The Beethoven Symphonies

How they may have been performed in Beethoven’s day.

When playing the Beethoven symphonies I have often been asked, and I’m sure many of my colleagues out there have also been asked by conductors for much more sound. But not all the great conductors were like that.  I remember some elegant performances by Furtwangler, de Sabata and Bruno Walter.

I have often performed them with a small orchestra consisting of instruments of a type that were used in Beethoven’s day and the sound was completely different as was to be expected.  There was not the blaring brass and screechy string sound that some orchestras make today. But there were drawbacks. For instance in the trio of the “Eroica” Symphony very often the old style horns fluffed it.

It is interesting to note that when Sir George Smart met Beethoven in Vienna in 1825 that four celli and two basses only played the recitatives in the Ninth Symphony, which, said Sir George, is certainly better than if one takes all the basses.

However, Schindler states that Beethoven required all the basses to play the recitatives in a singing style, not stiffly, but in strict time, not dragged.

According to my research there were mostly only four basses in Beethoven’s orchestra (in which the basses were sometimes led by Domenico Dragonetti) playing on gut strings and some with only 3-stringed instruments, so it must have been a completely different sound than we hear today when up to ten basses are used, all with metal strings

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Koussevitsky, Victor Watson and the Bottesini Duos.#1

I was very fortunate to meet Koussevitsky and play with Victor Watson when I was in the London Philharmonic Orchestra sixty years ago. They had played the Bottesini Duos together long before when Koussevitsky was performing as a bass soloist.  I learned a lot from Victor about these Duos and vowed that one day I would record them as faithfully as I could to the directions Victor gave me.  Well, I have just recorded the Polacca and some other bass pieces using the Orchestral tuning GDAE, and I have incorporated all of Victor Watson’s and Koussevitsky’s suggestions on its rendering, also Victor de Sabata’s observations on the performance of the “Otello” solo. This can be heard in my CD, Discovering the Double Bass.

Professor Meyer’s Guide to Auditions. Some Difficult Solos #3

Opera, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Ravel

You can always count on Ravel to put a few harmonics in the bass part; one piece I can think of is his “Mother Goose” Suite. At one time there were heated debates over suggested changes to some of the harmonics but now there is a general concensus of opinion that the printed part is correct.

I was fortunate enough to play a concert performance of “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” in the late 1940’s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Victor de Sabata the brilliant principal conductor and Director of la Scala Milan who had conducted the first performance. He got a wonderful performance and at rehearsal even corrected the pronunciation of a French choir that was brought over specially.
There is a big bass solo consisting of all harmonics combined with two flutes that starts near the beginning of the opera at Fig. 1 which goes on for 21 bars or so. It is very exposed. There are other difficult bits around Fig. 95 Adagio and 96. Victor Watson played the solo bass part which he found very difficult both technically and rhythmically.
Some years later I played the solo part. I got through it O.K. but I was glad when it was over!

Donkey Shot in Vienna

About fifty years ago I was playing with the Philharmonia Orchestra on a European tour with Herbert von Karajan conducting and we were in Vienna.  It so happened that the Vienna Philharmonic boys had the evening off, as did the Philharmonia and we arranged a little party with them, about six of us altogether, all bassists.

It was Heurigen time, when the new wine had just been released.  All the cafés and restaurants had an evergreen branch hanging above their entrance to tell all the world that the new wine was in so we arranged to meet at a tram stop on the Schotten Ring and catch the tram to Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna where all the population went for a night out on the town.  It had many famous eateries and our Viennese friends knew the best ones, so we all trooped inside the restaurant of their choice and we ate a really gourmet meal and imbibed the delicious wine.

Conversation inevitably turned to what brand of strings we were using, and what type of rosin.  From there it turned onto conductors, and we solemnly agreed between us that they were all bastards, especially one, a certain Herr Doktor ——–  whom we all had encountered.  From there we started to talk about the repertoire, and any difficult pieces we had come across.  One bassist turned to me and asked if I had ever played what sounded to me like Donkey Shot.  I was nonplussed but suddenly realized he meant “Don Quixote” by Richard Strauss.

Don Quixote is not a very difficult piece for the bass compared with some of his other works, but there are two bars solo in a 3/4 # /# section that are not very difficult to play technically, but are difficult rhythmically, so I suggest that all you budding young players who are aiming to become a principal bass, sort out the rhythms, listen to a recording and put it in your scrap book.

After another round of the Heurigen wine the conversation became more relaxed and we turned to other subjects and then after a final round caught the tram back to Vienna, said our goodbyes, and I went back to the little hotel where I always stayed, the “Rote Hahn”.

Professor Meyer’s musings on Beethoven’s Ninth Dr. Otto Klemperer #3

I performed this several times including a recording with Dr. Klemperer and the Philharmonia in the 1950’s.  He often conducted  with no baton as I believe he had problems with his hands, but although his directions were sometimes not very clear he obtained some remarkable performances

His tempi were interminably slow. One could nod off in the slow movement and in what is really the scherzo which to my mind should be light and joyful, sounded to me like a bum-slapping, clod-hopping ländler, but that being said the recitatives and the Ode to Joy leading up to a triumphal ending were truly great.

It must be remembered that Dr. Klemperer was struggling with his health, and, looking back, he had a grand overview of the work. Going back to the “scherzo” he insisted that we repeated Klem-perer  Klem- perer Klem-perer to ourselves so that we played the dotted quarters, eighths, and quarters correctly.  Of course I suppose he could have reminded us to think of Beet-hoven  Beet -hoven  Beet-hoven, but conductors are sometimes egotistical.

I mentioned in a previous blogpost that nowadays music tends to be taken faster, probably a sign of my old age and certainly if you listen to Toscanini then indeed Klemperer is slow and stately, but lately, after listening to many of his recordings a certain grandeur comes out which will make him remembered to posterity.

Professor Meyer’s musings on Beethoven’s Ninth. #2 Wilhelm Furtwängler

I played the Ninth with Furtwängler twice. One in the late 1940’s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London, and two with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the mid 1950’s at the Kunsthaus during the Lucerne International Festival, Switzerland. They were by far the best performances of the Ninth I’ve ever played.

Furtwängler didn’t have much of a beat. He was lank, bald with a fringe of white hair, had a slight stoop and stuck his belly out when conducting.

His approach was to transmit joy. It wasn’t a “Herrlich” performance as some conductors are wont to make of it, but impressed me with its musicality. Despite not having a very clear beat he could convey exactly what he wanted. It is hard to describe but it was uncanny.

The first movement just flowed. There were no overly loud chords. The same with the second movement. The third was full of fun, not like the usual renderings with the tympani being allowed to play fortissimo like a ton of bricks being dropped.

The last movement, beginning with the recitatives was just as Beethoven described his ideas to Sir George Smart during a meeting in September 1825. And I quote Sir George Smart “Beethoven gave the tempi of various sections of his symphonies etc, while he played them on the piano, including the Choral Symphony, which according to his reckoning took three quarters of an hour,which we know is impossible. In Vienna the recitative was played by four ‘celli and two basses which certainly is better than if one takes all the basses”.

Schindler states that Beethoven required all the basses to play in a singing style, not stiffly but in strict time, not dragged. Thus it was with Furtwängler who segued into the Ode to Joy to make a glorious, joyful Finale.

Link here to read a previous post on Furtwängler that you might care to peruse.

Interview by Jason Heath

Thank you to Jason Heath for sending me this interview with me which I am very pleased to put on my blog site.

I really enjoy Jason’s blog, and as I tend to write about the past it’s nice to be brought up to date with present day bass happenings. He is doing a real service to the bass community.

Listen to the podcast of the interview here, at his Contrabass Conversations podcast site.


Music Magazine’s Article on Herbert von Karajan #3

The row in Baltimore should never have happened.  We were all tired and, personally, I didn’t notice anything strange in the away von Karajan was conducting the anthems, but it was to have a serious effect on the Philharmonia’s future.  First, the number of recordings dropped dramatically, then there was the sad death of Dennis Brain, the first horn, the resignation of the concert master, Manoug Parikian,and others.  I decided to leave and go out into the big world outside the Philharmonia because I had a wife, two kids, a mortgage and school fees to find.  Shortly afterwards Legge dropped the bombshell that he was disbanding the orchestra, but it was resuscitated as a self-run orchestra under the title of the “New Philharmonia Orchestra”.  Dr. Otto Klemperer was made the permanent conductor and later on “Conductor for Life”.

Von Karajan continued to do well; he had the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Opera and the Scala Opera, but it seemed to go to his head.  Musicians all over the world talk to each other and I began to hear some odd things from the Berlin and the Vienna boys about him.  It seems his ego which was always inflated before  was now making it difficult for musicians to work with him and finally led years late to his downfall.

To summarize, I personally think he was a good all round conductor, but not a great one. One of his favourite pieces that I enjoyed was the “Concerto for Orchestra” by Bartok .  We recorded it.

He was aggressively ambitious and was a good business man but underneath it all there was a certain warmth.

I remember I had a dispute over fees with the management.  The fees went up but I was not paid extra for the five stringer.  The matter was settled, so I took the 5 stringer to the concert that night and who should I get into the elevator to the platform with but von Karajan.  He smiled at me and rubbed his forefinger and thumb together and said “Did you get the money?”  I rubbed my forefinger and thumb together and said “Yes, I did, but you aren’t doing too bad are you?” at which he smiled, patted me on the shoulder and said “See you on the platform”.  Ever afterwards whenever we saw each other we would grin and rub our finger and thumb together.  It showed me that he had a sense of humour and  I would never go so far as to say he was at all evil.

Herbert von Karajan #2

Comment on article in BBC Music Magazine:

I well believe von Karajan when he said he joined the Nazi Party only to further his career. It could have been normal for any young man to have done so if he thought it would help him, however, so far I have not heard of any involvement he had in committing atrocities. After all these years I am willing to forgive him for being a Nazi, but not if he had been in the S.S. and committed any atrocities.. I was on the battlefield with the British Army and certainly have no time for the S.S. after many of my comrades were murdered by them.

It was Walter Legge who discovered him in the late forties by listening to a record, so I’m told, and then built up his career. He paid back Legge and the Philharmonia in a rather bad way. It happened like this: The Philharmonia Orchestra was playing a concert in Baltimore at the end of a long, exhausting tour. There were demonstrations outside the concert hall about his Nazi past and as a result the hall was not packed as were all the other concerts we gave.

At the morning seating rehearsal a violinist, Peter Gibbs, an ex-fighter pilot, stood and berated von Karajan for conducting the British and American National Anthems in what he thought was a casual way. Legge stood up and told him to sit down and afterwards assured von Karajan that Gibbs would not be allowed to play that night. However, Gibbs came to the concert dressed and ready to play, at which von Karajan refused to go on stage unless Gibbs was sent away. Dennis Brain, the principal horn and Gareth Morris the principal flute and a few others said they would refuse to play unless Gibbs played .

After a long wait and some slow hand-clapping von Karajan came on after Gibbs had sat down in the orchestra. There was a second long wait after the interval.

Next day, in Washington, we were to board the plane home to England but Legge, von Karajan and Mattoni, his agent, were not with us.

A few days after we arrived home, the chairman of the orchestra members committee called a meeting and told us that he had received a letter from von Karajan’s lawyer in Vienna demanding an apology signed by every member of the orchestra. This was discussed, and as it was around Christmastide we sent him a card wishing him a happy Christmas.

Shortly afterwards we received another letter stating that although von Karajan was under contract with EMI the name of the Orchestra was not mentioned in it so henceforth von Karajan would be making the recordings solely with the Berlin Philharmonic.

He had already been approached by the Berlin Philharmonic to be their conductor so the row at Baltimore gave him an ideal excuse to leave the Philharmonia.

Herbert von Karajan #1

I was interested to read in the March 2008 copy of the BBC Music Magazine some accounts of Herbert von Karajan.  I knew him very well at first hand having played countless concerts, recordings and tours with him when I was a member of the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra for five years in the 1950’s.

I was engaged to play a five stringed double bass in the Philharmonia Orchestra at the express wish of Walter  Legge and von Karagan.   There had been pieces by Richard Strauss and other composers that called for low notes, but there was only one five stringed bass, Gerald Brooks, in the Orchestra.  We met in a pub near the Festival Hall and he told me that he had been sent as an emissary: They were offering me a position in the core orchestra, extra pay for the five-stringer, and that I would be allowed  to keep my freelance connection within reason.  The terms seemed fine to me so I accepted.

A few days later I played my first recording with him. That would have been in 1953. He was in his mid-forties with jet-black hair cut/ en brosse /in the old German style. He looked aristocratic and well suited to his adopted patrician “von”, (he was born Heribert Karijannis of Persian stock).  He was extremely polite to the orchestra, addressing everyone by name.  He had a good stick technique and his tempi seemed just right. The attack in the entrances was never ragged .  The nuances were all there but, overall, after all those years of playing for him I cannot say that he was one of the world’s “Greats”

Comparisons are invidious, but in the Music Magazine articles his name was linked with Furtwängler, but he was no Furtwängler, I know because I played for him too. The overall impression I got was that he was a good business man first and foremost.  That he was ruthless in his desire to get to the top and that he loved material things.  He had a yacht, a plane, a villa and, too, a beautiful second wife.  He employed an excellent manager, Mattoni, and a Viennese lawyer.