Size Matters

If you've ever wondered about the authenticity of "modern" symphonic performances, here is a clue as to what has gone wrong. The earlier composers have not been served well. They often performed in much smaller spaces after rounding up the requisite number of players in the local taverns. With modern venues such as Carnegie Hall there is no way to cover the costs other than filling the place with huge works. Works of Mahler and Bruckner come to mind. The intimacy of Haydn and Mozart symphonies are completely lost in both the size of the hall and the number of players. There's a YouTube performance of a Haydn symphony done by Bernstein. A careful count shows about 38 or 39 players. About twice as many as called for. This is typical for pretty much all modern performances of the Haydn works in particular.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote 104 symphonies from 1759 to 1795. He would be horrified to witness a modern symphony playing his works. His early symphonies #1 through #10 he wrote for all of 9 players in each. Up to Symphony number 50 there were no more than a dozen players called for. By the time he wrote his "Paris" symphonies (#82 to #87) Haydn had pressed as many as 15 players into service. His final works the "London" symphonies (#93 to #104) must have seemed a huge crowd on stage. Most of the final works called for 16 to 18 players with the exception of #100 (the Military) in which no less than 21 players were used. That's all, twenty one souls being steered by the master.

Is it any wonder then that these works being performed by a modern symphony of upwards of 60 instruments sounds a little disconcerting? The intimacy of hearing a dozen players in the appropriate space makes for a delicious performance, something much closer to what Papa Haydn wanted. Our old friend Beethoven has also been misrepresented by the size of the modern orchestra. The following numbers of his nine symphonies are followed in brackets by the number of players that Beethoven called for. #1 (18) #2 (18) #3 (18) #4 (16) #5 (24) #6 (24) #7 (19) #8 (18) #9 Along with chorus and four soloists there were a total of 26 instruments called for. Turning to his piano concertos we have #1 (17) #2 (12) #3 (18) #4 (16) and finally in #5 there are 20 players.