Maybe the second most famous concert ever
by Regis Boff
On 22 December 1808, a benefit concert (then called an Akademie) was held for Ludwig van Beethoven at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. The concert, held in a very cold hall and was approximately four hours long, it featured the public premieres of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. The performers consisted of an orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists, and the composer as piano soloist. Beethoven biographer Barry Cooper refers to the concert, in terms of its content, as the “most remarkable” of Beethoven’s career”.
Conditions for the performance of symphonic music in the Vienna of 1808 were hardly optimal,
Even a grand public concert could draw only from the aristocracy and the city’s small middle class, [estimated at] no more than 2.5 percent of Vienna’s 200,000 to 250,000 residents. The standard price for a concert ticket was two gulden which was more than a week’s salary for a laborer.
In Vienna Beethoven’s chosen venue, the Theater an der Wien, still exists and thrives today as a significant venue for opera.was a very substantial building, described as “the most lavishly equipped and one of the largest theatres of its age.” Beethoven had already premiered several of his most famous works to date in this theater.
The concert commenced at 6.30pm and lasted for approximately four hours,
Beethoven was the pianist for the concerto, the improvised fantasia and the Choral Fantasy. Never again would Beethoven appear as a soloist in a piano concerto: his declining hearing would render it impossible. Contemporary accounts describe Beethoven as the conductor of the orchestra; however, it is possible that Beethoven only had limited direction over the orchestra, and the orchestra had refused to rehearse under his baton.
The hand-copied parts used for the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. They include corrections hand-entered by the composer and are on display in the Lobkowitz family museum in Prague.
By all accounts the execution of the music was inferior. One review targeted the orchestra, saying that it “could be considered lacking in all respects”. The soloist for the Ah! perfido scene and aria was an inexperienced soprano co-opted into the concert after Beethoven had offended Anna Milder, his first choice for the role. The substitute’s performance was hampered by stage fright.
An aggravating factor for the audience was the extremely cold weather.
Probably the low point in the performance occurred during the Choral Fantasy, which had been insufficiently rehearsed; adherence to the score fell apart at one point, leading Beethoven to stop and restart the piece.
This part of Seyfried’s account emphasizes the humor of the situation, but there were also some negative consequences for Beethoven. Seyfried goes on:
At first [Beethoven] could not understand that he had in a manner humiliated the musicians. He thought it was a duty to correct an error that had been made and that the audience was entitled to hear everything properly played, for its money. But he readily and heartily begged the pardon of the orchestra for the humiliation to which he had subjected it, and was honest enough to spread the story himself and assume all responsibility for his own absence of mind.
Prince von Lobkowitz was a patron and supporter of Beethoven. Reichardt goes on to say:
There we sat, in the most bitter cold, from half past six until half past ten, and confirmed for ourselves the maxim that one may easily have too much of a good thing, still more of a powerful one.
Reichardt’s opinion echoed that of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung: “To judge all these pieces after one and only hearing, especially considering the language of Beethoven’s works, in that so many were performed one after the other, and that most of them are so grand and long, is downright impossible.
The Beethoven memorial now displayed on the exterior wall of the Theater an der Wien. The text reads, “Ludwig van Beethoven lived in the Theater an der Wien in 1803 and 1804. Parts of his opera, the Third Symphony, and the Kreutzer Sonata were written here. Fidelio and other works received their first performance in this house.”