Upgrading to modern sonorities

27th June 2011 | Daily Life, Musings | 3 comments

An interesting discussion with students about whether it’s right to ‘scale things up’ to 21st century tastes when playing 18th/19th century music. They had played Beethoven so powerfully and with such speed and ringing ‘attack’ that I found myself wondering whether they had converted the music into something that would have startled the composer. I said it was important to remember what ‘loud’ would have seemed like to someone writing for delicate instruments more limited in scope. And to remember how the instruction to play ‘fast’ might have been meant by someone whose idea of ‘fast’ was probably determined by things like galloping horses – not Formula One racing cars.

My students countered with the idea that if Beethoven were alive today, he would enthusiastically have embraced the possibilities of bigger, louder pianos, and string instruments with stronger bows, louder strings, and more projecting power. In a way, I agree with them, and I often really enjoy performances which use the full dynamic range of modern instruments, thereby revealing more of the music’s emotional range.

On the other hand, I increasingly feel it’s a mistake to act in ignorance of what Beethoven and his friends would have heard when they sat down to play chamber music together, and how those familiar sounds would have matched the musical content. It sometimes seems to me that there comes a point when the ‘upgrade’ to 21st-century sonorities actually obscures some of the musical points, rather than enhancing them.


  1. Rob4

    It’s an ongoing and interesting debate.
    Do we know if performances have got shorter over the past 250 yrs or so, as musicians play faster and faster?

    • Susan Tomes

      It seems to be a complicated matter! When I started taking an interest in historical recordings, I was surprised to find that sometimes performers of the 1920s, 30s etc played things faster than we do today. I had assumed it was a matter of ‘speeding up as time goes on’ but obviously there have been fashions in tempo as in everything else.

  2. peter

    Do you play all left-hand chords as arpeggios in early romantic music, Susan? Apparently, the consensus of musicologists now is that that is how Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt, etc, would have performed, and would have heard their music performed, despite the written scores not making this explicit. Personally, I am all for eclectism in this age of the mash-up that is ours. However, I think an argument on the basis of historical accuracy is seriously undermined if it is not applied to all aspects of the music and its performance.


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