Performing Beethoven’s string quartets in the twenty-first century: received tradition and historical evidence


When a professional string quartet of the present day prepares to perform, and especially to record the great works of the Classical and Romantic period, it is faced with more complex issues than at any time in the past. Until relatively recently performers were confident about building upon received tradition, taking admired musicians of the previous generation as their models and inspiration, then passing on their own contribution to their successors. Changes in performance style generally depended on the prestige of popular performers and teachers rather than on historical understanding of notation or performing practices. As long as new music constituted a major part of the repertoire, and the compositions of the day were written in the context of contemporary performing practices, this posed no predicaments for performers. In an age of scientific and material progress, it was for the most part tacitly understood that technical development progressed with each generation and that a continuous performing tradition from the Classical era onwards offered the seal of legitimacy to prevailing conceptions of musical masterpieces from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But as classical music became increasingly a museum culture, the situation changed. During the past couple of decades confidence in received tradition has been shaken, partly by the successes of orchestral performances of Beethoven and later composers on period instruments, which have already changed the way conventional modern orchestras approach that repertoire, and partly by recent scholarly research, which suggests that even those path-breaking performances and recordings owe more to conventions of twentieth-century performance than they do to a genuine understanding of nineteenth-century practice. How, then, can a modern string quartet meet the challenge of exploring the musical expectations that lay behind Beethoven’s notation while simultaneously conveying the music to its listeners in a manner that not only connects with their modern sensibilities, but also stimulates them to see the music in a new light? There is no easy answer to this conundrum; but the search for knowledge, which is a hallmark of the Elias quartet’s website, is certainly a good place to start.


It is becoming ever clearer that during the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century attitudes towards tradition and the meaning of musical notation changed profoundly. Gradually, but inexorably, the notion took hold that conscientious adherence to the literal meaning of the musical text was a necessary act of piety towards the great works of the past. In this misguided conviction, critics, musicologists, and some influential performers promulgated the belief that the ways in which Classical and Romantic repertoire had been performed by their predecessors represented a distortion of the great composers’ conceptions. This idea, apparently justified by the remarks of important nineteenth-century composers and the tendency for notation to become more and more detailed, was reinforced by the publication of authoritative critical editions and by the phenomenon of recording, which fixed a performance and allowed discrepancies between the apparent literal meaning of the notation and the performer’s execution of it to be dissected at leisure.

The consequences of that increasingly literal attitude towards notation are revealingly documented by the first half century of recording (as has been tellingly described by Robert Philip). They are apparent in such things as the progressive restriction of rhythmic and tempo flexibility, the gradual abandonment of portamento as an expressive resource by string players and singers, and in the avoidance of arpeggiation and dislocation of the hands by keyboard players. Practices of this kind were stigmatised as the accumulated abuses of previous generations, and thus as unwarranted deviations from the ‘composer’s intentions’.

At the same time, paradoxically, continuous vibrato (universally adopted in singing, on string instruments and on some but not all wind instruments), although it was not indicated in the score, displaced the use of occasional vibrato as an expressive ornament. In this way it became essentially an element of basic tone colour rather than a rhetorical device, with major consequences for ensemble performance. This was tacitly accepted by performers as a sign of progress in creating beauty of sound; and some writers (for instance Robert Donington) tried to justify it with the historically unsustainable argument that it had always been regarded as a fundamental element of beautiful tone.

String instrument bowing also changed radically. Throughout the nineteenth century the violin family had been prized above all for its ability to rival the human voice. At that time, even pianists sought to give their essentially percussive instrument a vocal quality, as suggested by the title of Thalberg’s 1853 treatise L’art du chant appliqué au piano. During the course of the twentieth century, however, string players seem increasingly to have wanted to emulate the percussive powers of the piano, routinely executing passages of detached notes with sharply detached off-string strokes in the lower half of the bow, a style that would have occurred much more exceptionally in nineteenth-century performance. Most of the passages in Classical and Romantic chamber and orchestral music that are now played with short detached articulation would then have been executed more broadly, on the string.

This stylistic change is closely connected with a more simplistic attitude towards articulation markings than was current in the nineteenth-century. Scholarly editions have played their part in encouraging this. In the 1950s the Neue Mozart Ausgabe was faced with the challenge of deciding whether Mozart wrote two kinds of staccato marks, dots and vertical stokes, with distinct meanings or whether the apparent distinction in his autographs was unintentional (merely a product of his writing habits). The majority of scholars at that time maintained that there were two types of staccato mark and this led to many inconsistencies and absurdities in the editions. For the performer, the problem was that if there were two signs they must have two separate meanings, which led to a curious rigidity of approach. As most scholars now agree, Mozart did not mean to write two different marks; the staccato mark in his music has a very wide range of implications from broad détaché to short and sharply staccato. But performers are still living with the legacy of an approach which argued for two clearly defined styles of execution rather than the finely graded continuum of meanings that staccato marks possessed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Current research is leading to a better understanding of the twentieth century’s process of progressive amnesia about what nineteenth-century composers had expected their notation to convey to performers, which resulted in older practices being dismissed as ‘corrupt’ or more ‘primitive’. Growing awareness of the hidden meanings of nineteenth-century notation is once again causing the hegemony of received tradition to be questioned, just as it was a century ago. But this time the process is motivated by the reassessment of historical evidence, rather than by a confident belief in the superiority of modern ideas to those of the past.


Menzel1853JosephJoachimTreatises, reviews, reminiscences, and other descriptive material provide a rich resource of information about nineteenth-century performance. This is further illuminated in editions made by some of the leading performers of the day, which are annotated with performance markings, and sometimes with instructive comments. Perhaps most importantly, the earliest recordings provide a fascinating picture of performance styles in transition at the beginning of the twentieth century. Recordings by celebrated nineteenth-century musicians, some born in Beethoven’s lifetime or very shortly thereafter, can help us to put flesh on the bare bones of verbal descriptions in the treatises, and the annotations in editions. Many of the practices described by Hummel, Baillot, Spohr, Romberg, Czerny and other musicians associated with Beethoven are clearly reflected in the recorded performances of older musicians, and those of younger musicians who were closely associated with them. In the case of string playing this is particularly the case with Joseph Joachim (1831-1907, left) and his most faithful pupils.

One of the conclusions that emerges strongly from this evidence is that nineteenth-century musicians viewed the relationship between notation and performance quite differently from their twentieth-century successors. During the second half of the twentieth century the increasing utilisation of Urtexts as performance material for nineteenth-century music appears to have reinforced the conviction that what is commonly referred to as ‘the composer’s intentions’ is definitively embodied in a literal reading of the notation. Rhythms that were once regarded as indicative came to be seen as prescriptive; dynamics (especially from Beethoven onwards) were viewed as comprehensive; and eventually, anything more than the tiniest degree of tempo flexibility (except for the ubiquitous holding back of tempo before important expressive moments) was perceived as impermissible except where specifically indicated.

The evidence can leave us in little doubt that rhythmic freedom and tempo flexibility, different approaches to articulation, expressive portamento, and steadiness of pitch (with only occasional vibrato effects) were characteristic of early nineteenth-century performance. But to what extent were these seen as essential to the proper performance of his music by Beethoven? And, even if we have good grounds for thinking that some or all of them were, how far should modern performers go in rediscovering and employing them? After all, to play devil’s advocate, even if Beethoven regarded such things as essential, he may only have done so because they were part of the musical experience of his contemporaries and therefore communicated something to them that they no longer convey to a modern musician or listener. The essential qualities of melody and harmony in his music may perhaps be said to transcend changing styles of performance. But whatever our stance on these questions, curious musicians will surely want to know as much as possible about the sounds and style that formed part of a great composer’s musical world. What use they may then make of this knowledge is another matter.


We must draw a distinction between what the notation was expected to convey to the performer and the performer’s scope for individual expression. Some things in Beethoven’s music appear to us as they do, only because the limitations of conventional notation made it impractical for him to specify more delicate nuances, or because he chose not to do so, being unwilling to confine the performer’s freedom too narrowly. This is one of the fatal flaws in the supposition that fidelity to the composer’s notation (as most modern performers understand it) equates with fidelity to the composer’s intentions. In the first place, the word ‘intentions’ in this context is misleading, suggesting that composers always had a definite idea of what the performance should sound like, when, in fact, it is quite clear that they recognised a range of possible interpretations of the notation, within parameters that were well understood by contemporaries. The unspecified meanings that lay behind the notation are at the heart of the distinction between a ‘beautiful’ performance and one that was merely ‘accurate’, as specified by Hummel (1828) and Spohr (1833) in their treatises. It was the former that composers expected from an experienced and gifted performer. Without understanding how the notation was meant to communicate with the performer, therefore, we can at best give an ‘accurate’ reading, which would certainly not have satisfied the composer’s expectations. As Domenico Corri so forcefully expressed it in Beethoven’s boyhood, music executed strictly ‘as it is commonly noted, would be a very inexpressive, nay, a very uncouth performance’ (A Select Collection (Edinburgh, [c. 1783]), i, p. 2).

This is certainly the case with flexibility of rhythm and tempo. It was well understood, for instance, that the normal treatment of notes of equal value, if they were not intended to be staccato, involved lingering on the harmonically or melodically more important notes and compensating by shortening less important ones (as is still done in jazz), rather than playing them all more or less equally, which became the norm during the twentieth century. As Karl Klingler (1879-1971) wrote in old age, this application of inequality ‘did not need to be explained to the average musician from Rode’s time [1774-1830] until the turn of the twentieth century. Today, however, it is often forgotten that it was then self-evident, with such notes of nominally equal value, that an agreeable, unobtrusive hastening restored what had previously been added’ (Über die Grundlagen des Violinspiels und nachgelassene Schriften, ed. M. M. Klingler and A. Ritter, (Hildesheim, Olms, 1990), p. 171). Klingler’s understanding of what this meant is graphically illustrated in the Klingler Quartet’s earliest recordings of Mozart and Beethoven from 1912, where their use of inequality in such contexts is very striking, being far more pronounced than we hear in any modern classical recordings. Another feature of their recordings, the tendency to play dotted figures in an over-dotted style, was also self-evident to early nineteenth-century musicians, as was the assimilation of dotted figures to triplets in other circumstances (for instance in such contexts as the Molto Adagio of Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 59 no. 2). All these practices, described by Leopold Mozart and other mid eighteenth-century writers, remained current throughout the nineteenth century, at least in the German tradition.

Another key aspect of early nineteenth-century performing style that survived into the twentieth century was the modification of tempo within a single movement, where no tempo alteration had been indicated by the composer. It is certainly the case that much of the Wagnerian style of tempo modification seemed extreme to contemporaries at first. According to the complaints of an English music critic during Wagner’s conductorship of the Philharmonic Society in 1855, his approach led to the tempo of an allegro being reduced ‘fully one-third, immediately on the entrance of its cantabile phrases’ (Henry Smart in The Sunday Times, 17 June 1855, p. 3). Such extreme fluctuations of tempo surely went well beyond what was considered tasteful in Beethoven’s time. There can be little doubt, however, that Beethoven himself expected a degree of flexibility within movements. In one of his letters he famously wrote ‘My tempo markings are valid only for the first bars, as feeling and expression must have their own tempo’.

The big question is how much. I suspect it is much more than we think. Mendelssohn was particularly noted for his adherence to strict tempo, yet it seems clear that the pronounced freedom of tempo and rhythm we hear in Joachim’s 1903 recordings derived directly from Mendelssohn. Andreas Moser, Joachim’s friend, colleague and biographer reported Joachim’s assertion that his ‘inimitable rubato may be traced to the example of Mendelssohn, who understood perfectly how to blend one subject with another without forcing the passage in the smallest degree.’ (Andreas Moser, Joseph Joachim ein Lebensbild (Berlin, 1898); translated by Lilla Durham as Joseph Joachim, A Biography (London, 1902), p. 46.)

Joachim’s own comments about the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, in the introduction to his edition in volume 3 of his 1905 Violinschule,shed further light on this. He stated that Mendelssohn wanted to ‘see the uniform tempoof a movement preserved as a whole’, but also remarked that he ‘perfectly understood the elastic management of time as a subtle means of expression’. Then, discussing the first movement of the concerto he wrote:

Six bars before the piano tranquillo the time must be gradually, but very imperceptibly slackened, so as to let the second principal theme begin quietly and consolingly. The tranquillo, however, must not degenerate into the strong ritardando with which it is unfortunately so often burdened. Any essential change of tempo at the G major motive which might spoil the alla brevefeeling would be in direct opposition to the desire of the composer.

Joachim’s metronome marking in the score at this point is highly instructive, for what he described as a ‘very imperceptible slackening’ is a distinctly noticeable slowing down from 1/2=116 to 1/2=100; yet Joachim evidently regarded this degree of alteration to the tempo as compatible with Mendelssohn’s desire for the uniform tempoof a movement to be preserved as a whole.

We so often interpret language in relation to our norms, rather than seeing it as relative to the norms of the past. Thus, today, when the tempo of a movement is usually maintained with almost metronomic strictness, ‘imperceptible’ means scarcely any deviation from the prevailing tempo, perhaps at most about 5%, whereas for Joachim it seems to have meant three times that much! The extreme tempo flexibility of many late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century performers that was often criticised by contemporary commentators (extensively documented chapter 11 of my Classical and Romantic Performing Practice) provides a very different background to terms like ‘imperceptible’ than the context in which we use them today.

What in Beethoven’s time would have been deemed imperceptible might therefore seem very perceptible to us. Thus we need to consider how a comment such as the following, from Czerny’s Pianoforte-Schule, relates to the norms of early nineteenth-century performance.

we must always play each piece of music, from beginning to end, at the tempo prescribed by the Author, and established at the beginning by the player, strictly in time and never deviating from the tempo. But without injury to this maxim, there occurs very often, almost in every line, individual notes or passages, where a relaxation or acceleration of the movement which is often hardly perceptible, is necessary to embellish the expression and increase the interest. (Vollständige […] Pianoforte-Schule (Vienna, [1839]), iii, p. 24; my translation).

It is evident from this passage that ‘strictly in time and never deviating from the tempo’ did not mean the same to Czerny as it would to a modern musician.

PiaJoaReiSince writing Classical and Romantic Performing Practice in the 1990s I have come increasingly to believe that I was too ready to understand such comments from the perspective of my own experience, rather than interpreting them in the context of their own time, and was too cautious about the degree of tempo flexibility that would have been characteristic of early nineteenth-century performance. The recordings of older nineteenth-century musicians such as Joseph Joachim and Carl Reinecke (1824-1910, right), both admired by Mendelssohn and Schumann, who were regarded by their contemporaries as preservers of ‘classical’ tradition, reveal a freedom of rhythm and tempo significantly greater than is deemed tasteful today. I am now inclined to think that this is much more indicative of the style of performance that would have been envisaged by Czerny, and Beethoven, than the very restricted rhythmic and tempo flexibility of most contemporary ensembles.

From practical experience I am now convinced that the essentially expressive and affective character of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music requires a much bolder approach to rhythmic and tempo flexibility than that to which we are currently accustomed. We have perhaps been beguiled by the concept of ‘absolute music’ into seeing the great compositions of that period more as abstract works of art than as music that is intended to speak powerfully and emotionally to the listener’s feelings. As Mendelssohn wrote in a letter of 1842: ‘What the music I love expresses to me is not thought too indefinite to be put into words, but, on the contrary, too definite.’ In the light of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideas about musical rhetoric, therefore, perhaps the performer of Beethoven’s music should inflect its tempo in the way a Shakespearian actor varies the pace of the verse, to increase the impact of particular words or phrases on the listener. Can we imagine an effective performance of Shakespeare that stuck rigidly to the rhythm of the blank verse? Such an approach would certainly fit with the numerous early nineteenth-century analogies of musical performance and declamation.

Some of Carl Czerny’s comments are particularly suggestive of the ways in which performers’ responses to musical meaning might have been expected to be reflected in flexibility of rhythm and tempo. He stated that ‘not only each piece of music as a whole, but even each individual passage either expresses a definite feeling or at least allows some such feeling to be expressed’, and then proceeded to give a list of ‘general feelings’ that may be found in a composition, which invited a ‘slight holding back’. These comprised ‘gentle persuasion, slight doubt or wavering hesitation; tender complaint; calm assent; transition from a state of excitement to a calmer one; refusal on reflection; sighing and grief; whispering a secret; taking leave, and innumerable other sentiments of this kind.’ On the other hand, ‘pushing forwards or accelerating the tempo’, Czerny believed, was appropriate to express ‘sudden cheerfulness; hasty or inquisitive questions; impatience; incipient anger; fixed and powerful resolution; unwilling reproach; pride and moodiness; fearful flight; transition from a state of tranquillity to one of excitement’. Mendelssohn would have baulked at this kind of language, but I think we can grasp what Czerny is getting at.


More specific string instrument performing practices, such as bowing styles, choice of fingering, vibrato and portamento may seem less essential aspects of Beethoven’s conception of his string quartets. Yet we certainly know that Beethoven had quite definite ideas about bowing, for, according to Sir George Smart, who attended a rehearsal of the A minor String Quartet op. 132 in 1825, Beethoven actively directed the rehearsal and at one point ‘a staccato passage not being expressed to the satisfaction of his eye, for alas he could not hear, he seized Holz’s violin and played the passage a quarter of a tone too flat’ (Leaves from the Journals of Sir George Smart ed. H. B. and C. L. E. Cox (London, 1907), p. 109).

CzernWe also know that Beethoven was an enthusiastic advocate of legato in his piano playing. Czerny (left) described his performance style as ‘characteristic and impassioned energy, alternating with all the charms of smooth and connected cantabile’ and he specifically commented that ‘the piquant, brilliant, and shewy manner is but seldom applicable here’ (Piano School (London, [1839]), iii, p. 100). Czerny’s recollections of his master’s playing may provide a clue to the style of string playing Beethoven envisaged in his quartets. He is known to have admired the leading violinists of the so-called Viotti School, especially Rudolf Kreutzer, and its most prominent German representative, Spohr. He was also, in his Bonn years, a colleague of the Romberg cousins (the violinist Andreas and the cellist Bernhard) whose playing style was closely aligned with that of the Viotti School. From what we know of Beethoven’s violinist colleagues in Vienna, Schuppanzigh, and even more so, Joseph Boehm (a Rode pupil), were strongly influenced by that style; Franz Clement (noted as an orchestral leader and soloist rather than chamber music player), whom Beethoven admired in his early years, was definitely not an exponent of the Viotti School, and it may be significant that Beethoven became less enthusiastic about his playing in the years after writing his Violin Concerto for him. The Violin Concerto itself helps us to appreciate the way in which Beethoven tailored his music to particular playing characteristics that were very different from those envisaged of his sonatas and quartets. (See my editions of Franz Clement’s Violin Concerto in D major of 1805 (A-R Editions, 2005) and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto op. 61 (Breitkopf und Härtel, 2012).)

A more intimate understanding of how these aspects of string playing may have played a part in Beethoven’s conception can change our understanding of what the notation meant to him. Bowing is intimately connected with articulation and phrasing, which are fundamentally important elements of a composition. Choice of fingering, with its frequent implications for legato, perhaps intensified by portamento (which was very much a part of Viennese string playing in Beethoven’s time), can have a radical effect on the delivery of cantabile passages. And the use of sparing ornamental vibrato effects rather than continuous vibrato, can make a major difference not only to clarity of texture in a string quartet, but also to the impact of consonance and dissonance.

Much can be learned about the playing techniques of nineteenth-century violinists from editions supplied with annotations by leading string players such as Ferdinand David (1810-1873) as well as from treatises. Comparison between Ferdinand David’s edition of Beethoven’s string quartets and the bowing styles and fingering practices detailed in his master Spohr’s 1833 Violinschule show a remarkable correspondence. It is indeed very likely that he played Beethoven’s quartets with Spohr, who regarded chamber and orchestral playing as essential for his pupils’ education. This suggests that David’s approach to the quartets may offer a revealing glimpse into earlier nineteenth-century practice. It is noteworthy that Spohr had been among the earliest enthusiastic exponents of Beethoven’s String Quartets op. 18 within a year or so of their publication.

Recent research by Fabio Morabito has also brought to light fascinating material from performing copies that belonged to Pierre Baillot (1771-1842), including Beethoven’s string quartets carefully marked with Baillot’s bowing and fingering. Among these is the String Quartet op. 127 in which, according to Baillot’s inscription on the first violin part, he copied down the fingering from the parts lent to him by Prince Galitzin; these fingerings seem likely to be Schuppanzigh’s and, if so, they are the only known surviving example of his fingering practices. It is instructive to see where Baillot retained these for his own performance and where he altered them.


These resources and many more provide a rich basis for more detailed consideration of how the evidence might influence our understanding of specific passages in Beethoven’s quartets, but that is beyond the scope of this article. It will be clear to the reader, however, that I am strongly in favour of a much bolder approach to performance, which is not hidebound by current conventions of contemporary practice. It is immensely encouraging to know that an accomplished professional ensemble such as the Elias quartet has embarked on a wide-ranging quest for knowledge in tackling this magnificent repertoire. The journey is bound to be challenging, and perhaps some of what they find on the way will be difficult for them to accept as a basis for their own performing practices. Whatever their final destination, however, whether I or anyone else finds it wholly convincing, there can be no doubt that it must inevitably be enriching.


Clive Brown


CBrownClive Brown was a member of the Faculty of Music at Oxford University from 1980 to 1991 and is now Professor of Applied Musicology at the University of Leeds. Publications include Louis Spohr: a critical biography (Cambridge, 1984; revised German edition 2009), Classical and Romantic Performing Practice (Oxford, 1999; Chinese translation 2012), and A Portrait of Mendelssohn (Yale, 2003). He has also published many articles on historical performing practice and, as a violinist, conducts practice-led research. His critical, performance-oriented editions of music include, for Breitkopf und Härtel, several Beethoven symphonies, the Choral Fantasia, and the Violin Concerto, as well as Mendelssohn’s opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho; for Bärenreiter, Brahms’ Violin Concerto; for AR-Editions, Franz Clement’s D major Violin Concerto (1805); and for the Elgar Complete Edition, his Music for Violin. He is Principal Investigator on a four-year AHRC-funded project (2009-2012) to collect and evaluate 19th– and early 20th-century annotated editions of string music (