January 28, 2010

Nic on performing Brahms: Pt. 2

We don't know if you saw it, but Jonathan Rhodes Lee wrote a great preview of February's concert on San Francisco Classical Voice. In the article, he posed the question: "Will we hear the concerto as Joachim played it? As Brahms would have wanted it heard? As we want him to have wanted it heard? Or as we want it heard following our own standards?" Well, here is Nic's second post to answer that very question:

Here are a few thoughts on the instruments the orchestra will be playing in February:

Strings –

By Brahms’ time the violin, viola and cello had an essentially modern set up, with an angled-back neck and correspondingly higher bridge.

On the violin, gut D, A and E strings were the norm at least until about 1920. A silver or copper-wound G string was usual. Louis Spohr claimed to have invented the chin rest around 1820 to make large shifts in the position of the left hand easier; Spohr’s centrally placed chin rest was widely but by no means universally used. By 1850, the chin rest had migrated to its present position to the left of the tailpiece.

For cellists, the spike or endpin came into use in the 1860’s but many players, including Alfredo Piatti, the cellist of Joseph Joachim’s “London” quartet preferred not to use one.

Double basses usually had four strings, though Domenico Dragonetti, Beethoven’s favourite bassist, used only three. Hans von Bülow was one of the first to use a five string basses in the orchestra at Meiningen (a town in central Germany; Wagner and Brahms were both associated with this orchestra), but he did so some years after Brahms had written his Second Symphony of 1877, where in Bar 13 of the opening movement he writes a rest rather than a low D#; most basses could not yet play that note.

Dragonetti, Robert Linley and John Loder. Edinburgh before 1846.

Winds and brass –

The cylindrical bore flute with the Boehm key system was introduced in 1847, but was slow to gain acceptance. Brahms’ favourite flautist, Franz Doppler, did not play one in the Vienna Philharmonic. Indeed they were banned from certain orchestras until 1914.

Brahms considered that the level of clarinet playing had generally gone down during his lifetime with the notable exception of Richard Mühlfeld of the Meiningen Orchestra. He played Baermann system instruments made of boxwood.

Mühlfeld's clarinets

Brahms wrote his Trio for horn, violin and piano (Opus 40) for the old Waldhorn (a valveless natural horn) but he would have been hard pressed to find one in an orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic used the Pumpenhorn (a Viennese horn with three valves), which came in after about 1850.


  1. "He writes a rest rather than a low D#; most basses could not yet play that note."

    You know what this means? It means that Wagner expected scordatura tuning for the opening, rumbling E-flat of Das Rheingold. What fun it would be to hear *that* score on period instruments.