Beethoven c. 1814

In the world of classical music, the ideal of Historically Informed Performances (HIP) is no longer in vogue.

HIPsters — I’m sure they don’t call themselves that — set out to reproduce the music of Bach, or whomever, just as it sounded during the composer’s lifetime. Such performances would, in theory, be more “authentic”.

A case in point is the complete cycle of [Beethoven’s] symphonies recorded by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe led by Nicholas Harnoncourt […].

What Harnoncourt did was to employ “modern” instruments (many of which are actually the same Stradivarius, Amati, etc. instruments used in Beethoven’s time and earlier but have since been modified to take higher tunings and produce more volume) with modern bows and strings. He also used period winds to a certain extent (ex., the valveless hunting horns used during Beethoven’s time). He employed a ensemble of approximately the same size as orchestras during Beethoven’s time (orchestral forces have gotten consistently larger until the early 20th century when we settled on Mahlerian/Wagnerian/Brucknerian-sized ensembles that have since played Beethoven and Mozart, often with part-doubling). He then went and studied the original scores carefully, coming to many of the same conclusions as his colleagues, Roger Norrington, et. al., have about tempos, phrasing and dynamics. Note that neither Harnoncourt or Norrington followed the metronome markings specified in the manuscripts slavishly, but did try to reflect their spirit throughout the score.

Here’s Mr. Harnoncourt conducting Beethoven’s Fidelio, composed in 1814. In this case, Harnoncourt uses modern instruments:

The HIP movement is a noteworthy example of the ubiquitous tension between tradition and transformation. HIPsters err on the side of tradition. Does authenticity require us to use inferior instruments:  e.g., pianos that are too quiet to be heard over the orchestra, or trumpets without valves? I seriously doubt it.

Surely classical composers were often frustrated by the limitations of the instruments of their day, which could not produce the music as they conceived of it. Consider this:  by the time Beethoven wrote the ninth symphony, he was stone deaf. He never had an opportunity to hear the symphony, except as he imagined it in his own head. One suspects that Beethoven imagined an idealized version of the symphony, which no instruments or musicians would ever be able to replicate.

The philosophy of this blog is that tradition should be retained but also adapted:  a concept that I call (dis)continuity.

It would be foolish to discard tradition; no one has ever surpassed the musical genius of Beethoven. On the other hand, it would be foolish to freeze a tradition at a certain point in history so as to limit its utility and appeal to contemporary individuals. We don’t want to succumb to a technological preoccupation with “fidelity” as the key to truth (in this case, musical truth).

As for Harnoncourt, he is no extremist:

“For me,” says Harnoncourt, “to play together and in equal pitch is not a goal. For me, the rehearsal starts with the content of a piece — what it means, how it can change the listener.

“I was an orchestral musician for 17 years and what I missed was the question ‘why?’. I wanted to know why [conductor] Bruno Walter asked me to play like this …. In those days, musicians were slaves, but my musicians are partners and they have to know about the conception. This is my way of working.” […]

“For me the question is always why a composer wrote in a certain way. And that’s what constantly interests me, the content not the form.”


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. billarends
    Nov 10, 2009 @ 12:01:16

    This post is an awesome work in itself. I love how you are really developing the theme of your blog in every post.

    Your note that “One suspects that Beethoven imagined an idealized version of the symphony, which no instruments or musicians would ever be able to replicate,” is likely very true. Beethoven was frequently accused of writing music that was impossible, to play. It would be easy to assume that he saw beyond the limitations of his time, or the limitations of the performers at least. The difficulty artists may have had with his compositions can be seen in, the high vocal passages in the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony. The technical genius that allowed him to know that while difficult these passages were possible is inspiring as by the time he was possibly quite deaf, or so history records.

    Sorry to bring this down to the pop level but one of my favorite scenes from a B movie (Bill and Teds Excelent Adventure) is were Beethoven rocks San Dimas Mall. The assumption by the writers is that Beethoven would have loved the ability to do more with one complex instrument is similar to to the idea here. The one problem is that the writers of the comedy forgot that by this time Beethoven was likely deaf and would not have known what the syntisizers was producing.

    One of the problems with “what if” writngs is that you have to look at every variable. The same might however apply to Historically Informed Performances. What if , and What might have been, are both difficult chalenges. It may not even be possible to totally “freeze a tradition at a certain point in history,” because history although it attempts to capture the truth of a time has a fluidity caused be the moment in which it is writen.


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