This Fantasy and the C-minor Symphony (No. 5), vastly disparate works by the same hand, were introduced to the world on the same program, which took place at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien (capacity 1,230) on December 22, 1808. A big night, you might think – particularly for the premiere of the most famous, the most revered of all symphonic works – and you’d be correct. But there was more, much more. It was among the signal single public events in the history of Western music.
The evening’s agenda, as published by the theater itself, read as follows:
1. Pastoral Symphony (No. 5). “No so much a painting as the expression of feelings.” [the composer’s own words – ed.]
2. Aria [Ah! perfido! – ed.]
3. Hymn with Latin text, written in church style with chorus and solos.
4. Piano concerto played by himself.
1. Symphony in C minor (No. 6)
2. “Holy” [Heilig], with Latin text, written in church style, with chorus and solos.
3. Improvisation for piano alone.
4. Improvisation for piano with gradual entrance of the orchestra and finally a choral section and finale.
The composer of all these works, all being heard for the first time: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). The pianist in the concerto (the sublime No. 4 in G major, Op. 58), the solo improvisation, and the finale (the “Choral Fantasy,” as it is now popularly known), Ludwig van Beethoven. The conductor: Ludwig van Beethoven. The “hymn” and the “Heilig,” by the way, were excerpts from a work in progress, the Mass in C, Op. 86. The reason for the reversed numbering of the two symphonies may have resulted from uncertainty over which had been completed first. In 1809, the C-minor Symphony was published as No. 5, the “Pastoral” (in F), as No. 6.
It’s possible to gain a strong impression of what the evening was like by going through the writings of various witnesses to the event, including the composer’s piano pupil, Ferdinand Ries, his friend and fellow-composer, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, the composer Louis Spohr, and Beethoven’s amanuensis-biographer, Anton Schindler, from all of whose observations the following is constructed.
For starters, it was a bitter cold day and evening, the theater itself subject to the whims of a faulty, ultimately non-functioning heating system. Rehearsal, what there was of it, was restricted to that afternoon, many of the participants – who could hardly have been in the best of moods, faced not only with a mountain of new music and such a brutal taskmaster – having taking part in a benefit concert for musicians’ widows at the Burgtheater earlier in the day.
Nearly all of the music, including some of the most challenging (e.g., the Fifth Symphony), ever devised by the mind of man, was sight-read at the concert, which lasted from 6:30 to 10:30. Ries: “We experienced the fact that one could easily have too much of a good – and even more, a powerful – thing. I, no more than the extremely kind and gentle Prince [Prince Lobkowitz, one of the composer’s chief patrons, who had invited Ries to sit with him], whose box was in the first tier very near the stage, on which the orchestra with Beethoven conducting were quite close to us, would not have thought of leaving the box before the end of the concert, although several faulty performances tried out patience to the utmost.”
Spohr observed (at second hand) that, “Beethoven was playing a new piano concerto of his [Op. 58], but already at the first tutti, forgetting that he was the soloist, jumped up and began to conduct in his own peculiar fashion, At the first sforzando he threw out his arms so wide that he knocked over both lamps standing on the piano. The audience laughed and Beethoven was so beside himself over this disturbance that he stopped the orchestra and ordered them to start again.” (The precaution was then taken of having two choirboys stand next to Beethoven holding the lamps. And that was hardly the end of the matter, or of the concert. But onward…)
The popular assumption nowadays is that early-19th century audiences demanded concerts of such exorbitant length and diversity. Not quite the case, not in Vienna, at any rate. The fact of the matter is that Vienna’s theaters, and the city’s professional instrumentalists and singers, were nearly always occupied during the year. The windows of opportunity for a composer seeking to make a big impression by presenting himself to the public were small indeed: usually, the two days before the start of Easter week, and the two or three days before Christmas. The competition for both venues and performers was therefore fierce, and it took a “major event” to bring so many of them together on one spot, as happened on December 22: a concert presented by Beethoven for his own benefit and at his own expense.
Reports are numerous regarding the fiasco of the “Choral Fantasy.” There are several accounts of Beethoven’s verbal abuse of the clarinetist who in rehearsal had played a few notes too many when the choral theme was introduced. (Interestingly, the Fantasy seems to have been given the most rehearsal time.) After the concert, a deputation of orchestral musicians informed Beethoven that they would never play for him again. But they did. He was a star, and there can be no doubt that both audiences and musicians recognized if not the extent of his genius, then certainly his uniqueness.
It should be kept in mind that both the “Choral Fantasy” and the G-major Piano Concerto published in the following year were no doubt more polished scores than what was heard on that cold December’s evening. Which also explains the high opus number, 80, of the Fantasy, which must virtually have been rewritten (the piano part, certainly) after the quasi-improvised premiere. Beethoven was notorious for performing scores before they completed.
Variety is among the spices of the wonderfully eccentric, aptly named “Fantasy,” which stretches to the utmost the physical limits of the piano –- and pianist – of the composer’s time. There is no formal precedent for the piece, and as for successors, only Ferruccio Busoni’s bloated but similarly scored 1904 Piano Concerto comes to mind.
The “Choral Fantasy,” as it is popularly known, written after Beethoven had finished writing all of his piano concertos and six of his symphonies, is a combination of free-wheeling fantasy for solo piano, a perky set of variations on a song (Beethoven’s own Gegenliebe – “Mutual Love,” 1795), and a piano concerto, culminating in a grandiose, festive something-or-other for piano, chorus, and orchestra. It is closely related to the “Emperor” Concerto in its combination of heroic grandeur and expansive lyricism, but unique to the Fantasy amid the composer’s music for piano and orchestra is its enthusiastic desire to excite the senses: this is show-off music, a virtuoso lark.
Perhaps the most arresting feature of Beethoven’s Op. 80, aside from its fanciful construction, which in its free-variations style suggests Beethoven’s legendary skills at keyboard improvisation, is its foreshadowing of the Ninth Symphony’s “Ode to Joy” theme, whose entry here is unmistakable. Beethoven himself described the choral finale of the Ninth, in a letter written in 1824, as “a setting of the words of Schiller’s immortal ‘Lied an die Freude’ in the same manner as my pianoforte fantasia, but on a far grander scale”.
The author of the clumsy verses hasn’t been definitively ascertained, but there is evidence that it was Georg Friedrich Treitschke, who revised the libretto of Fidelio in 1814. Beethoven’s sketches for the music actually preceded his having received the text.
Beethoven did not notate the solo in its entirety until 1809. The score appeared first in print in London, in 1810, and when published in Vienna the following year bore a dedication to King Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria, made without Beethoven’s permission or knowledge. The publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, would as a consequence suffer the full force of Beethoven’s sarcastic censure.
Interestingly, while there is ample record of the “Choral Fantasy” disaster – Schindler, in a moment of rare candor, tells us that it “simply fell apart” – we have barely a word on how the two symphonies went down with audience and critics. Does this suggest a journalistic preoccupation with failure? How unfortunate that the great critic-composers of the Romantic era – Schumann and Berlioz – were not yet around to chronicle the event.
- Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.