Beethoven Performed With Modern and Period Instruments

All nine of Beethoven's symphonies will be played over four nights in a mix of period and modern performances(Photo:
All nine of Beethoven's symphonies will be played over four nights in a mix of period and modern performances(Photo:

A while ago, I wrote about period instrument vs. modern instrument performances and touched on just a few of the issues involved in comparing and evaluating them.

Next March at Lincoln Center in New York, audiences will have a unique opportunity to make such a comparison with Beethoven. All nine of Beethoven’s symphonies will be played over four nights in a mix of period and modern performances.

Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer will lead The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in symphonies 1, 2, 3, 5 & 8 in period performance style, and then his own visiting Budapest Festival Orchestra in Nos. 4, 6, 7 & 9 in modern style. I haven’t heard of this happening before, and it will undoubtedly make for fascinating comparisons even if it doesn’t end any disputes.

The period instrument movement that began with medieval music and music of the Renaissance, moved on through the Baroque and Classical eras, and became more controversial as the ideas and practices of period performance styles were applied to Romantic music of the 19th century when orchestras became bigger and louder. And Beethoven is the bridge between the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, and the Romantic composers to come in the 19th century, such as Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler.

While it may be more fitting (to some) to hear Beethoven’s 1st played on period instruments (since it was published in 1800 and more clearly owes a debt to Haydn and Mozart), by the time we get to the 9th in 1824, we are worlds away in music on a grander scale in Beethoven’s visionary final symphonic creation.

One of the arguments for the modern approach would be that Beethoven was trying to break past previous boundaries in the 9th and would have reveled in the sound of a large modern orchestra, had he been able to hear one.

Although ironically (since he was completely deaf by the time he wrote the 9th symphony), he never heard it at all except in his imagination (which we do know was exceedingly vast). But the period instrument people will bring up the issue of those pesky metronome markings that Beethoven indicated on the score for tempos. Modern orchestras have a hard time trying to play some movements of the symphonies at precisely those speeds, which are often quite fast.

So, round and round it goes.  You may just have to hear them played both ways if your mind is not already made up about which is preferable.  A rare opportunity awaits for anyone who can make it to Lincoln Center next March for what is bound to be an intriguing series of concerts.


  • Mark Roth

    One wonders if Beethoven would have “reveled in” having his tempo markings ignored by modern orchestras. Even at the spot where most orchestras slow down near the end of the 9th symphony Beethoven writes “L’istesso tempo” Be sure to check out the recording of the 9th done by John Eliot Gardiner to hear it as Beethoven intended.

    • John Rittmeyer

      Thanks for the observation. We have that recording in our library, and I gave it a listen. It’s fascinating that the forward momentum is not interrupted so close to the end of the symphony with Beethoven’s own markings observed. It makes me wonder about the history of the version we most frequently hear when this symphony is performed and recorded.–John

  • Mark Roth

    Thank you for your reply. Gardiner’s 9th certainly made me see Beethoven in a whole new light. There is a fascinating interview with Gardiner included in his Nine Symphonies CD set which includes many excerpts from the symphonies themselves. He addresses the issue of tempi in detail. He lists as one big difference between modern and period instrumentation the kettle drums. Not only the difference in sound between the kettle drums of the era and modern tympani, but also how Beethoven wrote for them in a specific and revolutionary way, He also says it was part of Beethoven’s aesthetic to push musicians to the limit of their technique thus producing music with an intense energy, and that to this end he preferred an orchestra of about 60 players. It’s interesting to compare some of Gardiner’s recordings with those of Robert Shaw and the ASO, many of which I have. They have recorded some of the same works such as the Mozart Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and others.