How wonderful it would be to be able to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony exactly as it was heard at its premiere! Or would it?
Let’s picture it. It’s December 1808. You live in a tidy hamlet a few miles from the center of bustling Vienna. Though it has been a few years since you’ve gone to a symphony concert, you enjoy the music of leading composers like Hummel, Reicha, and Weber. The loudest sound you ever heard was thunder from that storm in the summer of 1806, but that doesn’t really count. Your biggest manmade bang was the local eighteen-piece military band that plays on the town green on holidays.
Of course, as a music lover, you sing in your parish choir and play duets and trios at home with the family (you on piano, and assorted family members doing the vocalizing). You are partial to Mozart’s concert arias, though they are the devil to get through unscathed.
The only music that is possible for you, or anyone in the world, to hear is live, face-to-face. That makes life pretty quiet. The cows low in the field on the hill, the goldfinches chirp in the linden tree in front of your house, the easy flow of the brook gurgles behind it. At night, sometimes you can hear loud talk from the tavern on the corner, but otherwise from dusk until dawn life is essentially silent.
You’ve heard about this rascal, Beethoven! How he’s terrorized Viennese society with his erratic behavior and avant garde music. You’ve thrown up your hands attempting to play through one of his piano trios, and as far as his string quartets are concerned—well, forget them because they are incomprehensible.
But you’re curious and want to keep an open mind, and even though it’s a frigid day you’ve decided to make the hour-long trip into the heart of Vienna to hear the premiere of his Fifth Symphony at the Theater-an-der-Wien. As you enter the city center, the noise level increases along with the urban energy. The commotion of horses and carriages, merchants, and shoppers, upsets the tranquility of your accustomed existence but adds to your growing excitement. You arrive at the concert hall where there is a continuous, low hum of anticipation among the throng.
You find your way through the cavernous, candlelit hall to your seat in the balcony. In the unheated building, it’s not quite as cold here as down below in the orchestra section where the audience, which will stand through the entire concert, huddles together for warmth. While you wait for the performance to begin you wonder why it takes Beethoven so much longer to write a symphony than other composers—a mystery to you because from everything you’ve been told, his symphonies are rough around the edges, disconnected, and make an altogether unpleasant noise. The program, which Beethoven himself is conducting (though it’s well-known he’s hard of hearing), is as crazy as the man himself: the Sixth Symphony, one of his concert arias, the Gloria from his Mass in C, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, which Beethoven will perform himself. That’s the first half.
By intermission, you’re exhausted and have to go to the bathroom. You’re inclined to go home, but because going to the symphony is such a rare event and you’ve paid royally for a ticket you decide to see it through to the bitter end of the program, which after the Fifth Symphony will include two more movements from the Mass, an improvisation on piano by Beethoven, and finally his Choral Fantasy.
With stolid determination, after intermission you return to your seat. To your surprise, you see not only the usual musicians on stage, you see three trombonists, and, is it really? Yes, a piccolo player! To your knowledge, none of these instruments has ever been used in a symphony orchestra! What could the madman have up his sleeve? You think optimistically, these are the instruments you’ve heard in the village band. Maybe this new symphony will have the marches and beloved landler you enjoy so much. Maybe this symphony won’t be so bad, after all. You lean forward in your seat, anticipating a downbeat as pleasantly bucolic as the beginning of the Sixth Symphony you heard only two hours before.
Those first four notes!! You are thrown back against your seat. No symphony has ever started like this. The strings, all in unison, playing with driven intensity. It feels like the loudest noise you have ever heard. Not just in a concert hall. Anywhere. In your life. The intensity. The power. The maniacal repetition of those four notes. The four notes that will become the most famous in music history. And on and on it goes. At times, the orchestra almost has to stop playing because the music is so radically different and difficult. As you will find out later, this is not really so surprising because the musicians had only one rehearsal.
Now, let us jump forward 200 years and compare our perception of classical music relative to the world around us now. Today, noise is our constant companion. Mechanical noise, industrial noise, crowd noise, workplace noise, iPods, YouTube, television, radio, you-name-it-noise. Noise from cars, buses, planes, trains, subways. Noise disguised as music surrounds us from elevators to supermarkets to sports stadiums in decibel levels corrosive to our hearing, tranquility, and mental well-being. Noise is non-stop.
And what has happened to concert music and musical instruments since Beethoven’s time? What is the single similarity in the evolution of every orchestral instrument from the piano to the violin to the flute to the trumpet? Answer: They have progressively become louder, with greater ability to project sound. (Many would say with a more beautiful sound as well.) Why? Because concert halls got progressively bigger in order to seat more people. And why were bigger concert halls necessary? Because composers, beginning well before Beethoven, wrote symphonies drawing upon more and more musicians and a greater variety of instruments. Berlioz wanted an orchestra of 400 musicians. Mahler’s Eighth, “The Symphony of A Thousand.” And why did composers do that? Ah hah! Because that’s what listeners wanted to hear.
Let’s go back to our premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth and approach it from our twenty-first-century perspective. Beethoven had an orchestra of fifty musicians, give or take. Their individual level of playing is somewhat spotty. Probably they sounded like a decent college orchestra. The horns and trumpets were valveless, meaning the ability to play all the notes of the scale were significantly limited and those chromatic notes that were attempted were difficult to play in tune and with full tone. The string players played on instruments that had significantly less power than instruments you hear today. (In a nutshell, virtually all string instruments that were made until the mid-nineteenth century and are still in use have been substantially restructured in order to provide the projection and brilliance we are enamored of today. A new bass bar, a re-angled neck, a re-contoured and lengthened fingerboard and corresponding bridge, metal and/or synthetic strings constitute a few of these changes. Even the design of bows changed radically in the mid-1800s to be able to produce greater intensity of sound.) So in this regard alone, the shock and awe of the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth would be reduced to milquetoast.
Now is a good time for me to rephrase the original question: Do we really want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth as it was heard at its premiere? Do we want to listen to fifty unevenly trained musicians, give or take, playing for four hours on weak instruments that are hard to play, in an unheated concert hall conducted by a deaf man on one rehearsal?
Let’s take a look at the issue from another angle: performance practice. These days there are a group of wand’ring minstrels (usually conductors) who travel throughout the world cloaked in a banner on which they’ve emblazoned the words “Historically Informed.” They give performances purported to be authentic reenactments of music from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We’re supposed to pay reverent homage to these musicians for their painstaking research and to feel the didactic thrill of their cause.
First of all, any professional musician worth his salt is historically informed, and for a small group to claim exclusivity to common knowledge about performance practice conveys a public misperception at best and is an insult to the majority of performing musicians at worst. One reason I have trouble with this brand of music-making is that purveyors of H.I. performances tend to cherry pick from the available historical record, satisfying their own personal preferences while claiming to be the real deal.
Here’s one example. For decades there’s been a heated debate over whether or not string players should play music up through the time of Beethoven with vibrato (the rapid oscillation of the finger on a given note, which provides a unique luster to the tone). There was even one H.I. conductor I worked with who went so far as to say that music by a composer as late to the table as Mendelssohn should be played without vibrato whatsoever. (Just think about the Mendelssohn violin concerto for a moment. What is wrong with this picture?)
If scholarship on this tempest-in-a-teapot issue was ironclad, then maybe the H.I. crowd would have a point. But the fact is that every contemporary tome from the period in question that I’ve been able to lay my hands on says not only that vibrato was used in those bygone days, but should be used! In 1542, barely a moment after the violin’s umbilical chord had been cut from its viol ancestors, we have the first documentation of vibrato, strongly suggesting that the practice was already a prevalent component of technique. [Silvestro Ganassi, Regola rubertina (Venice 1542, 1543) pt. 1, ch. 2] The use of vibrato for expressive goals is described by no less a virtuoso than the eighteenth-century Italian violinist and scholar, Giuseppe Tartini, composer of the great “Devil’s Trill” Sonata [Traité des Agréments, 1771].
And here’s a quote from Francesco Geminiani’s The Art of Playing on the Violin, from 1751. Geminiani, by the way was, along with Tartini was one of the greatest violinists in Europe and a first-rate composer, and he was invited to perform personal recitals for King George with no less a figure than George Frederick Handel as his accompanist. This is what Geminiani had to say about the technique and nature of vibrato:
To perform it you must press the Finger strongly upon the String of the Instrument, and move the Wrist in and out slowly and equally, when it is long continued swelling the Sound by Degrees. Drawing the Bow nearer to the Bridge, and ending it very strong, it may express Majesty, Dignity, etc. But making it shorter, lower, and softer, it may denote Affliction, Fear, etc. And when it is made on short Notes, it only contributes to make their Sound more agreeable and for this Reason it should be made use of as often as possible.
You would think it would be hard to dispute this clear documentation of the importance of vibrato. Nevertheless, once upon a time I got into a debate—okay, it was an argument—with an H.I. conductor du jour about vibrato. He kept insisting that we play totally without vibrato (which, for many reasons too boring to go into here, makes our modernized instruments sound pretty lousy). When I said to this erstwhile maestro that I had read in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians that it seemed clear our eighteenth century colleagues played with vibrato, he told me—disdain clearly evident—that I thoroughly misunderstood Geminiani’s meaning, and that I needed to read it in its original Italian. Feeling chastened, I went straight to the primary source, and with more amusement than outrage, discovered that Geminiani, having spent most of his life in merry old England, published The Art of Playing on the Violin in English.
Many H.I. sorts gleefully point to Leopold Mozart’s admonition against playing with too much vibrato, which he called a “tremble:”
There are some players who tremble at every note, as if they had a chronic fever. One should use the tremolo (vibrato) only in those places where Nature herself would produce it. [A Treatise on the Fundamentals of Violin Playing, 1756]
Question: Who is Leopold Mozart? Primarily, he was the sperm donor of Wolfgang, and, if not for this lucky break would have been relegated to the backwater of music history. Leopold Mozart was a capable court musician in the (then) cultural boondocks of Salzburg, Austria. He wrote a good amount of inoffensive music and a well-pored-over method book on string playing. He is also famous for relentlessly badgering his genius son not to compose music that was complicated, emotional, or thought-provoking for fear it would alienate the hoity-toity aristocracy, thereby preventing Wolfgang from obtaining a full-time position, thereby preventing Leopold from receiving a comfortable retirement plan. And who out there, may I ask, can confidently locate “those places where Nature herself would produce” her tremble?
So first of all, whose opinion do you trust? The internationally renowned Francesco Geminiani, or the provincial country bumpkin, Leopold Mozart? Second of all, what does Papa Leopold’s admonition really mean? If he says that you shouldn’t play with too much vibrato, then it would strongly suggest that… Yes, you guessed it! Musicians played with a lot of vibrato. Grumpy old Leopold didn’t like its popularity because “when I was a boy…”.
Sorry to go on ad nauseum about vibrato. Time to move on to a different thought. How many of you have traveled through a hilly country like England or Italy? Have you noticed the change in people’s spoken accent when you wend your way from one village to another? Hell, you go from Brooklyn to the Bronx and it’s like another language. Now, go back two or three hundred years, when the sole possible means of verbal communication was person-to-person and most people rarely left the confines of their natal valley. Just imagine how much that linguistic phenomenon would be magnified! Don’t forget, it wasn’t until Italy’s unification in 1870 that they started thinking about a national language.
My point is, do you really think that there was only one way to play music in that day and age? Do you really think no one (or everyone) played with vibrato? My guess is that the variety of techniques and interpretations was much more vibrant, colorful, and creative than it is now, when easy international travel and instantaneous mass media give us a thoroughly homogenized concept of what well-played music is “supposed” to sound like. So much for the orthodoxy of the Historically (Mis)Informed.
It may sound like I’m arguing for gut instinct over study and scholarship, for loud over soft, for anything goes over good taste. Far from it (though it must be said that some of our greatest artists succeeded admirably by relying on playing “from the heart”). I’ve learned immensely from studying original manuscripts and early editions of Vivaldi and Mozart, of Bach and Beethoven. I’ve read invaluable books about baroque and classical music performance style. I’ve talked to experts about which ornaments are appropriate to French baroque music and which are appropriate to German or Italian. I’ve worked with inspiring conductors, including period music specialists like Trevor Pinnock, who are not only scholars but also exhilarating musicians. The point is that, as it was for my colleagues of yesteryear, good musicianship boils down to that indefinable sense of what will move the audience. You, as a performer, decide what’s special and unique about the piece you are performing, and about every note that comprises it; not whether it conforms to a certain pre-determined (and not necessarily correct) template of what is stylistically “authentic.” Besides, since the only recording technology from bygone days is the printed page, no one today can claim with certainty what “authentic” sounds like. You study the score in as many ways possible, you consider its historical, cultural, and biographical contexts, you consider the implications of the piece’s structure, its harmonic logic, its contrapuntal and motivic invention. You make thousands of judgments to determine what you think is the most compelling way to perform a piece of music, and if you do that beautifully and it grabs enough listeners, you’ll have done your job.
Ultimately, here’s the real question: Do you want to experience what the audience heard at the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth, or do you want to experience what they felt? I’ll take the latter any day.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published in Reichel Recommends / The Arts in Utah and Beyond (2013) and is republished with gracious permission from the author. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.