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A Beethoven Extravaganza Recreated

Vienna's Theater-an-der-Wien, where Beethoven presented his grand concert on Dec. 22, 1808.
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Vienna's Theater-an-der-Wien, where Beethoven presented his grand concert on Dec. 22, 1808.
Beethoven was in the midst of a prolific period as he planned the music for his great concert in Vienna.
/ Getty Images
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Getty Images
Beethoven was in the midst of a prolific period as he planned the music for his great concert in Vienna.

In December of 1808, one of the most famous concerts in music history was given in Vienna. It was a four-hour marathon of Ludwig van Beethoven's music that featured the premieres of several of his best-known pieces. One of the attendees wrote that he "experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing." Saturday, at New York's Mostly Mozart Festival conductor Louis Langree recreates this historic event.

A Shaky Premiere

It's hard to imagine a time when those four fateful notes that open Beethoven's 5th Symphony ("duh-duh-duh dahhhh") were not a part of the cultural landscape. After all, it's probably the most famous phrase in all of classical music.

But, on a cold December evening, 199 years ago, an audience in Vienna heard it for the first time. As great as it might sound to have been at the premiere of Beethoven's 5th Symphony (the Symphony No. 6 and the Piano Concerto No. 4 also premiered that night), music historian Christopher Gibbs says the event was not completely memorable from a performance standpoint.

"The reality, probably, is that they were terrifically under-rehearsed. I think we would view it as one of the worst community orchestras that we might encounter today."

And there were more troubles: a soprano soloist quit at the last minute, and during the final piece on the concert, the Choral Fantasy, the orchestra broke down, came to a complete stop and had to begin again. It didn't help that Beethoven had only just finished writing the piece.

Beethoven the Entrepreneur

In the early 19th century, performers and composers had to be both artists and entrepreneurs. Gibbs says for a musician like Beethoven, there were many logistical challenges in presenting his own work.

"The Vienna Philharmonic didn't exist and there wasn't even, in fact, a concert hall in Vienna, during Beethoven's lifetime. So theaters were used, or sometimes, even restaurants and ballrooms."

In 1808, Beethoven was in the middle of his most fertile period as a composer. He hired the Theater-an-der-Wein, where his opera Fidelio opened a few years earlier, to present the many large-scale pieces he'd been working on. Langree, Mostly Mozart's music director, who conducts the marathon, says the concert was, in effect, a composer's sampler.

"Now, a composer says, 'if you want to listen to my music, go to my Web site,'" Langree says. "Beethoven did the same, but he said 'come to my concert.'"

Beethoven's concert, by today's standards, was not only long — clocking in at four hours in an unheated theater — but it was a crazy-quilt of musical genres. In addition to the two symphonic premieres and the new piano concerto, Beethoven's program contained a concert aria, selections from his Mass in C, a solo piano improvisation and his brand new Choral Fantasy. But Gibbs says letting an audience hear such a varied menu of new music wasn't Beethoven's only motive.

"He was hoping to make quite a lot of money for it," Gibbs says. "This could actually be as much as a year's worth of income for him."

Beethoven on the Keys

Beethoven himself performed as piano soloist on three pieces. A good thing, says Langree, because it was the only way he could actively participate.

"Beethoven was interfering all the time," he says. "I read somewhere that the musicians said, 'if this guy is going to interfere again, we quit, we leave the orchestra.' And so Beethoven was banned from the rehearsal. He was forced to stay in another room and could come out only when it was time to perform."

Gibbs says that for Beethoven, being locked out of rehearsals was not the only isolating aspect of this performance.

"This is the last time that Beethoven performs as a concerto soloist," he notes. "With the next concerto, the so-called Emperor, it really has to be written for someone else, because of the decline of his hearing, because of the deafness."

But Jeffrey Kahane, the pianist for today's concert, says when Beethoven took the stage to play an improvisatio — much like today's jazz musicians — he was electric.

"We have many reports, eyewitness or 'ear' witness reports that were written down, people said that, as wonderful as it was to hear Beethoven play his own composed works, that when he just sat down and improvised, he was on fire, that it was an absolutely transcendental experience," Kahane says.

The Mostly Mozart concert, like the original, Langree says, will begin with the atmospheric 6th Symphony and will end with a piece that Beethoven composed, specifically for the event.

"Every player and singer from the chorus, from the soloists and the pianist share and sing together this ode to the beauty, to the fraternity, and this is the Choral Fantasy.

The piece contains familiar-sounding music. Beethoven later reworked the material for the finale of his Ninth Symphony — his "Ode to Joy." This is the kind of musical insight that Langrée hopes audiences will discover, when listening to the Beethoven marathon. The concert is in two parts, beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, in New York.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.