February 10, 2010

Nic on performing Brahms: Pt. 5

Nic is back for his final post! Want to learn more about performing Brahms on period instruments? Listen to our audio preview, featuring Nic, string player Maria Caswell and host Teddy Wing. Now, here is Nic on orchestra arrangement – you may be surprised to see where your favorite musicians are sitting at our upcoming concerts:

Orchestra size and arrangement –

In Brahms’ time, as in earlier periods, the size of orchestras varied widely. Brahms himself seems to have preferred intimate halls with relatively small forces. The Meiningen orchestra had 48 members and the orchestra in Karlsruhe, which gave the first performance of the 1st Symphony, had 49 members. The string count was 9 first violins, 9 second violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, and 4 basses.

Many German orchestras continued to perform concerts standing. In 1893, one of the members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was quoted as saying: “In the Gewandhaus we are wholly different people than in the theatre; in a black dress coat and standing erect at the desk…a different higher spirit dominates us.” The Meiningen orchestra under von B├╝low (with the young Richard Strauss as his assistant) also played standing. The orchestra will probably sit, since we’ll be playing a substantial concerto, but it might be interesting to try it out.

Georg Henschel, when he took charge of the newly founded Boston Symphony in 1881, sent Brahms a couple of seating plans for his approval. Here is the one the composer favoured, the one the orchestra will be giving a try:

Thank you for reading, I hope that you will enjoy our concerts. For further reading, I recommend the following books:
  • Brown, Clive. 1999. Classical and Romantic Performance Practice 1750-1900. Oxford University Press.
  • Haynes, Bruce. 2002. A History of Performing Pitch (The Story of “A”). Scarecrow Press.
  • Lawson, Colin, and Robin Stowell. 1999. The Historical Performance of Music, an Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
  • Musgrave, Michael, and Bernard D. Sherman. 2003. Performing Brahms. Cambridge University Press.


  1. At the Berkeley concert, I noticed a clear difference in the orchestra's projection between the performance of the D-major serenade and the violin concerto. The serenade is a work of symphonic import (even if it originated as a chamber piece), while the concerto is after all a concerto--even if it comes from Brahm's symphonic period, and even if it's said to be a concerto written "against" the violin. In any case, the orchestra sounded much more decisive and emphatic in the concerto than in the serenade; and I would be interested to hear more about what musical factors or orchestral practice contributed to this.

  2. From Nic: Although both pieces were played in exactly the same way, there was one one exception that may have affected what you heard: I was able to vary the tempos much more in the Serenade than in the Concerto. Ms. Mullova preferred the Concerto to be rather strict in tempo (even though it goes against what Brahms himself liked).