No. 9

Today in History: May 7, 1824


The result of years of work and representing the absolute pinnacle of Beethoven’s skill as both a composer and musician, Symphony No. 9 is widely considered one of the single finest pieces of music ever created- a fact made all the more impressive when you consider Beethoven himself was completely deaf when he finished composing it in 1824, with its debut performance occurring at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna on May 7, 1824.

Wanting to go out with a bang, Beethoven saw to it that the orchestra performing his masterwork was one of the largest ever seen by the city. As an idea of just how large the group Beethoven assembled was, it’s noted that not only did Beethoven require the entire Kärntnertor house orchestra, but also needed to recruit amateur musicians from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna) as well as various others to fill out the parts. On top of that, the chorus alone is known to have numbered nearly 100 singers.

Although Beethoven was, as noted, completely deaf by this point in his career, he made it known to the powers that be that a condition of him premiering the Ninth Symphony in Vienna was that he be allowed to conduct the orchestra…

A decision that understandably unnerved some, in particular the theatre’s Kapellmeister Michael Umlauf who’d personally seen Beethoven previously nearly ruin the dress rehearsal of Beethoven’s 1814 opera, Fidelio, because he couldn’t properly keep time owing to his hearing. In the end, Umlauf was selected to assist Beethoven in conducting Fidelio to ensure it went well.

As for his 9th symphony, eventually a similar compromise was reached for Umlauf to “assist” Beethoven once again in his duties- Beethoven was to set the tempo and Umlauf would do the rest.

Beethoven seemed satisfied with this and Umlauf subsequently shadowed the composer while he went over the music with his hastily assembled super-orchestra.

To ensure Beethoven couldn’t mess up the performance, Umlauf reportedly secretly told the orchestra to simply humor Beethoven’s instructions during rehearsals and outright ignore him while he was conducting.

On the night of the premier itself, while the performers followed Umlauf’s lead, Beethoven reportedly flailed around like one of those giant inflatable tube-men while vigorously illustrating the tempo with his conducting baton. Or, to quote violinist Joseph Böhm about his recollection of the event,

Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts….

According to an oft repeated story, Beethoven’s deafness prevented him from hearing the end of the performance and, as he was slightly off in his timing in his conducting, he continued to flail about after the music had stop and initially missed the thunderous standing ovation the performance received. While this anecdote is often exaggerated, first hand accounts do corroborate the general story. For example, Böhm alludes to this, stating

Beethoven was so excited he saw nothing that was going on about him; he paid no heed whatsoever to the bursts of applause, which his deafness prevented him from hearing in any case.  He had to be told when it was time to acknowledge the applause.

Soprano chorister Felix Weingartner also would later recall in the book Akkorde,

One had the tragic impression that he was incapable of following the music.  Although he appeared to be reading along, he would continue to turn pages when the movement in question had already come to an end. At the performance a man went up to him at the end of each movement, tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the audience. The motions of the clapping hands and the waving handkerchiefs caused him to bow, which always gave rise to great jubilation.

Unsurprisingly, the response to the premier was generally extremely glowing. For example, a correspondent for Theater-Zeitung noted, “After a single hearing of these immense compositions one can scarcely say more than that one has heard them. To engage in an illuminating discussion is impossible for anyone who only attended the performance.” He would later go on, “All the joys and sufferings of the human soul resound here in the most varied forms… [they] intertwine in the marvelous, magic knots that unravel and again weave themselves into new and wonderful signs.”

German composer Carl Czerny further wrote in a letter on June 24, 1824, “There is surely no more significant musical news that I can write you about from our dear old Vienna than that Beethoven finally gave repeated performances of his long-awaited concert, and in the most striking manner astonished everyone who feared that after ten years of deafness he could now produce only dry, abstract works, bereft of imagination.  To the greatest extent, his new Symphony breathes such a fresh, lively, indeed youthful spirit; so much power, innovation and beauty as ever came from the head of this ingenious man, although several times he certainly gave the old wigs something to shake their heads about.”

On that note, some critics disliked the work. For example, Richard Mackenzie Bacon wrote in an 1825 edition of The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review,

I am as zealous an admirer of the composer, as any one of those who would… exalt this symphony above every thing else he has written…[But] I have come to a decision in my own mind, that until any one can persuade me that bad is good, or that black is white, I must ever consider this new symphony as the least excellent of any Beethoven has produced, as an unequal work, abounding more in noise, eccentricity, and confusion of design, than in those grand and lofty touches he so well knows how to make us feel… One great excuse remains for all this want of perfection. It is to be remembered, that the great composer is afflicted with an incurable disorder (deafness), which to powers like his must be a deprivation more acute and distressing than any one can possibly imagine…

While not mentioned in Bacon’s criticism of the work, a major complaint after Symphony No. 9’s debut was centered around Beethoven’s inclusion of a choral element in a symphony. You’ll often read that this was the first time any major composer had chosen to augment a symphony this way, but this isn’t actually correct.  In fact, beyond many other examples, Beethoven himself had previously done this very thing in his Choral Fantasy composed in 1808.

However, this was a rather unorthodox choice (as was the extreme length of his 9th Symphony), but one in which Beethoven had planned all along, with the seed of the idea behind his 9th coming all the way back in the late 18th century when he began contemplating including Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 Ode to Joy in one of his works.

Interestingly, according to friend and patron of Beethoven, Leopold Sonnleithner, Beethoven may have regretted his decision to include the choral element. Sonnleithner writes of this,

I cannot refrain from mentioning something my deceased friend Carl Czerny (a favorite pupil of Beethoven’s) repeatedly related to me and which he confirmed as being reliably true. Some time after the first performance of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven is supposed to have announced to a small group of his closest friends, among them Czerny, that he realized he had committed a blunder with the last movement of the symphony; he wanted, therefore, to eliminate it and write an instrumental movement without voices in its place; he already had an idea in mind for it.

Although the less favourable reception of the final movement with chorus was probably not entirely without influence on this statement of Beethoven’s he was certainly not the man to waver in his views as a result of criticism of the day or less than customary applause.  Therefore, it seems in fact that he did not feel quite comfortable on the new path he had taken. In any event, it is greatly to be regretted that his announced intention was never carried out.

Whether this is true or not, based on his surviving notebooks, it took Beethoven around 200 different variations of the main Ode to Joy theme to work out the details, but he got there in the end. And while some “old wigs” didn’t care for adding a choral element to the symphony, Beethoven’s masterpiece has withstood the test of time, not only influencing many composers after, but also generally considered one of the greatest musical compositions of all time.

Very unfortunately for Beethoven who at this point had completely lost the ability to support himself through his former very lucrative performance career, this debut performance of No. 9 was a total flop financially, with the sold out premier earning him a paltry 420 florins (very roughly about $5,000 today). So instead of a windfall of cash to support himself with, he was stuck in the unenviable position of being short on money and on account of his deafness with diminished means of making more at his craft.

Joseph Huttenbrenner, corroborated by fellow witness of the event, Anton Schindler, relays what happened when Beethoven learned of his minuscule profits on the endeavor, writing,

I handed him the ticket-office figures. He collapsed at the sight of them. We picked him up and laid him on the sofa. We stayed at his side until late at night; he did not ask for food or anything else, and did not speak.  Finally, on perceiving that Morpheus had gently closed his eyes, we went away. His servants found him the next morning as we had left him, asleep and still in the clothes in which he had conducted.

Schindler would go on concerning the rather ugly aftermath:

Beethoven believed that he owed Umlauf, Schuppanzigh and me some thanks for our efforts. A few days after the second academy, therefore, he ordered a meal at the Wilder Mann in the Prater. He arrived in the company of his nephew, his brow hung round with dark clouds, acted coldly, using a biting, carping tone in everything he said. An explosion was to be expected. We had only just sat down at the table when he brought the conversation round to the subject of the pecuniary result of the first performance in the Theater, blurting out point-blank that he had been defrauded by the administrator Duport and me together. Umluaf and Schuppanzigh made every effort to prove the impossibility of a fraud of any sort, pointing out that every piece of money had passed through the hands of the two theatre cashiers, that the figures tallied precisely, and that furthermore his nephew, on the instruction of his apothecary brother, had superintended the cashiers in defiance of all custom.

Beethoven, however, persisted in his accusation, adding that he had been informed of the fraud from a reliable quarter. Now it was time to give satisfaction for this affront. I went off quickly with Umlauf, and Schuppanzigh, after having to endure several volleys at his voluminous person, soon followed. We gathered at the Goldenes Lamm in the Leopoldstadt to continue our interrupted meal undisturbed. The furious composer, however, was left to vent his anger at the waiters and the trees, and as punishment had the opulent meal alone with his nephew.

Beethoven wasn’t finished, however, writing this scathing letter to Schindler shortly thereafter, which reads in part:

I do not accuse you of having done anything wicked in connection with the concert. But stupidity and arbitrary behavior have ruined many an undertaking. Moreover I have on the whole a certain fear of you, a fear lest some day through your action a great misfortune may befall me. Stopped-up sluices often overflow quite suddenly; and that day in the Prater I was convinced that in many ways you had hurt me very deeply- in any case I would much rather try to repay frequently with a small gift the services you render me, than have you at my table.

For I confess that your presence irritates me in so many ways… I will certainly invite you occasionally. But it is impossible to have you beside me permanently, because such an arrangement would upset my whole existence…

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Bonus Fact:

Beethoven’s hearing seems to have started to decline around 1796, with Beethoven mentioning hearing “buzzing noises” around this time in letters.  Things got worse around the turn of the century, with Beethoven writing to his physician in 1801, “For the last three years my hearing has grown steadily weaker . . . I can give you some idea of this peculiar deafness when I must tell you that in the theatre I have to get very close to the orchestra to understand the performers, and that from a distance I do not hear the high notes of the instruments and the singers’ voices. . . Sometimes too I hardly hear people who speak softly. The sound I can hear it is true, but not the words. And yet if anyone shouts I can’t bear it.” The exact cause of Beethoven’s deafness is unknown, though it is noted that during his autopsy they found that his auditory nerves had atrophied and Eustachian tube narrowed, though why is anybody’s guess.  Whatever the case, the composer continued seeking treatment for his eventual complete deafness going all the up until 1822, after which he finally gave up on finding a cure.

While the loss of his hearing was a crushing blow to the man, this was actually a boon to history. As his hearing diminished, he took to writing to communicate with people, resulting in numerous letters and “conversation books,” many of which have survived providing incredible insight into Beethoven’s life and music.  For instance, in a letter to a friend he vocalized his social struggles and his concern over his future on account of losing his hearing: “For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people ‘I am deaf.’ If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state…” He went on to say that, “Of course I am resolved to rise above every obstacle, but how will it be possible?”

Beethoven’s final public performance as a musician took place in April of 1814, playing his so-called “Archduke Trio”, known formally as Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97. Composer Louis Spohr had this to say after watching a rehearsal for Beethoven’s last performance: “On account of his deafness there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.  In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible unless one could look into the pianoforte part. I was deeply saddened at so hard a fate.”

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