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Do you think modern performances sound like the originals?

July 28, 2022, 2:12 PM · Wasn't sure what category to put this in. Do you think modern performances by professional orchestras sound pretty much like the performances of the original composers' time - Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. who I assume were using the best musicians of their time?

Replies (40)

Edited: July 28, 2022, 2:17 PM · Not at all. Maybe in Wagner or Mahler's time, but mostly the instruments were often different, the orchestras were usually much smaller, the conventions and performance style was likely very different, and people didn't play as well. I'm sure everyone wasn't playing completely out of tune, but I'm willing to bet that the widespread adoption of recording caused people's standards to go way up in terms of the intonation purity the were aiming for.
July 28, 2022, 2:31 PM · Christian: I agree. One wonders what the composers would say if they could look down from Heaven and hear a modern performance. Do you think that it might cause them to write a little differently?
July 28, 2022, 3:04 PM · Would love to hear Bach playing a modern concert grand and to see his reaction to it.
July 28, 2022, 5:57 PM · I think the greats would mostly adore today's instrumentation with it's incredible power and range. Composers of that time had strong improvisational proclivities and probably were more open minded than we credit them today.

I also agree with Christian the recording technology likely raised the bar.

Edited: July 28, 2022, 8:23 PM · Probably few composers prior to the 20th century ever heard the quality of performance that would be expected of a regional orchestra or even a top-notch community orchestra today. The standard of string playing rose dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were always virtuoso performers, but there wasn't the depth of quality string players to fill sections from front to back even in Europe's musical capitals.

Haydn had to insist on the hiring of at least two violists who could play his viola parts, which a good high school viola section would have no trouble with today.

Schubert's 9th Symphony was rehearsed but abandoned by two orchestras during his lifetime. Several other orchestras attempted to rehearse it but found it too difficult before Mendelssohn finally premiered it in 1839. Even after that, Mendelssohn took it to Paris and London in 1842 and 1844 only for the orchestras in those cities to find the fourth movement unplayable. Today, a fair number of community orchestras are capable of a creditable performance of Schubert's 9th.

In the early 20th century, Richard Strauss was surprised to see that a growing number of orchestras were actually playing every note of his string parts. When he wrote his earlier tone poems, Strauss did not expect string sections to be able to play the faster passages; he only wrote for the effect of string sections trying to play them.

Edited: July 28, 2022, 8:21 PM · It is even more dynamic: Today's performances sound very different from those of only 50 years ago.

There is a version of Bach's double concerto with Menuhin and Oistrach on youtube. Listen to it and find a contermporary rendition even remotely similar--if you can. Or Beethoeven's fifth is almost a different symphony in most twentyfirst century recordings compared to versions from the 1960s or 1970s.

July 28, 2022, 8:38 PM · Since the consensus is that the level of musicianship is higher now did the composers ever express disgruntlement over orchestras struggling with their music?
July 28, 2022, 9:35 PM · Stan Yates, I'd like to hear Bach playing a modern synthesizer and to see his reaction to it. :-)
July 28, 2022, 11:48 PM · I do think the orchestras sound different today for several reasons. The quality of playing mentioned above is perhaps a possibility, but the instruments themselves have changed significantly. We hope that period instrument groups approximate the sound that the composers would have gotten, but most standard performances of classic works are played on instruments that are set up differently than they would have been less than a century ago. The mannerisms of modern players tend to be a lot different as well. In many cases the places in which the pieces are played are not the same as they would have been at the time of their composition.
July 28, 2022, 11:58 PM · I do think the orchestras sound different today for several reasons. The quality of playing mentioned above is perhaps a possibility, but the instruments themselves have changed significantly. We hope that period instrument groups approximate the sound that the composers would have gotten, but most standard performances of classic works are played on instruments that are set up differently than they would have been less than a century ago. The mannerisms of modern players tend to be a lot different as well. In many cases the places in which the pieces are played are not the same as they would have been at the time of their composition.

One thought about the level of proficiency of the players: orchestral musicians once were expected to perform with far less rehearsal time than they have today. I recall hearing that Paganini was extremely concerned about his orchestral parts being copied, so he would hand them out shortly before the performances and would collect them immediately afterward. That would put quite a strain on players of any era. Modern players have the advantage of playing a lot of repertoire that’s familiar with a lot more time to polish it.

July 29, 2022, 12:58 AM · At the time; orchestra string players complained about the difficulty of Beethoven's symphonies. Stendhal, in his "Life of Rossini" records that opera orchestra players in Italy were appalled at the difficulty of what Mozart was writing. Like Andrew H., I read somewhere that Richard Strauss was surprised and impressed that American orchestra players could actually play what he wrote. I had a 1949 German recording of Beethoven 9. The damage, deterioration of the war years was evident. Orchestra auditions attract a much larger pool of qualified candidates now than when I was much younger. One exception to this gradual trend would be Toscanini/NBC orchestra. Some of those recordings can't be beat. That was an "all-star" orchestra.
July 29, 2022, 10:54 AM · The standards must have been much, much lower. Isn’t there a story about Corelli being humiliated in front of the king because he was asked to sight read above third position or something? The Tchaikovsky concerto was considered unplayable (wasn’t the Beethoven concerto too?). Paganini could play his own works, but there weren’t legions of teenagers studying them as a matter of course. Presumably, Ernst could play the Last Rose or The Erl King, but probably no one else. Populations were much smaller, and there were fewer institutions producing musicians.

By the time the typical modern violinist takes a job audition, they’ve exhaustively studied, polished, and performed all the most difficult repertoire. I’ve sat with people who were sight-reading machines.
They are able to practice in well-lit, air conditioned comfort into the night.

Edited: July 29, 2022, 11:14 AM · Of course the answer's no. Totally different instruments, bows, staffing levels, mores, ethos, historical perspective, clothing.
I can barely remember what I've read on the subject. As with nowadays, people were unwilling to pay orchestras, so that many orchestras only had one or two pros per section and the rest were amateurs. Some orchestras were so bad that the conductor, or even a servant of his, used to beat time literally with a big stick so loudly that everyone in the audience could hear it.

Or do you mean, do modern HIP performaces sound like the originals?

Edited: July 29, 2022, 4:16 PM · Population definitely had a lot to do with it. In 1800, Vienna was the fourth-largest city in Europe with just under a quarter-million people. And the population that orchestras were drawing from was effectively half of that, because women were not generally accepted as orchestral musicians until the 20th century.

Children also start learning string instruments at earlier ages today. Fractional violins smaller than 1/2 size did not become readily available until the 1950s.


"Since the consensus is that the level of musicianship is higher now did the composers ever express disgruntlement over orchestras struggling with their music?"

Constantly. Haydn did all the time, especially viola sections in a time when specialist violists were rare and most violists were "old or infirm violinists" -- hence his repeated demands that orchestras hire at least two violists with an ability level that could be satisfied by an unremarkable high school violist today.

July 29, 2022, 10:19 PM · I think different eras each had their own sound, and they are distinct from each other both from the style and the instruments played. I may be in the minority in this, but I also think that modern performances have taken a step backwards in musical beauty from those of 50-75 years ago. I hear recordings of Arthur Grumiaux, Fritz Kreisler, Nathan Milstein or Maud Powell, etc. and there are few players today come close to their expressiveness or the beauty of their sound.
July 29, 2022, 10:24 PM · Supposedly Clement partially sight-read his performance of the Beethoven concerto, so presumably it was not widely considered too difficult.
Edited: July 30, 2022, 8:02 AM · @Richard - I think you are probably correct about different eras having their own sound, and I tend to prefer older recordings, even for some of the baroque music (e.g., Szerying's Bach S&Ps, Oistrakh's Bach Sonatas for Violin and Continuo).

One thing I think is true is that, prior to the era of recordings or at least the 20th century, most conductors, musicians and orchestras were, in some sense, creating the music anew each time they played it, so there were bound to be new takes on it all the time. Plus, until the advent of the metronome in Beethoven's time, tempo markings had only a relative meaning. At some point, during the 19th century, at least in major centers, some conductors/musicians/orchestras probably played the pieces enough to create a general sound for the main pieces. That is probably the start of each era having its own sound.

July 30, 2022, 7:50 AM · Lydia,
Or people back then had low expectations?

Remember, our ears are accustomed to the perfection of studio recordings: we demand and expect perfection. An irony: we freed ourselves from political tyranny, only to embrace the oppression of superhuman perfection! Argh!

Edited: July 31, 2022, 8:50 PM · I think they would somewhat similar. Obviously there have changes in string materials that have allowed for bigger sound and more pitch stability. In addition, we know today more about how to play violin than was known in Mozart's time. I have wondered how Paganini's playing/sound would compare to modern day virtuosos, including those that have played and recorded Paganini's music.

I get the sense there was less instrument specialization in Baroque and Classical periods. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Paganini all played multiple instruments.

Edited: August 1, 2022, 12:37 AM · Even into the late Romantic era there were a lot of multi-instrumentalists. Elgar played most orchestral instruments to some extent, including both violin and bassoon professionally, IIRC. One of his Enigma Variations represented one of his viola students.
August 1, 2022, 8:37 AM · @Andrew - interesting about Elgar. I had no idea. I know that most of the major classical composers who played strings played both violin and viola (and preferred viola), but Elgar sounds like he was in class of his own - two different instrument groups. Also, most of the early classical composers played keyboard instruments. Not sure what happens when you get to the Romantics and beyond.
August 1, 2022, 1:32 PM · In these discussions people often propose that Bach would have made the most of modern instruments. I would semi-agree that Bach would have made the most of the modern era in many ways. I suspect that none of us can conceive of what marvelous uses a time-transported Bach might make of the expanded harmonic, technical, and tonal means of today.

But I am quite sure he would not write the same music for modern instruments as he wrote for the instruments of his era. Even arguably the best modern interpreter of Bach on the modern piano, András Schiff, talks in interviews about the limitations of the modern instrument for all sorts of old repertoire. To the extent Bach would have appreciated what modern instruments can do, he would have written differently for them.

August 1, 2022, 1:50 PM · There is the anecdotal story about asking where one might find a performance of Mozart that was like what Mozart would have heard in his lifetime. The answer is " A good High School Orchestra."

I cannot say, nor can anyone today, "KNOW" what orchestras sounded like back in composers day. Lacking time travel we can never KNOW. We have changed what pitch constitutes an A and all the other notes, changed the length of necks of violins, changed the composition of the strings and I doubt that today's rosin works exactly the same as it did back in the day.

While I understand the desire of some musicians to try and replicate the ancient sound, I think that it is the job of the musician to bring the music into the current day.

Music, as I was taught, is the language of emotion and peoples emotions are pretty much the same. However, communicating that emotion is tricky and sometimes we see something is what the composer wrote that may not have been what was intended.

Personally, I like to hear new interoperations of established music. That makes it alive.

August 1, 2022, 1:55 PM · @Andres - Beethoven forced the hand of the piano makers by composing pieces that could not really be played on the existing pianos. It is hard to know what someone like Bach would have composed for the pianos of the mid-19th century or later. The piano did exist toward the end of his lifetime, and I believe he had some exposure to it. That does not seem to have affected his composing, at least that I know of.

One interesting thing about the piano is that there are certain kinds of passages that you really cannot play on a modern Steinway but which work fine on old pianofortes, so the issue goes in both directions.

Edited: August 2, 2022, 10:52 AM · I speed read a book on Elgar this weekend, then gave it to a charity shop today. Pity - I could have been more authoritative - although a book that talks about the cello concerto's popularity in the 70s without ever mentioning Jacqueline du Pré isn't such a good book!
Be careful how you extrapolate Elgar's playing prowess. He was a good all-rounder, but not really pro level on much.
I asked a while ago about his violin playing, as I wondered whether Salut d'Amour is best played in E or D. Turns out it was originally written for piano and later transcribed for violin in the original E, then into D, so take you pick.
He started in second violins in community orchestras and ended up 3rd desk of the first violins somewhere, can't remember how professional the capacity was.
He taught himself bassoon to play a quintet he wrote, but you shouldn't extrapolate from that that he was ever a pro bassoonist.
He was the LSO's principal conductor for a while, but they wanted him out, as he wasn't great and his continued ill health was the excuse they needed to ditch him.
Edited: August 2, 2022, 9:55 AM · Elgar was a multifaceted, somewhat enigmatic (yeah!) individual who was justifiably hailed as Britain's greatest composer after Purcell in spite of little or no formal tuition and no status in the musical establishment. He deserves better than dismissal after speed-reading "a book" and I'd suggest studying Jerrold Northrop Moore's fascinating biography "Elgar A Creative Life".

His recorded legacy as conductor of his own works also makes a fascinating example for any "then and now" comparison. Orchestral musicians were pretty good back "then".

August 3, 2022, 8:50 AM · I would question that intonation, in particular, was worse in the old days, particularly around Leopold Mozart, who was known to opine that good players (like him) did not need to use vibrato to hide bad intonation.
August 3, 2022, 1:16 PM · Gordon & Steve - Elgar is certainly an interesting case, a great composer whose reputation is still in a state of flux. Perhaps that is also true of Purcell, Vaughan-Williams and Britten? With regard to Elgar as a whole, some of his oeuvre matches the greatest of his age. Other works are imperialistic bombast, hair-raisingly embarrassing nowadays. Yet others show him really struggling (the symphonies) against his relative lack of academic training, and it is worth noting that he lasted only a short time as the first Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham.
August 3, 2022, 6:10 PM · I see that nobody has mentioned that when Bach was a baby and his mother was singing a lullaby to him, he uttered his first words: "That should be an F-sharp."
August 3, 2022, 6:16 PM · John: while there is no question that there were good players in those eras, the big question is how many "good players" (to Leopold Mozart's estimation) there were in any given European city, and whether there were enough to fill an orchestra.
August 4, 2022, 3:05 PM · I read somewhere (don't remember where) that after WWII, clarinet players in various military bands were recruited to play second violin in major orchestras. Not sure if I believe it, but if true, that could not have been a good sounding second violin section.
August 4, 2022, 3:20 PM · The harmonic squeaks you sometimes get when you accidentally touch an adjacent string on a violin might sound enough like a clarinet squeak to make an erstwhile clarinetist feel at home.
Edited: August 4, 2022, 3:27 PM · Come to think of it, I definitely recall reading some biographies of composers (obscure ones, probably) who were primarily string players but played wind instruments in military bands at some point.
August 4, 2022, 3:43 PM · My 100-piece high school (marching & concert) band director (1948 - 1952) "enlisted" us (male violinists in our 40-piece school orchestra) to play baritone horn.

It took me a day to finally get a sound out of the horn (with no instruction in my home's back yard - in the middle of 27 acres) and a "New York" minute to learn read treble clef and play a one-octave scale on it (about all that was needed to play the band parts for 4 years) of football games, parades and concerts).

August 4, 2022, 6:03 PM · Andy I chose trombone in middle school band for the same reasons. It's nothing to make a mediocre sound on the trombone. And because I studied piano I already read bass clef.
August 4, 2022, 6:52 PM · Paul, for the whole story: the director first sent me home with an oboe (we had no oboe players in the school band or orchestra). I tried, but could never get a sound out of it.

What I have learned in my subsequent interactions with oboists - I was lucky. It is tough to play and tough to maintain.

Edited: August 5, 2022, 2:29 AM · Once you start making your own oboe reeds, it can be time-consuming, and a proverbial roller-coaster ride, performance-wise, until you can do it reliably.

"It took me a day to finally get a sound out of the horn (with no instruction in my home's back yard - in the middle of 27 acres)"

Did the neighbours complain?

August 5, 2022, 3:07 AM · Andrew, you have 27 acres in the bay area?
Edited: August 5, 2022, 3:28 AM · @AndrewH "while there is no question that there were good players in those eras, the big question is how many "good players" (to Leopold Mozart's estimation) there were in any given European city, and whether there were enough to fill an orchestra."

I think the answer is that musicians from everywhere migrated to certain "hubs" to get work. Ancient Athens and Rome worked in the same way.

August 5, 2022, 7:14 AM · Even taking that into account, there must have been a shortage of skilled string players, if composers who had relatively good access to musicians were still complaining about the inadequate depth in their orchestras.

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