While reading Beethoven's views on the subject of how music ought
to be performed, it is but natural to inquire about his own
manner of playing. On this point Ries, his best pupil, reports:
"In general Beethoven played his own compositions very
capriciously, yet he adhered, on the whole, strictly to the beat
and only at times, but seldom, accelerated the tempo a trifle.
Occasionally he would retard the tempo in a crescendo, which
produced a very beautiful and striking effect. While playing he
would give a passage, now in the right hand, now in the left, a
beautiful expression which was simply inimitable; but it was
rarely indeed that he added a note or an ornament."
Of his playing when still a young man one of his hearers said that
it was in the slow movements particularly that it charmed
everybody. Almost unanimously his contemporaries give him the palm
for his improvisations. Ries says:
"His extemporizations were the most extraordinary things that one
could hear. No artist that I ever heard came at all near the
height which Beethoven attained. The wealth of ideas which forced
themselves on him, the caprices to which he surrendered himself,
the variety of treatment, the difficulties, were inexhaustible."
His playing was not technically perfect. He let many a note "fall
under the table," but without marring the effect of his playing.
Concerning this we have a remark of his own in No. 75. Somewhat
critical is Czerny's report:
"Extraordinary as his extempore playing was it was less successful
in the performance of printed compositions; for, since
he never took the time or had the patience to practice anything,
his success depended mostly on chance and mood; and since, also,
his manner of playing as well as composing was ahead of his time,
the weak and imperfect pianofortes of his time could not
withstand his gigantic style. It was because of this that
Hummel's purling and brilliant manner of play, well adapted to
the period, was more intelligible and attractive to the great
public. But Beethoven's playing in adagios and legato, in the
sustained style, made an almost magical impression on every
hearer, and, so far as I know, it has never been surpassed."
Czerny's remark about the pianofortes of Beethoven's day explains
Beethoven's judgment on his own pianoforte sonatas. He composed
for the sonorous pianoforte of the future,--the pianoforte
The following anecdote, told by Czerny, will be read with
pleasure. Pleyel, a famous musician, came to Vienna from Paris in
1805, and had his latest quartets performed in the palace of
Prince Lobkowitz. Beethoven was present and was asked to play
something. "As usual, he submitted to the interminable entreaties
and finally was dragged almost by force to the pianoforte by the
ladies. Angrily he tears the second violin part of one of the
Pleyel quartets from the music-stand where it still lay open,
throws it upon the rack of the pianoforte, and begins to
improvise. We had never heard him extemporize more brilliantly,
with more originality or more grandly than on that evening.
But throughout the entire improvisation there ran in the middle
voices, like a thread, or cantus firmus, the insignificant notes,
wholly insignificant in themselves, which he found on the page of
the quartet, which by chance lay open on the music-stand; on them
he built up the most daring melodies and harmonies, in the most
brillant concert style. Old Pleyel could only give expression to
his amazement by kissing his hands. After such improvisations
Beethoven was wont to break out into a loud and satisfied laugh."
Czerny says further of his playing: "In rapidity of scale
passages, trills, leaps, etc., no one equaled him,--not even
Hummel. His attitude at the pianoforte was perfectly quiet and
dignified, with no approach to grimace, except to bend down a
little towards the keys as his deafness increased; his fingers
were very powerful, not long, and broadened at the tips by much
playing; for he told me often that in his youth he had practiced
stupendously, mostly till past midnight. In teaching he laid
great stress on a correct position of the fingers (according to
the Emanuel Bach method, in which he instructed me); he himself
could barely span a tenth. He made frequent use of the pedal, much
more frequently than is indicated in his compositions. His reading
of the scores of Handel and Gluck and the fugues of Bach was
unique, inasmuch as he put a polyphony and spirit into the former
which gave the works a new form."
In his later years the deaf master could no longer hear his own
playing which therefore came to have a pitifully painful effect.
Concerning his manner of conducting, Seyfried says: "It would no
wise do to make our master a model in conducting, and the
orchestra had to take great care lest it be led astray by its
mentor; for he had an eye only for his composition and strove
unceasingly by means of manifold gesticulations to bring out the
expression which he desired. Often when he reached a forte he
gave a violent down beat even if the note were an unaccented one.
He was in the habit of marking a diminuendo by crouching down
lower and lower, and at a pianissimo he almost crept under the
stand. With a crescendo he, too, grew, rising as if out of a
stage trap, and with the entrance of a fortissimo he stood on his
toes and seemed to take on gigantic proportions, while he waved
his arms about as if trying to soar upwards to the clouds.
Everything about him was in activity; not a part of his
organization remained idle, and the whole man seemed like a
perpetuum mobile. Concerning expression, the little nuances, the
equable division of light and shade, as also an effective tempo
rubato, he was extremely exact and gladly discussed them with the
individual members of the orchestra without showing vexation or
62. "It has always been known that the greatest pianoforte players
were also the greatest composers; but how did they play? Not like
the pianists of today who prance up and down the key-board with
passages in which they have exercised themselves,--putsch, putsch,
putsch;--what does that mean? Nothing. When the true pianoforte
virtuosi played it was always something homogeneous, an entity; it
could be transcribed and then it appeared as a well thought-out
work. That is pianoforte playing; the other is nothing!"
(In conversation with Tomaschek, October, 1814.)
63. "Candidly I am not a friend of Allegri di bravura and such,
since they do nothing but promote mechanism."
(Hetzendorf, July 16, 1823, to Ries in London.)
64. "The great pianists have nothing but technique and
(Fall of 1817, to Marie Pachler-Koschak, a pianist whom Beethoven
regarded very highly. "You will play the sonatas in F major and
C minor, for me, will you not?")
65. "As a rule, in the case of these gentlemen, all reason and
feeling are generally lost in the nimbleness of their fingers."
(Reported by Schindler as a remark of Beethoven's concerning
66. "Habit may depreciate the most brilliant talents."
(In 1812 to his pupil, Archduke Rudolph, whom he warns against too
zealous a devotion to music.)
67. "You will have to play a long time yet before you realize that
you can not play at all."
(July, 1808. Reported by Rust as having been said to a young man
who played for Beethoven.)
68. "One must be something if one wishes to put on appearances."
(August 15, 1812, to Bettina von Arnim.)
69. "These pianoforte players have their coteries whom they often
join; there they are praised continually,--and there's an end of
(Conversation with Tomaschek, October, 1814.)
70. "We Germans have too few dramatically trained singers for the
part of Leonore. They are too cold and unfeeling; the Italians
sing and act with body and soul."
(1824, in Baden, to Freudenberg, an organist from Breslau.)
71. "If he is a master of his instrument I rank an organist
amongst the first of virtuosi. I too, played the organ a great
deal when I was young, but my nerves would not stand the power of
the gigantic instrument."
(To Freudenberg, in Baden.)
72. "I never wrote noisy music. For my instrumental works I need
an orchestra of about sixty good musicians. I am convinced that
only such a number can bring out the quickly changing graduations
(Reported by Schindler.)
73. "A Requiem ought to be quiet music,--it needs no trump of
doom; memories of the dead require no hubbub."
(Reported by Holz to Fanny von Ponsing, in Baden, summer of 1858.
According to the same authority Beethoven valued Cherubini's
"Requiem" more highly than any other.)
74. "No metronome at all! He who has sound feeling needs none, and
he who has not will get no help from the metronome;--he'll run
away with the orchestra anyway."
(Reported by Schindler. It had been found that Beethoven himself
had sent different metronomic indications to the publisher and
the Philharmonic Society of London.)
75. "In reading rapidly a multitude of misprints may pass
unnoticed because you are familiar with the language."
(To Wegeler, who had expressed wonder at Beethoven's rapid
primavista playing, when it was impossible to see each individual
76. "The poet writes his monologue or dialogue in a certain,
continuous rhythm, but the elocutionist in order to insure an
understanding of the sense of the lines, must make pauses and
interruptions at places where the poet was not permitted to
indicate it by punctuation. The same manner of declamation can
be applied to music, and admits of modification only according
to the number of performers."
(Reported by Schindler, Beethoven's faithful factotum.)
77. "With respect to his playing with you, when he has acquired
the proper mode of fingering and plays in time and plays the
notes with tolerable correctness, only then direct his attention
to the matter of interpretation; and when he has gotten this far
do not stop him for little mistakes, but point them out at the
end of the piece. Although I have myself given very little
instruction I have always followed this method which quickly
makes musicians, and that, after all, is one of the first
objects of art."
(To Czerny, who was teaching music to Beethoven's nephew Karl.)
78. "Always place the hands at the key-board so that the fingers
can not be raised higher than is necessary; only in this way is
it possible to produce a singing tone."
(Reported by Schindler as Beethoven's view on pianoforte
instruction. He hated a staccato style of playing and dubbed it
"finger dancing" and "throwing the hands in the air.")
[#79 was skipped in the 1905 edition--error?]
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On performing music
- Jan 6, 2016
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