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, as Kahn explains:
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. Musicians could not give academies in the summer when the nobility fled the dust and heat of Vienna to their country estates, and during the fall and winter, the theaters were given over to rehearsals and performances of operas, the high-status form of musical production. The only time available for academies was during Advent and Lent when operas were forbidden. During these six weeks, competition for halls was fierce, and theater managers could and did refuse nights to Beethoven in favor of mediocrities.
The Theater an der Wien 1812 still exists and thrives today as a significant venue for opera.
In Vienna Beethoven’s chosen venue, the Theater an der Wien, was a very substantial building, described as “the most lavishly equipped and one of the largest theatres of its age.” It had opened to rave reviews in 1801; for instance, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung called it the “most comfortable and satisfactory in the whole of Germany” (which meant at the time, “all German-speaking lands”). Beethoven had already premiered several of his most famous works to date in this theater.
During 1807 and 1808, Beethoven had provided his works and services to a series of charity concerts at the Theater an der Wien. The Theater’s director, Joseph Hartl, ultimately permitted Beethoven to use the venue for the 22 December 1808 concert, which was for Beethoven’s private benefit. Beethoven had lobbied for a private benefit concert for many months—in return for his participation in the charity concerts—and expressed frustration at what he perceived to be Hartl’s procrastination on the matter.
The concert commenced at 6.30pm and lasted for approximately four hours, with an interval separating two sessions. The programme was as follows:
Part 1 Part 2
Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral”, Op. 68 Symphony No. 5, Op. 67
Ah! perfido, concert aria for soprano solo and orchestra, Op.65 Sanctus, from the Mass in C major, Op. 86
Gloria, from the Mass in C major for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 86 Extemporised fantasia for solo piano
Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58 Choral Fantasy for piano soloist, vocal soloists chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80
Of the non-premiered works, “Ah! perfido” had been composed in 1796. The C Major Mass had been premiered the previous year in Eisenstadt under the auspices of Prince Esterházy. According to Sutton, the improvised piano fantasia is the work that was later written out and published as the Fantasia in G minor, Beethoven’s Opus 77 (1809).
The Choral Fantasy was the last of the works to be composed; it was barely finished in time for the concert, leaving insufficient opportunity for rehearsal. Its role in the performance was as the concluding work, bringing together pianist, choir and orchestra.
The two movements from the Mass in C were not advertised in the programme as such, due to restrictions on performing church music in theatres.
The program would strike many music listeners today as being extraordinarily long. yet in Beethoven’s time, this was perhaps not so; Lowe writes:
In the decades around 1800 the number and variety of pieces on this concert was not all that unusual. Each half of a public concert program typically opened with a symphony, followed by an aria or two, a concerto, perhaps some chamber music and keyboard improvisations. Another symphony, or at the very least the finale of one, usually closed the concert.
Thus is it possible that the difficulty of the concert for listeners may have arisen from the need to take in a whole series of complex and original works (see critical reactions below), as well as the cold.
Forced to squeeze in his benefit concert at a very busy time, Beethoven was handicapped in summoning adequate musical forces. In principle, he had access to the professional orchestra of the Theater an der Wien, but many of its members had a conflicting engagement: the Tonkünstler-Societät, a benevolent society for the widows and orphans of musicians, was putting on one of its four annual oratorio performances at the Burgtheater. The Society generally required its members to participate in its benefit concerts or pay a fine; this reduced the number of skilled professionals available, and amateurs were required to fill the gaps. The orchestra thus available to Beethoven was a moderately sized ensemble that is likely to have had in the order of six to eight first violins for the evening.] Amateur and semi-professional concerts of the period saw larger orchestras.
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.
When the master brought out his orchestral Fantasia with choruses, he arranged with me at the somewhat hurried rehearsal, with wet voice-parts as usual, that the second variation should be played without repeat. In the evening, however, absorbed in his creation, he forgot all about the instructions which he had given, repeated the first part while the orchestra accompanied the second, which sounded not altogether edifying. A trifle too late, the Concertmaster, Unrath, noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out dryly: ‘Again!’ A little displeased, the violinist Anton Wranitzky asked ‘With repeats?’ ‘Yes,’ came the answer, and now the thing went straight as a string.
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.”