarinetist and oboist have tones that are of their time. I do not know if they would be mainstream sounds in England today, but they definitely would be heterodox in the U.S. today. The clarinetist has a scooping quality to his attacks that I do not like at all. The pianist’s playing sounds good, but there is an odd and unpleasant resonance in the piano, that a piano technician should have fixed before the recording. The bassoonist is sometimes lost in the mix. And Brain sometimes overpowers the other players–was that his playing, or the way in which it was recorded? It is a more powerful and soloistic sound than would likely come from a natural horn.

      That said, there is also much to say that is good about the recording. If I were hearing it live, I certainly would enjoy the experience (the note attacks by the clarinetist notwithstanding). Of course, it would be an honor to hear Brain perform, and a delight to hear him perform this particular work.

      I do agree with your comment about the lunatic in Washington.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Rudolf Serkin and the Philadelphia All Stars have more fun, warmth, delicacy, and musicality than the formidable competition 0f Dennis Brain, Stephen Hough, or Gieseking. Even the Philadelphian Marlboros cannot conceal that Mozart’s quintet is the finer piece. Compare the delicious codetta of their Mozart to any of the others.

  • Doc Martin says:

    As a retired GP, I am familiar with using clinical metrics and standards in order assist in diagnosis.

    Recently I carried out a survey of selected conductors recording outputs on the Presto CD website to assess how many of their records obtained awards (Gramophone, Penguin etc). As a gold standard benchmark I used Building a Library.

    I tried to select a wide range of conductors to compare against Herbert von Karajan. These included, Karl Bohm, Carlos Kleiber, Eugen Jochum, Rafael Kubelik, Simon Rattle, Sir Adrian Boult, Andre Previn, Sir John Barbirolli, Otto Klemperer, Nicholas Harnoncourt, Leonard Berstein, Charles Mackerras, Daniel Barenboim, Georg Solti.

    First I determined the total number of recordings listed for each conductor and by using the Preto database tool, I determined the numbers obtaining awards and drilling down to count how many of these were Building a Library benchmarks.

    Briefly, here are my findings. Karajan had 522 recordings listed, of which 75 won awards (14.4%), of these 18 were Building a Library (24%). Karl Bohm had 350 listed 32 with awards (9.1%), 7 of which were Building a Library (21.8%). Carlos Kleiber had 46 listed with 17 awards (37%) of which 8 were Building a Library (47%). Jochum had 96 listed, with 14 awards (14.5%), of which 4 were Building a Library (28.6%). Kubelik had 174 listed with 23 awards (13.2%), of which 11 (47.8%) were Building a Library. Simon Rattle had 152 listed of which 103 won awards (68%), of which 21 (20.3%) were Building a Library. Adrian Boult had 157 listed of which 33 won awards (21%), of which 13 (39.4%) were Building a Library. Andre Previn had 189 recording listed of which 44 won awards (23.2%), of which 10 (22.7%) were Building a Library. Barbirolli had 194 listed of which 33 won awards ( 17%), of these 12 (36.9%) were Building a Library. Otto Klemperer had 150 listed with 19 awards (12.6%), of which 5(26.3%) were Building a Library. Harnoncourt had 131 listings with 29 awards (22.1%), of which 10 (34.4%) were Building a Library. Bernstein had 239 listed with 54 awards (22.6%), 17 of which were Building a Library (31.5%). Charles Mackerras had 175 records listed of which 46 had awards (26.3%), of these 18 (39.1%) were Building a Library. Barenboim had 129 listings of which 53 had awards (41%), of these 19 (35.8%) were Building a Library. Sir Georg Solti had 251 records listed with 66 awards (26.3%), of which 13 (19.7%) were Building a Library.

    Discussion and Conclusions
    Although Karajan had more listings than the other conductors, only about 14% of his output had won awards and of these just 24% were Building a Library. The bulk of these being Richard Strauss, Wagner, Prokoviev, Puccini, Mendelsohn and Verdi, the core repertoire for example Beethoven ,Brahms, Schumann, Bruckner were not awarded Building a Library.

    In comparison, a greater proportion of Carlos Kleiber’s records had won awards, (37%) of which 47% were Building a Library, these included Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Strauss, Verdi many of these were repeatedly chosen over many years unlike Karajan. Simon Rattle’s record output had a much greater proportion of consistent awards (68%) and 20% of these were Building a Library. 41% of Daniel Barenboim’s listings had awards and of these a higher proportion, compared with Karajan were Building a Library benchmarks.

    The PrestoCD website database and tool enables a snapshot survey of the overall quality of a conductor’s recording outputs to be compared and gauged against a set of established metrics awards and a Building a Library benchmark standard awarded over several years.

    It also confirms the well know adage, of quality rather than quantity, meaning a conductor such as Karajan having a very large record output, does not necessarily mean he will score highly or consistent in quality, if on close analysis, the vast bulk of his recordings (85.6%) did not win any awards, especially as Building a Library benchmarks.

    The survey suggests Karajan’s forte is with Strauss, Verdi, Puccini (Tosca) he appears to have little to contribute to the core repertoire, where other conductors such as Kleiber, Kempe, Kubelik, Rattle, Mackerras, Harnoncourt and Barenboim fare rather more consistently.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Interesting analysis of critical tastes.

      • Doc Martin says:

        My point Norman, is Karajan never seems to flag up these days on Record Review, he never seems to get a Building a Library listing in the core repertoire, during the 1960-70s his records were ubiquitous you could not avoid them, now they just seem to gather dust in charity shops. The HIP movement appears to have changed listeners and buyers perception of how music of the past should be performed.

        I have three records on CD of the Missa Solemnis, Wand (1965 Testament), Karajan (1966 DG) and Klemperer (1965 EMI), my favourite is Wand’s Gurzenich it is far grander and has a more devout atmosphere than either the Karajan or Klemperer. Voices also seem to me to be much clearer too.

  • Patricia says:

    NlB is wrong about the Beethoven concertos. Robert Levin did not record them with AAM. Stephen Lubin did – using five different pianos. Levin has recorded some of the Mozart concertos with AAM, and has plans to record more with Richard Egarr.