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May 7th, 1824 – The Premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

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[Some Background]

Beethoven's ninth symphony premiered in 1824, but the seeds of this monumental work had been planted in his head for years. Beethoven had always been inspired by Enlightenment Era artists. As a teenager, he went to hear lectures by Immanuel Kant at the University of Bonn, Beethoven's hometown. He was also a fan of the German poet, Friedrich Schiller. He "kept that volume of poetry with him, always intending to set to music a poem that particularly appealed to him, "An die Freude" (Ode to Joy)" (John Suchet, Beethoven: The Man Revealed). Therefore, Beethoven had been "planning" the most revolutionary to-date symphony for years, it is also plausible that he had known for years that he would use singers, something which had never been done in the symphonic form.
On July 6th, 1822, Beethoven wrote to his friend, Ferdinand Ries (who was living in London at the time), "Do you have any idea what fee the Harmony Society would pay me for a grand symphony?". They only offered him 50£, which was a rather low amount; especially considering what Beethoven was on the cusp of composing. Of course they couldn't have known that what he was to write would change the symphonic form forever, a work that would influence the Romantic composers for an entire century. So, we'll have to forgive the Harmonic Society for such a paltry offer.

[Vienna or Berlin? That is the question.]

It was the beginning of 1824, Beethoven had already completed the 9th symphony. Word spread across Vienna that their beloved Beethoven had completed a new work, his first symphony in over ten years and that it was a radical new work. Clearly, the "theatre managers of Vienna were falling over themselves to win the concert for their theater" (Suchet). Beethoven had called Vienna his home since 1792, one would think that he would naturally want his new symphony to premiere in the city he called home, right? Well, for some reason, he called the symphony to premiere in Berlin. One can only theorize why so I won't go into that. As expected, the manager of the Berlin Theater readily accepted Beethoven's proposal and needless to say, the people of Vienna were dumbfounded. What were they to do? Flattery of course, they wrote Beethoven a letter imploring him to premiere it in Vienna. Here is some of that letter:

"... It is Austria which is best entitled to claim him (Beethoven) as her own. With Mozart and Haydn, the sacred triad in which these names and yours glow as the symbol of the highest within the spiritual realm of tones which sprang from the soil of their fatherland... We beg you to withold no longer... a performance of the latest masterwork of your hands... We know that a new flower glows in the garland of your glorious, still unequalled symphonies.. Do not any longer disappoint the general expectations!... Do not allow these, your latest offspring, some day to appear perhaps as foreigners in their place of birth, introduced by persons to whom you and your mind are alien! Appear soon among your friends, your admirers, your venerators!" (Suchet, Beethoven: The Man Revealed)

The flattery from the Viennese did the trick; Beethoven accepted their letter and decided to stay in Vienna, “The letter is very beautiful, it rejoices me greatly!” Beethoven wrote.

[The Venue]

If one had to guess which venue would premiere the 9th symphony, the Theater an der Wien would be a natural decision. This is where Beethoven had premiered many of his previous works such as the 2nd symphony (April 5, 1803), 3rd symphony “Eroica” (April 7, 1805), Fidelio (November 20, 1805), Violin Concerto (December 23, 1806), 5th and 6th symphonies, Choral Fantasy, Piano Concerto No. 4 (December 2, 1808). However, the previous manager, Baron Braun, was no longer working there. The new manager was Count Palffy. Palffy loved Beethoven’s music but unfortunately Beethoven did not love Palffy. Years ago, Beethoven was giving a recital to one of his patrons and Palffy was in the audience talking to a lady with a disregard for Beethoven who stormed out and yelled, “I will not play for pigs!” (Suchet). That being said, Palffy was extremely generous when he learned about the 9th symphony possibly being premiered at his theater. He gave into Beethoven’s demands to let Beethoven himself choose the conductor (Michael Umlauf) and his friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh to lead. Palffy even offered his theater, musicians, staff as many rehearsals as he wanted at the low price of 1200 florins allowing Beethoven to keep all of the profits (Suchet). Beethoven nevertheless turned it down.

- Theater an der Wien

"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."

When the negotiations with the Theater an der Wien fell through, Beethoven entered talks with the Theater Am Kärntnertor. Upon hearing of this, Palffy upped the ante by offering his theater for zero cost! Beethoven’s mind would not be changed. The Theater Kärntnertor would be the final decision.

- Theater Kärntnertor

[Beethoven the Conductor. Beethoven the Tyrant]

Beethoven, by now profoundly deaf, decided to conduct this grand symphony. Beethoven who could not carry on conversations or hear the sounds of music, decided to conduct his most radical of symphonies. Something had to be done, so the concert organizers told Beethoven that Michael Umlauf (Beethoven’s friend and renowned conductor) would be on stage with Beethoven but would not interfere too much with his direction. Surprisingly, Beethoven agreed to this plan.
There was only time for a mere two rehearsals, the singers complained to Beethoven that he did not understand the human voice and that their parts were almost impossible. Beethoven, true to character, did not compromise on his creation. He told them to sing exactly as he written. “Karoline Unger, the contralto, threw a tantrum. To Beethoven’s face, she called him “a tyrant over all the vocal organs”, and turning to her colleagues said, “Well then, we must go on torturing ourselves in the name of God!”” (Suchet). The four soloists decided that they simply would not sing the nearly “impossible” passages, what would be the harm? Beethoven wouldn’t be able to hear them anyway, they thought.

[The Premiere]

The official announcement of the 9th symphony is as follows:

Which will take place
To-morrow, May 7, 1824
In the R. I. Court Theater beside the Kärntnertor

First. Grand Overture
Second. Three Grand Hymns, with solo and chorus voices.
Third. Grand Symphony, with solo and chorus voices entering in the Finale on Schiller's song, To Joy.

The Theater Kärntnertor was full but not with the usual aristocrats and nobility who usually filled the theaters of Beethoven’s works. They had all left Vienna for vacation in their country homes, enjoying the summer weather. Even Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven’s greatest and most loyal supporter was away in Olmütz. However, Beethoven’s close group of friends was there.
There is some cloudiness over some of the details such as when the uproarious applause took place. Was it at the end of the symphony or at the end of the 2nd movement scherzo? Schindler and Fräulein Unger say that it took place at the end of the performance. However, the pianist who was present, Thalberg, says that it was after the Scherzo. Even the attire of what Beethoven wore that evening is a matter of debate, Alexander Thayer, the great 19th century Beethoven biographer, says that in 1860 Thalberg told him that Beethoven was “dressed in black dress coat, white neckerchief, and waistcoat, black satin small-clothes, black silk stockings, shoes with buckles. He saw after the Scherzo of the 9th symphony how Beethoven stood turning over the leaves of his score utterly deaf to the immense applause, and Unger pulled him by the sleeve, and then pointed to the audience when he turned and bowed. Umlauf told the choir and orchestra to pay no attention whatever to Beethoven’s beating of the time but all to watch him.” (Alexander Thayer, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven). However, Thalberg apparently got Beethoven’s attire description incorrect. Schindler writes that he wore a green coat, “Oh, great master, you do not own a black frock coat! The green one will have to do” (Thayer).

I’ll end with the novel-like portrayal of the premiere from John Suchet’s Beethoven: The Man Revealed:

“The audience fell silent as the mysterious opening chords sounded, a floating cloud of sound, a sound world they had not heard before, yielding to huge affirmative chords from the whole orchestra. They watched, and listened, as Beethoven flailed with his arms to the sounds in his head, and Umlauf directed the musicians who were playing as if their lives depended on it… In unison, in harmony, faultlessly, the music drives to its conclusion. Umlauf held it all perfectly together, singers, chorus and orchestra giving the performance of their lives… Unlauf brought his arms down for the final great chord. It was over. The audience erupted, rose to their feet, cheered and shouted, handkerchiefs and hats waved in the air… Beethoven, oblivious to what was happening, continued to wave his arms, conducting the orchestra he was hearing in his head. Karoline Unger, the contralto who had so berated him in rehearsal, stepped forward. She turned him to face the cheering audience. At that moment, Beethoven knew the gift he had given to the world.”

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Updated Jan-17-2015 at 19:18 by DiesIraeCX

Classical Music , Musicians , Singers , Composers , Conductors


  1. itywltmt's Avatar
    My post - and link to the podcast - on this premiere: