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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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.