What are ‘period instruments’? What do they do differently?
What difference does this make to the sound?
Performers will often have a range of different instruments, depending on the era of the music. For example, a ‘baroque’ flute, ‘classical’ flute or ‘modern’ flute.
Below follows some information particular to the ‘Classical Orchestra’ of Beethoven’s time, in contrast to the earlier instruments of the ‘Baroque’ period.
The Hanover Band has revived the 18th century Viennese practice of treating the wind band or Harmonie as a distinct entity within the orchestra. From about 1756 onwards the Emperor and the Austrian nobles kept house bands called Harmonie, usually made up of pairs of oboes, horns, bassoons and, after about 1770, clarinets.These wind groups formed part of the household musical staff, and provided serenades for banquets and garden parties. Joseph II kept a crack Harmonie for his private delectation, drawn from the principal wind players of the Imperial opera. His successor Franz II carried on this practice; it was this group who made up the wind section in Beethoven’s orchestra of 1800.The result is a wind section with an identity of its own.
Sir George Smart used a tuning fork in London with the Philharmonic Society which measured 433.2 cycles (according to Ellis, who recorded his calibration fork in 1888).
When Smart met Beethoven in Vienna in 1825 he remarked that his fork stood ‘a little above mine’. After adopting a pitch of A= 438, it emerged for practical reasons that the intonation of the band’s wind section was happier at an A= 430 cycles for this repertoire.This is appreciably lower than today’s A, which normally sounds at 440cps.
Tempo values were in a state of transition at the beginning of the 19th century, together with many other things, and there was a turning away from the earlier markings which were based on the doctrine of affections. In performance the Hanover Band respect Beethoven’s metronome speeds which were subsequently printed in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung.
In late 18th century instrumental music the basic form was that of the small ensemble, usually heard in a room seating about 400 and having resonant surfaces.The orchestral musicians of the time evidently greeted any chance to play in massed oratorio performances like those given during Lent to theTonkünstler-Societät.This made a change from the usual routine of Hausmusik ensembles and small theatre orchestras.Today the reverse applies, with chamber music coming as a welcome relief from the standard fare of large orchestras which form our staple musical diet. A return in concept to the more intimate, inward-looking style of that period is fundamental to the authentic performance and spirit of its music.
The kind of articulation described by the tutors and theorists of Beethoven’s time falls somewhere between the mannered shortwindedness of the Baroque and the seamless cantabile of the post Wagnerian age. Its comparatively open texture depends on the mesa di voce and the natural diminuendo, both inherited from the Baroque.The first is a vocal ornament achieved by swelling on a long note, adding vibrato at the peak of the swell,
and dying away.The second is the soft attack and diminuendo which is built into the construction of the Classical bow.
That rapid and narrow undulation of pitch used to aid resonance and gain intensity – was still used on long notes and not continuously. Louis Spohr as late as 1832 says, ‘The Deviation from the perfect intonation of the note should hardly be perceptible to the ear. Avoid, however, its frequent use, or in improper places.’ Vibrato was taken away on the diminuendo; Beethoven wrote fewer diminuendi than crescendi. Löhlein (1774) gives a table, showing how written values should be played; for example in Allegro movements, notes should be shortened slightly in order to separate them.Therefore for example in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, wind minims followed by the strings sound as dotted crotchets. A growing awareness of sustained legato playing in cantabile distinguished Beethoven’s playing from Mozart’s, according to Czerny.
In Beethoven’s time the orchestra was guided by a system of internal direction, with the main propulsion coming from the first violin and the continuo keyboard player.The virtuoso conductor with a baton was unknown, although Beethoven did beat time with a stick after he became too deaf to play. From the 1770’s onwards the piano increasingly supplanted the harpsichord both as a solo instrument in concertos and in the crucial role of filling in the harmony from figures in the bass part. For reasons of internal musical structure the fortepiano works better as a continuo instrument in the music of Haydn and Beethoven than it does in Mozart: there the harpsichord is still appropriate.There is ample evidence that Beethoven directed his performances from the piano.To restore it is to bring back an essential part of his orchestral sound.
A receipt relating to the theatre staff for attending a ‘Musikal. Akademic v. Hrn. Beethoven mit 29 Muscis’ dated April 1800 is preserved in the Austrian State Archive in Vienna, amongst the documents of the Court Marshall’s office (the equivalent to our Royal Household) which dealt with the Hofburg Theatre or Court Theatre. For individual concerts such as this one organised by Beethoven, the building and its permanent staff – lighting attendants, passers-out of programmes, firemen and cleaners – were leased as a package. If the musicians were paid, they were under contract to the organiser; for this reason no bills setting out orchestral fees survive from the Academies. In practice an Akademie was a charitable concert which was held on a day when operas and plays were forbidden by Imperial and ultimately Papal decree, an Ember day or any Friday, or during the forty days in Lent, of which April 2nd was one in 1800.The members of the band usually gave their services without pay, with the takings going to the organiser, whether a charity or an individual musician. By engaging the Italian opera orchestra (there were orchestras at the French and German theatres as well), Beethoven was following Mozart’s earlier example; indeed the personnel lists for 1778 and 1800 when compared show that many of the players in Beethoven’s Academy had served under Mozart twelve years earlier. For the musicians, playing gratis in these charitable concerts curried favour with the prominent musical figures who would be able to open the door to the imperial balls, with their large orchestras and generous fees.The players, particularly in the strings, appear to have taken these Academies in turn; this explains the smallest number of strings in Beethoven’s band than appeared on the orchestral roster for 1800.Taking the pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, horns, bassoons and trumpets plus the timpanist as an irreducible minimum for Beethoven’s programme, the balance of sixteen strings would most likely have comprised five first violins, four seconds, three violas, three cellos and one double bass.This is the make-up of the string section for the Theater auf der Wieden orchestra of 1800, and for a private concert at Prince Schwarzenberg’s palace in 1798.The nearly equal balance of sixteen strings with twelve wind and timpani can be regarded as normal for that period.
Bringing the wind group back into parity with the strings restores the original prominence of the wind-instrument sound.This was an essential dimension in the orchestration of this music, but one which has been lost in the course of late Romantic pre-occupation with massive string tone.Tovey‘s remark that ‘even today (1935) there is an appreciable difficulty in accommodating the wind band of Beethoven’s First Symphony to a small body of string, and consequently an agreeable absence of the difficulties of balance which have become notorious in the performance of classical symphonies without double wind’.Two fallacies emerge here; the first is that the wind band of Beethoven’s day was not that of Tovey’s; indeed he would scarcely have imagined the softness and clarity of those earlier winds, and it is certain that he never heard them.The second is the implied recommendation for doubling the numbers of winds to balance a post-Wagnerian string section.This only clouds the sound, and with it the issue. Although Tovey’s Essays by Musical Analysis has recently assumed the guise of currency by being reissued in paperback form, its content should be viewed in the context of the l950’s.There is no difficulty whatever in accommodating the wind band of Beethoven’s time to the string band of Beethoven’s time, provided that the instruments date from his time as well.
The English grand piano of the period was a more robust instrument than theViennese instrument such as the Stein with which Mozart had made the piano internationally popular. Beethoven’s playing style was more direct than that of the Mozart school, taking more account of legato and tonal volume than of fluency and clarity. Beethoven was constantly searching for an instrument which embodied his own ideals.Those who heard Beethoven play the fortepiano remarked on the vividness of his rhythmic accenting in the bass.
The piano of the period differed from the modern instrument in having a light frame constructed of wood as against cast iron; small leather—covered hammers, unlike the larger felt hammers of today; and plain brass wire strings in the lower registers and soft iron strings in the treble, whereas heavy-gauge copper wound lower strings and chromium steel treble strings are normal now,The perfect balance and silvery clarity of theViennese piano of the l780`s was achieved at a comparatively low level of volume.The English grand was louder, but had a heavier action with a 5/16” key travel as compared to the 1⁄4” travel on the Viennese key.
Though Hummel, Mozart’s great pupil, described the English instrument as ‘heavy and coarse’, it was this kind of weight and sustaining power that Beethoven was seeking.TheViennese instrument which produced the most sound at the time was the Walther, and it was for one of these that his first piano concerto was undoubtedly written.The pianist Carl Czerny remembers being taken by his father to Beethoven’s flat in the Graben inVienna when about ten years old; this would have been in 1800 or 1801 . ‘The room presented a most disorderly appearance,’ he recalls,‘papers and articles of clothing were scattered about everywhere, some trunks, bare walls, hardly a chair, save the wobbly one at the Walther fortepiano (then the best), and in this room was gathered a company of from six to eight persons, among them the two Wranitzky brothers, Sussmayer, Schuppanzigh, and one of Beethoven’s brothers.’
By 1800 Beethoven had heard an instrument by the Parisian maker Erard, this was similar to the Broadwood both in its greater volume of sound and in its provision for the una corda. (This is the pedal- actuated lever which moves the hammers so that they strike only one of the strings on each note, producing a gossamer-like pianissimo. It is not fitted to modern pianos.) Beethoven’s first recorded preference for any one make of piano appears in a letter of 1802 to Walther. in which he asks this Viennese maker to build him an instrument with this device. In 1818 Beethoven took delivery of a six-octave Broadwood grand, a gift from the famous London maker. As to the music of Beethoven generally, the orchestra’s approach lends new meaning to Sir George Grove’s words in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:‘As our range of investigation widens, and thoroughness of analysis and study increases, so we shall surely find in ourselves an ever-deepening conviction that Beethoven, whether in range, depth and truth of thought, perfect sense of beauty, or absolute conscientiousness of conception, is the greatest musician, perhaps the greatest artist, that ever lived.
The Wind Section
Listening to a wind section of period instruments for the first time, the modern ear will be struck by their vivid colouring as opposed to the blandness of modern wind instruments, and by their ability to bring out inner parts and details without upsetting the overall balance. Modern wind instruments, with their systems of multiple keys and valves, are more agile technically than those of Beethoven’s time; they also produce a more massive, opaque sound which is better suited to blending in block chords, the role which the wind section was increasingly assigned as the nineteenth century progressed. But the earlier capacity for extremes of brilliance and tenderness got lost in the Darwinian process of mechanical evolution.The Classical wind instruments spoke with more individual voices, so that with them it is easier for the ear to pick out inner strands of the orchestral texture.
The flute of Beethoven’s time differed mainly from that of today in that it was made of wood and not metal. Its small finger-holes and conical inner profile allowed the entire length of the instrument to vibrate sympathetically with each note and so to colour its sound.This does not ￼happen with the modern cylindrical flute – its note-holes are so large that they have the effect of cutting off the vibrating length whenever a finger is lifted, so that the upper register loses the resonance of the whole flute. Boxwood was the preferred material for the Classical flute, with its sweetening effect upon the sound.The English maker Potter added workable keys for F, F sharp, G sharp and C in as early as 1774. By the 1790’s this six key arrangement, which included the original D sharp of the Baroque, had gained acceptance in Vienna. African blackwood was now increasingly preferred because it fostered clarity of tone without sacrificing richness.
To compare the French oboe now in general use with the late l8th century oboe is to compare night with day.The modern instrument, with its small internal volume, thin, narrow reed, and elaborate key mechanism acting as a damper on the vibrating properties of the oboe’s body, produces a sound which is small, smooth and ductile.The Classical oboe
is made of boxwood rather than ebony; has only two keys; and is driven by a reed which has stronger blades and more vibrating surface. It produces a pungent tone quality with a silvery ring and a hint of parchment in its texture. Less chromatically athletic than the modern oboe, the earlier instrument nonetheless tells on every note through its greater powers of expression. Today the Viennese alone of all schools of oboe playing have kept the memor y of the Mozartean oboe alive in their wider bore model with fewer keys.
The instruments of the violin family in the Classical period differed from those of today in the following respects:
1. Thinner strings of gut as opposed to the metal wire strings of today.
2. A generally shorter neck set at a three degree angle as opposed to a seven degree angle of today.
3. Lower, thicker bridge transmitting more energy to the sound chest.
4. A lighter tailpiece set higher at its terminal end, resulting in a decreased string angle over the bridge.
These factors result in considerably less pressure on the table or belly of the instrument. These features were part of the violin’s original design. Most violin family instruments were altered to their modern form from about 1840.This operation consisted in removing the table and interior fittings – bass bar, sound post and linings – and replacing them with heavier modern fitting.This enabled the instrument to withstand the greater pressure exerted by the now increased string angle and higher pitch of the latter nineteenth century.
The sound produced by the violin in its pre-modern state is smaller in volume but richer in overtones, giving a perceived impression of greater intensity and tonal colour.The tone of the modern violin is larger in volume but more bland by comparison because this operation had the effect of strengthening the fundamental and lower harmonics and filtering out the upper overtones which give colour.
The string instruments of the classical period proper date from about 1780.Those of the Baroque era (c.1660-l780) differ in three main respects:
1. Neck angle was set at one or two degrees.
2. A lower and slightly lighter design of bridge, with a flatter curve at its crown, facilitating easier crossing of strings. Chords and arpeggiated figures which typify baroque music came readily to hand with this form of bridge.
3. Longer fingerboard for extended range.
A transition from the Amati and Stainer model to the larger toned Stradivarius model is observable from about l770 onwards – later in England.
In the Classical period the bow responds to the increasing requirements for sustaining power detachment and forceful accent.The pike head of the Baroque bow with its lighter stick and narrow throat, gives way to the swan-bill head of the 1760’s. In the 1780’s the hammer-head of the elder Tourte comes in, with the stick now curving inward as opposed to the ￼￼slight outward curve of the Baroque.The Classical bow of the 1790’s (Dodd,Tourte Pere) still allows free movement of the hair in the channel of the frog resulting in a soft attack. Modern practice by contrast fixes the hair with a collar, making the “crunch” attack possible. The classical bow has fewer hairs and less tension than its heavier modern counterpart.The bow-hold is nearer the frog than in the Baroque, but further forward than today’s bow grip. depending on the balance point of the individual bow.
The trumpet of today bears little resemblance tonally and physically to the eighteenth century trumpet.Today’s trumpet in its basic form is a two foot tube having a wide (11mm) bore, shallow mouthpiece and a set of valves with which to bridge the gaps in its natural scale. It is played mainly as the valved notes on the lower end of a short tube, whereas the early trumpet sounded the upper notes of a long tube, actuated by a deep, hemispherical-bowl mouthpiece.
With the modern transformation the trumpet is less treacherous and truer in intonation. but the magical qualities of its ancestor have gone.The old trumpet has a tall, commanding quality with a clean cutting edge. In its seventeenth century form it persisted as a member of the Viennese Imperial Cavalry and Chapel until the 1780’s. Gradually the bore grew from ten millimetres to nearly eleven and the bell began to assume a more pronounced flare at the rim.These changes came in response to the need for a slightly fuller sound which was better suited to complementing the horns in static inner parts; to these the trumpet was now relegated as the art of high register playing declined.The Classical trumpet is less imperious than its Baroque relative, but still retains its power to command in fanfares and flourishes. Beethoven’s rescue call in Fidelio marks a high point in the Classical trumpet repertoire.
The horn was the earliest of all the wind instruments to don Classical guise. From about 1760 onwards the technique of stopping its bell with the hand in order to obtain chromatic notes became known increasingly. The result was that veiled, romantic quality which we associate with the horn today, though in some circles it has become muffled beyond recognition. The Hanover Band makes a feature of the Classical Viennese horn with its soft, warm ‘piano’ and clear: ringing ‘forte’. An important feature of the 18th-century horn is its set of interchangeable crooks: these are terminally-inserted lengths of tubing, each for a different key. With this device the horn changes not only pitch but tone colour, so that reach-key is imbued with its own characteristic sound.This is a factor which the modern valve completely removes, with the result that all keys sound alike: a great loss, since the horn exerts more influence on the ensemble timbre of the orchestra than any other wind instrument.
The clarinet of the late eighteenth century is immediately recognisable as the one woodwind which has retained much of its essential character despite ensuing enlargements of bore and encrustings with keywork. The earlier clarinet has none of the buttery mellowness of the modern instrument though; its pungency in the low register and cheeky brilliance in the upper result from a strong, narrow reed driving a narrow tube of boxwood which is unimpaired by machinery.The reed is lapped to the mouthpiece lay with cord, not clamped by a metal screw-clip as it is today; this allowed the reed to vibrate along its total length, encouraging overtones and hence colour.The clarinet spent the late Baroque in two or four- keyed form, either competing with the upper register of the trumpet or lending sylvan colour to the Arcadian scenes in operas.This was how Gluck used it in Alceste in 1762; but by the Paris version of 1774 the clarinet had acquired its fifth key and a complete bottom register, which Gluck employs. A sixth key came in about 1790, by which time the clarinet was already established as a favourite concerto instrument.The brothers Stadler, for whom Mozart had written so much fine music, had raised the clarinet to new heights in the 1780’s, and shown it to be a leading voice in the wind band.
The bassoon of Beethoven’s time survived in spirit until the 1900’s on British and French soil in the characterful modern French instrument, which had a comparatively narrow bore and simple keywork. Even in France it is now losing ground to the all-conquering German model, whose suave but powerful tone and high precision chromatic intonation
recommend it to conductors and recording engineers.The German bassoon is a development of the Wagnerian instrument, and a far cry from the instrument which Beethoven heard in the hands of Herren Triebensee and Drobney. Their bassoon featured but nine keys, thin walls and a larger bore, actuated by a broad heavy reed. By about 1770 the constricted bell- mouth of the Baroque bassoon had been opened up to give a free, voice-like quality of sound in the upper notes, combined with an evenness of utterance in the bottom register which allowed the instrument to chuckle along endearingly in Alberti-bass figures.While retaining its individual colour, the Classical bassoon could blend alike with clarinets or horns. Its powerful bottom notes form the bass of the wind band of the period.
The kettledrums of the Classical era measured some two feet across the head of the larger drum; the smaller, some two inches less. Their bowls were hemispherical and rarely exceeded twelve inches in depth. Today’s timpani approach thirty-two inches at the head of the larger of the pair, the lesser spanning about thirty inches.Their profile is ovate, with ￼a depth of eighteen inches or more. Each is encaged in an ingenious mechanism for instant changes in pitch. Not so the 18th century drums; pitch changes were wrought by hand, using eight screws withT-handles ranged round the hoop securing the head.The head itself was of thick calfskin, and struck with robust sticks having hardwood heads.Today’s drum- heads are made of plastic and beaten with felt or sponge covered heads on lighter sticks. The immediately noticeable differences are that the old drum produces a comparatively dry sound with a sharp attack and a definite pitch.With the modern drum the note is dispersed in a surrounding boom which can nonetheless be whipped up to a high level of volume. The earlier drum produces less thunder but more lightning.
These notes were first published in 1982
and remain in copyright © The Hanover Band