What Beethoven would have heard (had he been able to)

by Martin Saving

- a brief investigation of early 19th century quartet performance practice


The teaching in music conservatories of period performance practice is common today, but it still seems very much focused on the baroque and classical periods; the musical ideals of the early 19th century remain the territory of the specialist. More than twenty years ago orchestras, equipped with authentic instruments, started to explore the sound world and playing techniques of the early romantic period, and conductors like Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner and Philippe Herreweghe have been making ground-breaking performances and recordings ever since, heavily influencing the more regular interpreters. But although there are several string quartets who play with gut strings, most of them stay clear of Beethoven territory, and if they do play his quartets, few seem to have the aim of fully trying to recreate the contemporary playing techniques, a notable exception being the British group the Eroica String Quartet.

This is perhaps understandable, since the quartets of Beethoven are still so heavily associated with the classic interpretations on record we all have come to love. Venturing too far from the tradition that governs how we think these quartets, pieces that we hold so dear, should sound would require a lot of re-evaluating. It is also fair to assume that a different playing style, which we might be unused to, becomes more apparent in small groups with all the individual players “exposed”. Furthermore it seems that at least some aspects of the playing techniques of, say, the late 18th century, were more similar to ours than those of the early 19th century (see below).

The early romantic period was also arguably one of the most dynamic periods in music history, when instruments and playing styles changed quickly. The fact that many of the greatest composers, and maybe Beethoven in particular, strove against many of the compositional conventions of their day as regards expression, form and structure (e.g. the hierarchy of emphasis within the bar) is another problem when it comes to applying the rules that theorists set down, often having much more conventional music in mind.

But acceptance of the results of the baroque period performance movement has only been gradual and it has taken time for the average listener to accept research on how the musicians of old actually played, and so it is only to be expected that we, as audience and performers, require time to catch up with the aesthetics of the romantic era. It is however, I am convinced, well worth finding out some of the facts.

In the following text I will try to explore some of the musical ideals that in Beethoven’s time would have governed technique, tempi and also more specific questions related to string quartets.

Paradigm shifts

Apart from being aware of the fact that the early romantic period was one when musical ideals changed quickly and dramatically, it might be of interest initially to note some of the big changes that have taken place since.

Ever since the early days of what we call classical music the general idea of an adherence to a very strict tempo had been governing: Apart from in a few exceptions (for instance the fantasias and preludes of the baroque) the musicians’ sense of a steady pulse, at least in the bass line, was paramount. This was dominant well into the 19th century. Starting approximately in the decades after Beethoven’s death a gradual change occurred (which notable performers such as Mendelssohn and, remarkably, Chopin are said to have resisted) until a generally very liberal use of tempo rubato had become the norm at the end of the century. (See Tempo below)

The use of vibrato was essentially ornamental up until the early 20th century and it was employed very sparingly. In the early decades of the century violinists such as Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) and Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) were instrumental in making a more expressive and continuous vibrato fashionable, so that it became the accepted norm. The vibrato also helped the musicians to project their sound in the new, large concert halls. (See Left Hand below).

Another revolutionary change during the 19th century was in education. As a direct result of the French Revolution the Paris Conservatoire was founded in 1795, the first of its kind. Three students of the Italian violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) (pictured right), Pierre Rode (1774-1830), Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831) and Pierre Baillot (1771-1842), taught there and were hugely influential in musical Europe, especially after publishing a widely spread teaching manual for the school (referred to as Rode et al. below). The Vienna Conservatory was founded in 1817. Institutionalised musical education was to have a huge impact on the general level of playing in Europe.

A quick note on individuality in music during the period in question: during the baroque era great differences in the ideals concerning musical expression existed, probably to a greater extent than today; between countries (e.g. the French style and the Italian style); between regions and cities (e.g. the Mannheim crescendo); and between individuals – take, for instance, the contemporary violin treatises of Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) and Leopold Mozart (1719-87), where Geminiani advocates the use of vibrato “as often as possible” and Mozart recommends that it be used merely as an ornament. Indeed, reaching far into the 19th century, the concept of “Method” was a prevailing one among high-profile performers: an artist was expected to use his (or her) individual strengths and to emphasise mannerisms in performance to create unique, individual expression. Ever since institutionalised musical education in the early 19th century and musical instruction manuals becoming widely available in the mid-19th century, as well as the advent of music recording more than a hundred years ago, standardisation of musical aesthetics rapidly took place; most major differences concerning vibrato, treatment of tempo and other stylistic issues were “smoothed” out. Maybe we have been offered greater diversity in more recent times due to the impact of the period performance movement.


The decades around 1800 saw a great change in design of many musical instruments, and although changes to string instruments may not have been as dramatic as the reconstruction of the piano, they would have been noticeable to the trained eye and ear. The reasons for the redesign were to facilitate powerful sound production and to make the new virtuosic literature easier to execute.

The changes in the violin family instruments included:

  1. an angled, longer neck and higher bridge, making higher string tension possible;
  2. a thinner neck, for ease of playing;
  3. a thicker, stronger bass bar (a supporting piece of wood on the inside of the belly of the violin); and
  4. a thicker soundpost (the “pillar” joining the belly to the back).

The strings of the period in question were generally made of gut, and probably most often thicker than they had been earlier (although the issue of string thickness and tension is very controversial). The C and G strings were normally wound with gut, copper, silver or brass, whereas the rest of the strings, certainly the A and E, were of pure gut.

In the 1820s Louis Spohr (1784-1859) invented the chin rest, the small piece of wood close to the tailpiece at the bottom of the violin, which made it easier to support the violin with the chin when need be. It also made it easier to shift hand position and made it possible to apply greater bow pressure. At that time the chin rest was placed directly over the tailpiece, rather than on the left side, as is customary today.

The shoulder pad, for more comfortable support of the violin, was first recommended in writing in 1835 by Pierre Baillot. The cello end-pin was not introduced until the latter part of the 19th century.

The bows of old had been relatively short and convex with a very sharp head. Throughout the 18th century they became longer and the tip changed from a pike’s head design to a hatchet head, which enabled greater bow pressure at the tip. François Tourte (1747-1835) was instrumental in standardising bow dimensions and design from the 1780s onwards. It became heavier, better balanced to suit the new cantabile style with its even tone and smooth bow changes. The design is virtually unchanged to this day.

Vienna was perhaps the most conservative city when it came to these innovations, and musical intimacy seems to have been favoured over power. The groups performing Beethoven’s orchestral music are likely to have consisted, well into the 1820s, of a mix of players with modern instruments, and musicians with unaltered ones and “transitional” bows, and this might very well have been the case for the early performers of his chamber music as well. A set of instruments presented to Beethoven by Prince Lichnowsky in 1800 is preserved, but they have been modernised, and it is not clear when this was done. We do not know what kind of bows a group such as the Schuppanzigh Quartet might have used (The Schuppanzigh Quartet premiered many of Beethoven’s quartets).

Left hand technique

The practice of the 18th century had been one of limited shifting between hand positions. At the beginning of the next century a uniform colour within a phrase (and greater likelihood of a need to shift position) and portamento (expressive gliding between notes) became more widely advocated. Bolder and bigger leaps became possible because of the change of the way in which the violin was held during the 18th century: it was gradually placed higher up the chest and, towards the latter part of the century, held in place with the chin; and, from the 1820s, because of the new chin rest.

The use of portamento was probably already widespread throughout Europe in the late 18th century, contrary to what might be generally believed today, but there were still musicians in the early decades of the 19th century who resisted it. A music critic in Prague noted in 1808 of Spohr’s (pictured right) playing an Adagio:

“Yes, one could call him unsurpassed in this genre if he did not often disturb us in this enjoyment, and sometimes very unpleasantly, by a mannerism much too frequently employed, that is by sliding up and down with one and the same finger at all possible intervals, by an artificial miaow, as one might call it if that did not sound teasing”.

Spohr gives the following instructions for an Adagio in his Violinschule (1832):

“The smooth gliding from one note to another must not only take place upwards […] but also downwards”.

Some contemporary theorists, including Spohr, warn of the “wailing” effect an exaggerated use of portamento can have, and recommend limiting its use to the solo line.

Despite a few authorities’ advocating frequent use of vibrato in the early and mid-18th century (e.g. Geminiani, see above), they were in a minority, and it was generally seen as an ornament. During the latter part of the century it seems to have become more common. The concept of a constant vibrato, however, only started to develop towards the end of the 19th century, under French influence. The use of vibrato at the beginning of that century might have been even less frequent than at the end of the previous one. The famous cellist Bernhard Romberg (1767-1841) wrote in 1840 that he identified himself with the present younger generation that rejected vibrato. He observed about the prevailing way of playing at the beginning of his career in the 1780s and 90s:

“Formerly the [vibrato] was in such repute that it was applied indiscriminately to every note of whatever duration. This produced a most disagreeable and whining effect, and we cannot be too thankful that an improved taste has at length exploded the abuse of this embellishment.”

The vibrato-less ideal can still be heard on the earliest recordings, for instance those of Joseph Joachim in 1903.

Spohr also recommended that natural harmonics, the often high-pitched notes produced by pressing an open string lightly, could be used wherever convenient because they are so similar to ordinary stopped notes, something that confirms that most of the stopped notes were essentially without vibrato, since obviously vibrato is not applied to a note produced on an open string.

The editions of Ferdinand David, the earliest extensive source of information on fingering and bowing in Beethoven’s music, show frequent use of portamento. The many open strings and harmonics within phrases again suggest very limited use of vibrato. David (1810-1873) was of a younger generation than Beethoven, but he had completed his musical training at the time of the composer’s death.

Right hand technique – bowing

With the adaptation of the Tourte bow a great range of new bowing styles opened up to the performer. The famous violinist Wilhelm Cramer (1746-99), who used a transitional bow, is credited with having introduced the spiccato, the springing, bouncing style so common today. Although not universally adopted in the late 1700s, it became increasingly popular. In the early 19th century spiccato quickly went out of favour and was looked upon as old fashioned by many, but was then gradually reintroduced from the 1820s, partly because of the impact of the playing of Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) and a growing fascination with a brilliant, light style. In the German cultural sphere it was, however, strongly resisted for a large part of the 19th century, and some commentators who encountered it had simply never come across it before.

By far the most dominant way of playing fast notes in the Germany-Austria region in the early romantic period seems to have been on the string, in the upper half of the bow, in a manner quite different from the modern ideal of clear articulation and half springing bow strokes, and indeed also different from the preceding era when the bow strokes generally were well articulated even when not played spiccato. The recommended practice was to play closer to the point of the bow the faster the notes were. Louis Spohr rejected springing bowings almost totally, and early editions of the Beethoven quartets made by Ferdinand David confirm this.

Pictures in contemporary violin treatises shows violinists with the elbow very close to the body and a very delicate, bent wrist. Spohr writes in his Violinschule (picture right and below) that

“The wrist must […] be raised, but the elbow lowered and kept as near as possible to the body.”

This playing style must naturally have suited the preference for the upper half of the bow.

Writers like Rode et al., Baillot, and Spohr all warn against having the index-finger separated from the rest on the bow. Spohr writes:

“The tips of the fingers should be so brought together that there is no space between them”

This would have meant much less pressure on the bow, and is radically different from 18th century as well as modern practice. As can be seen on pictures of instrumentalists and indeed quartets of the early 20th century, this manner of holding the bow persevered into modern times.

The practice of musicians of earlier years to play diminuendo within phrases, bars, and beats was gradually giving way to a more singing and sustained way of playing during Beethoven’s time, made easier by the new bows, but in the late 19th century prominent commentators were still criticising exaggerated importance of every bar, so this change was probably slow. Beethoven’s own playing is said to have been of a cantabile style with an essentially new way of using legato. (He was appreciative of Mozart’s piano playing, but at the same time found it “choppy” and closely related to the harpsichord style).

The now forgotten technique of making an oscillating sound with the bow by quickly alternatively pressing and releasing, the bow vibrato, was common well into the 19th century and often given the same amount of attention as left-hand vibrato in teaching literature of the time.

Tempo and Tempo Rubato

The subject of Beethoven’s fascination for the metronome and the importance he ascribed to playing at the right tempo is treated in another blog post on this website. Generally speaking, there is reason to believe that there was a growing preference for contrasts in speeds at the beginning of the 19th century, with faster fast movements and slower slow ones. The concept of Tempo Ordinario, where the shortest note values determined the tempo, was on the decline during the era in question, but there was often room for a certain flexibility even within a movement depending on the note values. Beethoven used a wider range of tempo indications than his predecessors, especially during his late period, sometimes adding new Italian adjectives previously not used in directions for musical character, but he also used very specific instructions in German within movements.

As mentioned above, the most widespread idea regarding tempo during this era was still one of a steady beat. Any flexibility in tempo within a movement where not marked by a composer was supposed to be very restrained. Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny (1791-1857) (pictured right) typically notes in his Piano Forte School (1846) his aversion to exaggerated tempo rubato and notes about the playing of the contemporary composer-pianist that:

“Hummel himself performed his compositions in such strict time, that we might nearly always have let the metronome beat time to his playing”.

Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), Beethoven’s friend, pupil, secretary and fellow composer, notes that Beethoven generally kept strictly accurate time, only very rarely quickening the tempo. He also writes:

“At times he restrained the tempo in his crescendo with a ritardando, which had a beautiful and most striking effect”.

During the early 19th century many accounts, often critical, report musicians departing from a steady pulse, and it seems that the wider employment of tempo rubato and greater tempo contrasts within a movement was a growing trend. But it has to be noted that it was opposed by most of the high profile performers of the day, for example Spohr and Mendelssohn. Chopin is said to have been one of the last exponents of this “old school” approach to tempo, and encouraged his students always to practice with a metronome. It was, however, understood that a certain flexibility within this pulse should be present, but lost time should be regained (tempo rubato actually means “stolen time”).

Anton Schindler controversially claims that Beethoven changed his style of playing in the “Third Period” of his life, with much more contrasts in tempo within a movement, but as usual his reliability is low. He also reports that the Schuppanzigh Quartet employed tempo modification as an expressive means. Richard Wagner (1813-83) seems to have been very instrumental in creating a style of performing Beethoven with great contrasts in tempo, even within a movement. It has to be noted, however, that Beethoven, especially in his late music, sometimes explicitly asks for flexibility in tempo: in the first eight bars of the last movement of his Op. 110 piano sonata he writes nine tempo indications and several other directions*.

Interestingly, a particular kind of extreme tempo rubato seems to have been part of the playing style of the late 18th century and early 19th century, where the executor playing the melodic line distorted it rather dramatically in a very improvisatory style, over a steady beat. Written out versions of this style can for instance be found in Mozart, Haydn (e.g. the famous Adagio of the Op. 54 No. 2 Quartet) and Chopin. The Beklemmt section of the Cavatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130 Quartet is another example:

Remnants of this way of playing can be heard in many recordings, especially of pianists, from the early 20th century.

Amendment: For a slightly more nuanced discussion on tempo rubato during Beethoven’s era I recommend Clive Brown’s article here and George Barth’s book “The Pianist as Orator”.


The widespread idea that ornamentation was a phenomenon limited to the baroque era is a misconception. In fact, making additions to the musical score was regarded as fundamental well into the 19th century, and it might even with some traditions have become even more integral and extreme in the early romantic era than in the Classical tradition: Charles Rosen (The Classical Style, 1971) discards Hummel’s published ornaments to the Mozart piano concerti because although Hummel was a student of Mozart, he was an exponent of a much more ornamented style. The change in aesthetics towards less ornamentation is said to have been slowest in opera and quickest in German chamber music. Spohr writes in his Violinschule of 1832:

“Only those passages where [the quartet player] has the solo part and is simply accompanied by the others may be embellished in the manner customary in solo work.”

Paganini was deemed a bad leader of quartets by commentators because he ornamented too much, and David was criticised for making tasteless additions to classical-period quartets. The growing tendency during the 19th century was to notate the ornaments in the score.

Beethoven was generally opposed to any such additions to his music, but is reported as having added some, at least on occasion, when performing and he expressed his appreciation when others did so tastefully in his own music. He is reported to have been a phenomenal improviser.


Although equal temperament was advocated by a number of music theorists in the latter part of the 18th century (and indeed before that), the dominant way of tuning for at least the beginning of the 19th century seems to have been that of unequal temperament, with every key signature when performed on a keyboard having its specific relations between the notes and therefore a unique character. This is what Mozart would have been used to, and what was thought to give every key an almost mystical quality and a specific mood: “G minor: the key of tragedy” or “C major: the key of innocence” and so on.

A string player would have differentiated between enharmonic notes that are effectively the same note in equal temperament: a G flat would as a general rule have been played sharper than an F sharp**.

Gradually during the 19th century equal tuning and sharpened leading notes became the standard, and Louis Spohr was one of the earliest of influential performers to promote it. During the 20th century cello virtuoso Pablo Casals (1876-1973) was a prominent proponent of a very expressive intonation with high leading notes. The general attitude to flats and sharps had been reversed in a little more than a hundred years.

There is no conclusive evidence to show what temperament Beethoven would have preferred, but it is fair to assume that he would have been exposed almost exclusively to the “old” way of tuning up until he became hard of hearing and ultimately deaf. On the other hand, his harmonically advanced quartets contain about half a dozen examples of enharmonic modulation where a compromise in intonation between enharmonic notes would be required (example below from the Adagio of Op. 127).

Beethoven’s secretary Schindler, not always a reliable source, writes:

“As for instrumental music, especially quartets and orchestral works, Beethoven generally disregarded Schubart’s characterisation of keys because many of them were ambiguous or impracticable. He did however, accept them up to a point in his piano solos and trios.” (Anton Felix Schindler, Biographie von Ludwig van Beethoven (1860))

The exact meaning of this quote in the context above is not entirely clear. It might mean that Beethoven found it natural, to a certain extent, to adhere, in his music for piano, with its fixed, unequal temperament, to the list of very specific characters for each key, devised by the poet and theorist Christian Schubart (1739-91), but equally it might mean that he distrusted Schubart’s characters in string music simply because he didn’t agree with the extremely specific differences the theorist had formulated.

The string quartets of today generally use a sort of compromise between the “vertical” intonation (just, or close to just intonation), with flattened major thirds and sharpened minor ones (compared to equal tuning), and the “horizontal”, when the melody take precedence, employing expressive intonation. There is reason to suspect that Beethoven would have assumed almost exclusive use of vertical intonation.


The most common standard tuning pitch of today can be said to be a’ = 440 Hz (although we in the Elias Quartet use a’ = 442 Hz for slightly more brilliance, and a considerably higher pitch is customary in many orchestras). During the 18th century pitch differed greatly between locations and circumstances, but it was generally lower, if occasionally higher. The general trend during the early 19th century was for a rising pitch standard.

Interestingly, in 1825 George Smart (pictured right), a member of the London Philharmonic Society, travelled through Europe comparing his tuning fork at a’ = 423.5 against the orchestras, solo musicians and chamber music groups he came across. Half of his readings are said to have been “exact to my fork” but in Vienna it was “rather above my fork”. He was present at the first performance of Beethoven’s Op. 132. Simon Standage (The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet, 2003) believes it might have been very near a’ = 430 Hz.


The normal orchestra seating of the 19th century placed the two violin sections opposite each other, but the situation for the string quartet seems to have been less standardised. The two most common versions seem to have been either a similar arrangement (violins facing each other) or the one used most widely today (violins next to each other) with either viola or cello facing the first violin.

The music stands often depicted in late 18th/early 19th century drawings of string quartets are often a single piece of furniture with two players facing the other two, and sometimes in the shape of a table with stands on top of it. (Above a picture of the Müller Brothers, one of the most distinguished quartets of the early 19th century. Note the transitional bow and the one piece type of music stand)

How did it sound?

Here we descend into the depths of (hopefully informed) speculation; I apologise in advance for broad statements and simplifications***.

The general technical level of playing during the 19th century changed dramatically because of the aforementioned institutionalisation of music education, but there is no reason to believe that the prominent performers of the previous era were less than excellent, although there may have been fewer of them. Might it have been that the elusive concept of extreme talent was more important when methodical education and ample practice and rehearsal time couldn’t compensate, to a certain extent, for the lack of it?

I think it is fair to say that the quartets of the early 19th century would have rehearsed much less than most groups would today and that they had fewer opportunities to play in public, but the most outstanding players of the time often had thorough training in music theory and composition. The corpulent Schuppanzigh is said to have had faltering intonation at an older age because of his “fleshy fingers” but must surely have been an outstanding violinist as a young man.

On the other hand, the new quartets of Beethoven were (and indeed still are) both technically and musically excruciatingly difficult, and there was obviously no performance tradition as such in the early days. Beethoven was frequently dissatisfied with Schuppanzigh, and dismissed him after the first performance of Op. 127 (although he returned to favour with the composer and got to perform Op. 132 and Op. 130). And not all of the members of the first string quartets were professional musicians: Karl Holz, second violinist of both the Schuppanzigh and the Böhm Quartet, was a government official.

The early eyewitness accounts of the performers of the quartets give varying judgements, but for instance the Müller Brothers impressed their contemporaries hugely with their virtuosity, ensemble, intonation and musicality. I hope to return to the subject of some of these early reports.

The quartets played for most of the first half of the 19th century in large rooms or small halls, and they would have produced a sound in accordance with the venue. Even if they would have been playing on modern instruments and bows (which seems unlikely for the earliest groups) they would have been using gut strings with their thinner sound and less ability to withstand heavy bow pressure (which couldn’t have been applied in the first place, given the normal way of holding the bow at that time).

Musically, the impression of the earliest quartets of Beethoven’s time would probably have been very different indeed, with hardly any vibrato and most likely a radically different approach to bow technique. It is also easy to assume that their adherence to a strict tempo would have sounded rather contrasting to modern practice

Commentators have pointed out that many similarities can be observed between the performing practice described above and the early recordings of the previous century. Indeed the legendary Busch Quartet exhibits styles of playing that are likely to be based on a performance tradition going far back in time: limited use of vibrato and spiccato, frequent use of portamento and a certain strictness in tempo. The same might be said of the even earlier recordings made by the Flonzaley Quartet. But the idea that the extremely flexible tempo that can be observed in some other early recordings of the quartets should reflect what Beethoven would have expected seems to me less persuasive****.

From a performer’s perspective

So where does a quartet of today playing on modern instruments fit into all of this? To what lengths should we go to recreate the sounds contemporary to Beethoven?

The question of the musician’s role compared to that of the composer’s in musical interpretation is a huge one, and a subject of its own. Broadly speaking, one could argue that there exist two extremes: one is “objective”, where the interpreter simply plays what is written and “lets the music speak for itself”, consciously trying to putting as little as possible of him- or herself into the equation as possible and trying to reconstruct, as far as it can be known, exactly what it might have sounded like, but nothing more; the other one is the viewpoint of legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska (1879- 1959) who famously said: “If Rameau himself would rise from his grave to demand of me some changes [to the piece], I would answer, ‘You gave birth to it; it is beautiful. But now leave me alone with it. You have nothing more to say; go away!’”

I would say, probably not controversially, that neither of these standpoints seem satisfactory: the prime purpose of music is to convey emotion at almost any cost, and how this is achieved is, in some sense, secondary*****. On the other hand, I do feel that we have an obligation to, firstly, trust the composer and his level of musicianship and his indications (which, of course, means trying to find out what they actually mean), and, secondly, to at least suspect that his style of writing might be inspired by, and well suited to, the playing styles of his contemporaries.

Robert Levin wisely suggests (as quoted in The Beethoven Companion): “a score typically contains only those details that would not be obvious to an informed contemporary of the composer”.

On a practical level this has for us so far meant getting involved in a bit of musicological research, following as far as possible Beethoven’s metronome markings and trying to be expressive mainly through use of the bow rather than vibrato. The excessive use of vibrato can indeed be hazardous in any music, and it can easily happen that we as musicians resort to it when not having a clear intellectual grasp of the music, or when not having worked out a way of conveying the emotions through the appropriate use of the bow. The early 19th century attitude to spiccato can also be worth contemplating in rehearsal. And the process of investigating how to interpret Beethoven’s indications correctly, and thereby realise his intentions, is never-ending.

I remember an interview with that eminent conductor of period groups John Eliot Gardiner, in which he stressed that, although he essentially specialises in authentic performance practice, he is very much standing on the shoulders of the musical giants, the conductors of old, with a more traditional outlook on interpretation, who preceded him, and that he showed a keen awareness of their work and recorded legacy. That to me seems to be the ideal: the notion of using the one advantage we have over the musical contemporaries of the old composers: the accumulated wisdom of years and years of interpretation of their work, left for us in texts, recordings and transmitted in concerts played by other musicians; and of combining this with a view, as informed as possible, of how the composer might have wanted it and how the musicians of his day would have played it. Then it’s up to us to transform all this into something exciting and unique.


* It is interesting to note that the role of many of the conductors who appeared during the early 19th century was simply to start the orchestra and then only resume conducting when any major change in tempo demanded it. Beethoven, however, seems not to have belonged to this category, and is reported to have had a very expressive conducting style.

** This might seem strange at a first glance. It can be explained thus: the two enharmonic notes are reached by “travelling” by tempered fifths (in this case smaller than pure, resulting in pure or close to pure major thirds) in two different directions from, say C, on the circle of fifths. This method corresponds well with the popular keyboard temperaments of the time that favoured keys with few accidentals.

*** We have to note that controversy apparently still surrounds a lot of the topics discussed in the text above.

**** Listen for instance to the (wonderful) Rosé Quartetrecording op the Op. 74 quartet where the tempo in the Allegro ranges from MM=60 to at least MM=80.

***** Musical emotion is admittedly a very broad category: it can be everything from the intellectual satisfaction of listening to a Bach fugue or the hypnotic qualities of minimal music, to the heart on sleeve emotions of Beethoven.

Sources: Classical & Romantic Performance Practice 1750-1900 (Brown), Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Stowell), The Cambridge Companion to the String Quartet (ed. Stowell), An Encyclopedia of the Violin (Bachmann), The Beethoven Quartet Companion (ed. Winter, Martin),, Swedish Radio (Klingfors), The Classical Style (Rosen), How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (Duffin), Performing Beethoven (ed. Stowell), The Beethoven Compendium (ed. Cooper), The Beethoven Quartets (Kerman), Violin School (Spohr), Remembering Beethoven (Wegeler, Ries). Many thanks to Jesper Jerkert and Ivan Moseley.


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3 Responses to “What Beethoven would have heard (had he been able to)”

  1. Clive Brown says:

    I came across your site by accident. Mostly I’ve got my head so firmly buried in my research that I’m rather out of touch with what’s happening in the musical world of the present! It’s excellent to see you engaging so actively in all these issues and adopting such an open-minded attitude.

    I’m convinced that there is still much more for us to learn from the historical record, and to experiment with in practice, than we do now. It’s quite natural for us to be conditioned by the aesthetics we have grown up with - and I’m well aware that professional musicians cannot outrun the tastes of their audiences too far if they want to succeed in a heavily commercialized environment. That being said, however, I yearn to hear more radical attempts to explore the messages that lie behind a composer’s notation. Working with young conservatoire and university string players I am constantly astonished by the difficulty I have in persuading them to make free and fluent use of the upper half of the bow. And every time I see a performance of classical repertoire by one of our impressive and technically accomplished period instrument orchestras I almost explode with frustration at their patently unhistorical bowing style. But the aural image of this very clipped, almost percussive delivery of passagework is so strong in their acquired musical experience that they find it almost impossible to conceive of the more singing style, which I’m sure characterised the playing of the best late 18th- and 19th-century musicians. When I worked with Norrington on his recordings of late Mozart symphonies, he and John Holloway fully supported the adoption of my recommended bowing style (on the string in the middle to upper half - the Cramer style was at that time, I’m sure, only used by some soloists for very particular types of passagework), but it was not achieved without significant opposition from some of the players and I remember during a break in one of the recording sessions overhearing a well-established violinist complain that ‘if this is the way we have to play Mozart I don’t want to do it any more’!

    Sorry I didn’t mean to get on my hobby horse. The point is, that we still have very much fruitful ground to explore in learning from what documents, scores and early recordings can tell us about the sound-world of the past. By the way, although you don’t mention the Klingler Quartet above, perhaps you know their fascinating recordings from around 1911? And have you heard Marie Soldat’s recordings (only one available commercially)? These recordings of Joachim pupils are a revelation in many ways. I’ve discussed their implications in some recent articles.

    Have you seen our AHRC Project website (still under construction)?

    It would be interesting to meet and talk to you some time.

    Best wishes,

    Clive Brown

    • Martin says:

      Many thanks for a very interesting response to the article! I am a great admirer, and I treasure your “Classical & Romantic Performance Practice” a lot: it is indeed a bible for anyone who wants to know about performace styles during this era.
      I will look into those recordings with great interest, and I’ll try to link to the CHASE website from our blog. I’ve been wondering how to get hold of the David editions - and here they are! Thank you ever so much!

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