Nicholas McGegan on Performing Brahms

In February 2010, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra performed Brahms’ Serenade No. 1, in its first historically-informed performance of the music of Brahms.  At that time, Music Director Nicholas McGegan made a series of blog posts on the topic of historically-informed performance of late Romantic music.  Here again are his thoughts:

As we all know, Philharmonia Baroque is starting the New Year with a voyage into what, for our orchestra, will be uncharted waters: performing the music of Johannes Brahms. It promises to be a fascinating and thrilling adventure both for the orchestra and, we hope, for you the listener.

Johannes Brahms

The performance of later Romantic music on period instruments is becoming relatively commonplace in Europe, but, here in the U.S.A., it is much more of a rara avis, at least in the concert hall. I thought that it might be fun for me, as a kind of New Year’s resolution, to jot down some thoughts about how the orchestra might approach the performance of Brahms on period instruments.

Historically-informed performance consists of two basic elements: using period instruments and playing them in what we, perhaps fondly, hope is an appropriate style. For the performance of music before about 1830, both elements have to be combined. After that watershed date, the instruments start to resemble modern ones, but the style of performance differed in many important ways to what one might hear at a modern symphony concert. Our sources on the performance of earlier music are treatises, descriptions and pictures. For music from Brahms onwards, a new source comes into play, namely sound recordings. There is even one of Brahms himself, though, apart from his spoken introduction in a remarkably high, almost squeaky voice, it is impossible to hear much through the miasma of scratches.

For Brahms’ music, we are lucky to have five recordings by his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, from 1903, plus recorded performances by players and conductors who knew or studied with him. Anyone who wants to delve into this more deeply can read an excellent book called Performing Brahms, edited by Michael Musgrave and Bernard Sherman. There is even a CD with the book with all the Joachim recordings, the one of Brahms himself, piano students of his and Clara Schumann and much more besides.

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.

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

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.

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.

Muhlfield's clarinets

Brahms wrote his Trio for horn, violin and piano (Opus 40) for the old Waldhorn (a valvelessnatural 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.

Here are the first of a few thoughts I have about we may play Brahms in February:


We have the evidence of Joachim’s recordings that he perhaps used relatively little vibrato (the oscillation of pitch which instruments can produce to imitate the sound of human singing – learn more about wrist vibrato and arm vibrato). However, Fanny Davies, who heard him play the Third Piano Trio in 1887, noted that in one passage at least (marked espressivo) he used vibrato to great effect. On the other hand, as early as 1863, cellist David Popper was both praised and lampooned for his continuous vibrato. He played frequently with Brahms after 1886. Mühlfled also used vibrato on the clarinet. However, it is important to remember that these players were soloists and that orchestral players used much less, if any, vibrato. Indeed, the Vienna Philharmonic preserved an almost vibrato-less style until the Second World War. The orchestra will try to copy this with the exception of notes marked <>.


Already in 1811, composer Antonio Salieri complained of Viennese orchestral string players using portamenti (sliding from one pitch to another). One can hear in Joachim’s recordings that he employed portamento as a soloist. His own editions and his treatise on violin playing (Violinschule) contain many examples of this practice. Of special interest for our concert is his edition of the Brahms Violin Concerto, in which he provided fingerings throughout and indicated plenty of portamenti. Early orchestral recordings offer clear evidence of the widespread use of this embellishment. Be prepared for lots of them in our concert!

Flute treatises for the pre-Boehm flute have fingering charts for portamenti. The increasing amount of keywork on later instruments made it harder to glide from note to note, but John Clinton’s Flute Treatise (A Code of Instructions for the Fingering of the Equisonant Flute by the Inventor and Patentee, 1860) shows that the practice did continue into the second half of the 19th century. As he wrote himself: “This ornament is effected by gradually drawing or sliding the fingers off the holes, instead of raising them in the usual manner; by this means is obtained all the shades of sound between the notes, so that the performer may pass from one note to another, as it were, imperceptibly; it produces a pleasing effect, when sparingly used. It is denoted by the mark [shown above the notes at left]. The fingers must be drawn off the holes in a line towards the palm of the hand; the employment of the crescendo with the glide heightens the effect.”



Studies of the old orchestral material used by the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics show that more notes were played in one bow stroke than now. This means that the overall volume must have been less. The orchestra will try this. British audiences in the early part of the 20th century were astonished by the unanimity of bowing when they heard the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras for the first time.

Tempo –

Brahms was notoriously metronome-averse, so neither of the pieces that we will be playing are provided with metronome markings. Joachim, however, had no such qualms, and his edition of the Violin Concerto (1910) does have them. In the German edition of Joachim’s Violinschule (1905), which contains the violin part of the concerto, there are faster markings than in the 1910 edition; those are given here in parenthesis. They are:

Mvt. 1. Quarter note =120 (126).

Mvt. 2 Eighth note = 72

Mvt. 3 Quarter note = 96 (104). Poco più presto, Quarter note = 120 (132)

These however are not to be thought of as tempi that apply to a complete movement. There is plenty of evidence to show that Brahms, like many of his time, preferred a very flexible approach to speed. The orchestra will try this, at least in the Serenade. There is a wide variation in the overall timings of some Brahms’ Symphonies from one performance to another. For example, Symphony No. 1 was performed in 37 minutes by Hans von Bülow and the Meiningen Orchestra in 1884, compared to Carlo Maria Giulini and the L.A. Philharmonic in 1981 at slightly over 49 minutes.

Pitch –

We will be tuning to A-440. When touring, Richard Mühlfeld would send a tuning fork ahead to the next venue so that the piano could be tuned to the right pitch. His fork was at A-440. This was, however, by no means the universal pitch at the time. ‘Pitch battles’ were fought all over Europe between instrumentalists, who favoured a higher pitch, and opera companies, whose singers tried to keep the pitch lower. Often such a war would go on within the same city as in London. Pitch could vary from somewhere in the 420’s to the mid 450’s. So 440 seems a reasonable compromise!

Phrasing –

Fritz Steinbach, the conductor of the Meiningen orchestra from 1886 to 1903, used to play the opening of Brahms’ Second Symphony with audible gaps between the slurs. He modelled his performance practice style on that of the composer. Such phrasing was also discussed in letters between Brahms and Joachim in 1879. See the marks below.

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 Bülow (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.