188 years ago, May 7, 1824, Ludwig van Beethoven, conducts the premiere of the Ninth Symphony at the Karthnerthor Theater in Vienna, sharply at 7 p.m. The symphony was based entirely upon his memories of sound.
Would this musical mastermind have any way of knowing when he began composing this work (along with Missa Solemnis) in 1818 that it would become his most famous piece, at least to the ears of the audiences in western culture?
In breaking with tradition, the Ninth Symphony (no. 9 in D major) presents the chorus joining the orchestra in the final movement, an adaptation of Friedrich von Schiller’s ``Ode to Joy.’’ It has been said the Ninth Symphony was the seminal work which influenced Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner.
Because of Beethoven’s total deafness, the real direction of the orchestra during the premiere became the responsibility of Austrian composer, conductor, and violinist, Michael Umlauf with Ignaz Schuppanzigh serving as the principal violinist.
With this historic concert representing Beethoven’s first appearance directing an orchestra in public since 1812, heightened anxiety set in prior to the premiere, even more so when scheduling difficulties resulted in only two full rehearsals with young boys of the chorus struggling to hit the high notes. Beethoven himself coached the soloists with Umlauf assisting.
A Footnote: Beethoven considered premiering the Ninth not in Vienna, but in Berlin. When rumors began to circulate that such a move was being planned, a petition was quickly set in motion (most likely by Count Moritz Lichnowsky, an Austrian aristocrat, brother of Prince Karl and close friend of Beethoven). The petition, signed by some of Austria’s most distinguished musicians and patrons, was published in Vienna’s Allegmeine Musikalische Zeitung and the Vienna Theater-Zeitung, all of whom urged the German composer to introduce his Ninth Symphony on Austrian soil. After such an outpouring of support, Beethoven bent to the wishes of the popular will.
Despite the unease, the Ninth was a smash success. After the performance, the crowd exploded into thunderous cheers; Caroline Unger, the Austro-Hungarian contralto, who made her first signing debut in the Ninth, (including Missa Solemnis), turned the deaf composer around to face the audience so he could witness for himself the wild cheers and handkerchiefs waving throughout the theater.
The theater was filled to capacity that night; the only empty box, that of the Austrian emperor, Francis I who was out of town despite receiving a personal invitation from Beethoven. Most of the published reviews of the Ninth abounded with enthusiastic admiration. According to a review from Allegmeine Theater-Zeitung (May 13, 1824): ``Imagine the highly inspired composer, the musical Shakespeare, to whom all means of his arts are readily available at the slightest nod, how he glowed from devotion and how in the innermost belief in the holy work of redemption, he sings the praise of God and the hope of Mankind. Then one has, perhaps, a slight notion of the impact of this Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei!”
In addition to conductor Michael Umlauf, Caroline Unger, and Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the list of performers included: 58 members of the string section, 24 violins, ten violas, 12 cellos, 12 basses with the choir consisting of approximately 90 voices.
Harold C. Schonberg, the former New York Times music critic once wrote that the Ninth represented everything the ``Romantics thought to be the essence of Beethoven-a defiance of form, a call for brotherhood, a titanic explosion, a spiritual experience.’’
Beethoven’s immense body of work includes: nine symphonies; a dozen pieces of "occasional" music, seven concerti for one or more soloists and orchestra, (four shorter works that include soloists accompanied by orchestra), an opera (his only opera) Fidelio; two masses and a number of shorter works. His piano compositions were equally impressive: 32 piano sonatas and numerous shorter pieces, including arrangements of some of his other works, while works with piano accompaniment include 10 violin sonatas, 5 cello sonatas, and a sonata for French horn, as well as numerous liede.
Beethoven additionally wrote his fair share of chamber music. In addition to 16 string quartets, he wrote five works for string quintet, seven for piano trio, five for string trio, and more than a dozen works for various combinations of wind instruments.
Ludwig van Beethoven died on March 26, 1827, age 57; his funeral was held three days later with Franz Schubert and Carl Czerny serving as torchbearers. The funeral march from the A-flat-Major Sonata, Opus 26,filled the air as the procession passed.
Franz Grillparzer, an Austrian writer and chief poet, delivered the funeral oration, which included the following words: ``The harp that is hushed! Let me call him so! The thorns of life had wounded him deeply, and as the castaway clings to the shore, so did he seek refuge in thine arms. O thou glorious sister and peer of the Good and the True, thou balm of wounded hearts, heaven born Art! He was an artist-and who shall arise to stand beside him?...He who comes after him will not continue him; he must begin anew...''
May 7, 2012