Roll on (not over) Beethoven!
How would you like to have attended the concert in which three of the most beloved classical masterpieces had their first performances, with their immortal composer himself conducting and playing the piano solos?
Careful -- this may be a trick question.
I'm referring to the "Academy" (public concert) of the 22nd of December, 1808, at Vienna's Theater and der Wien. The composer was Ludwig van Beethoven. And the beloved masterpieces were the Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral") and Piano Concerto No. 4. For good measure, the Choral Fantasy and parts of the Mass in C were also done for the first time. Sounds great, doesn't it?
In fact, the concert turned out to be something of a debacle. 1808 was a low-income year for Beethoven, and he was in need of a big payday. Hence the idea of a big concert of new works. Having secured use of the Theater by appearing in benefit concerts there, Beethoven then set about angering the hastily assembled orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic and other permanent orchestras were still decades away) with his insulting tirades during November rehearsals. It got to the point where the musicians agreed to continue rehearsals only upon the condition that Beethoven not be in the room. It didn't help that there were so many new pieces to learn, that Beethoven was still rushing to finish them, and that they were some of the most difficult and complex orchestral works composed up to that point.
Still, they soldiered on. Here's how the concert was advertised in the Wiener Zeitung of December 17:
MUSICAL. A K A D E M I E
On Thursday, December 22, Ludwig van Beethoven will have the honor to give a musical Akademie in the R.I. Priv. Theater-an-der-Wien. All the pieces are of his composition, entirely new, had not yet been heard in public. . . . First Part:
1. A Symphony, entitled: "A Recollection of Country Life," in F major (No. 5).
2. Aria. 3. Hymn with Latin text, composed in the church style with chorus and solos. 4. Pianoforte Concerto played by himself.
Second Part. 1. Grand Symphony in C minor (No. 6). 2. Holy, with Latin text composed in the church style with chorus and solos. 3. Fantasia for Pianoforte alone. 4. Fantasia for the Pianoforte which ends with the gradual entrance of the entire orchestra and the introduction of choruses as finale.
Boxes and reserved seats are to be had in the Krugerstrasse No. 1074, first story. Beginning at half past six o'clock
Note how the two symphonies are advertised. First on the program is the Symphony in F major (No. 5), which we now as the "Pastoral". We also know it as the Symphony No. 6. Opening the concert's second half is the Symphony in C minor (No. 6) -- yes, the ever-popular Beethoven Fifth. Why are the numbers reversed? Because when Beethoven had the works published in 1809, the C minor came first (Opus 67) and the "Pastoral" second (Opus 68). Meaning that the old canard about Beethoven's odd-number symphonies being the really great ones, and the even-number symphonies relatively insignificant, might have been nipped in the bud had Beethoven published them the other-way-around.
So how did the concert go? Take it from someone who was there, the composer and writer Johann Friedrich Reichardt:
"I accepted the kind offer of Prince Lobkowitz [Beethoven's patron and dedicatee of some of his works, including the Fifth Symphony] to let me sit in his box with hearty thanks. There we continued, in the bitterest cold, too, from half past six to half past ten, and experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing--and still more of a loud. Nevertheless, I could no more leave the box before the end than could the exceedingly good-natured and delicate Prince, for the box was in the first balcony near the stage, so that the orchestra with Beethoven in the middle conducting it was below us and near at hand; thus many a failure in the performance vexed our patience in the highest degree. Poor Beethoven, who from this, his own concert, was having the first and only scant profit that he could find in a whole year, had found in the rehearsals and performance a lot of opposition and almost no support. Singers and orchestra were composed of heterogeneous elements, and it had been found impossible to get a single full rehearsal for all the pieces to be performed, all filled with the greatest difficulties"
The "many a failure in the performance" that vexed Reichardt included at least one train wreck (as musicians refer to such things) where the orchestra came to grief in the concluding Fantasia and had to be re-started. In general, the playing and singing was probably pretty scrappy -- little wonder, given how underrehearsed, overburdened and just plain cold the performers were. Beethoven's poor hearing, made things worse, resulting in faulty balances and poor coordination of the performing forces.. This would be the last time Beethoven appeared in public as a pianist.
Yet, after all that -- I still would have wanted to be there. Wouldn't you? Happy birthday, Beethoven!