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Beethoven's Mammoth Concert

The audience froze, the musicians fluffed their notes, the press grumbled: an unforgettable evening!

It was probably the most legendary concert in the history of music – and a complete disaster to boot: on 22 December 1808, Ludwig van Beethoven gave the first performances on a single evening of his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, his Piano Concerto No. 4 and the »Choral Fantasy« (the latter piece was a mixture of a choral and orchestral piece and a piano concerto), as well as extracts from a setting of the mass and a concert aria. A mammoth programme lasting some four hours!

It's fair to say that events of this kind were not uncommon in Beethoven's day. The audience expected a varied programme, and a composer had no other way of presenting his latest works to the public than a so-called »Academy« of this sort. Beethoven had to rent the hall at his own expense, hiring the musicians and organising the marketing himself. And according to the concert poster, people could buy tickets from him in his own living room!

Thomas Hengelbrock on the Academy Concert

No Money to Buy Firewood

But there were two major problems that threatened to put a spoke through this musical wheel. Firstly, the time of year. Just three days before Christmas it was bitterly cold in Vienna, and the composer didn't have enough money to buy firewood to heat the Theater an der Wien.  So the audience sat through the long concert clad in fur coats to ward off the Siberian temperatures. But Beethoven didn't really have a choice where the date was concerned: in the heat of summer, his public – most of them nobility, or at least well-off – escaped to their country houses, and in autumn and spring, concert venues and musicians alike were booked up with opera performances. Only during Advent and Lent was there a ban on opera: Beethoven's only chance to put on a symphony concert.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven © Public domain

Concert Programme

  • The Original Four-Hour Programme from 22 December 1808

    Ludwig van Beethoven

    Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 »Pastoral«

    Ah perfido! / Aria for Soprano and Orchestra, Op. 65

    Gloria / from: Mass in C Major, Op. 86

    Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58

    - Interval -

    Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67

    Sanctus / from: Mass C Major, Op. 86 for Soloists, Choir and Orchestra

    Piano Improvisations

    Fantasy for Piano, Choir and Orchestra in C Minor, Op. 80

Embarrassing Mistakes

The second problem was inadequate rehearsal time. As was his wont, Beethoven worked on his compositions literally up to the last minute. Moreover, all the individual parts had to be copied out of the original score and duplicated for the musicians and the members of the chorus. Nowadays, we have photocopiers for the purpose; in Beethoven's time, every copy had to be produced manually. In any case, the time was too short, so the »Choral Fantasy« was played from sight with practically no rehearsal beforehand. The result was that Beethoven as the piano soloist repeated a section in concert, while the orchestra just played on. Confusion erupted, and everyone had to stop playing and start the piece again from the beginning. Embarrassing , to say the least.

What Did the Critics Think? – A Poor Performance

Unsurprisingly, the review in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, the foremost music periodical of its time in German, was unenthusiastic: »Among the musical academies put on in the week before Christmas, Beethoven's concert on 22 December in the Theater an der Wien was without a doubt the strangest. It is nothing short of impossible to reach a verdict on all works performed there after only hearing them once – all the more so because we are talking about works by Beethoven, which are generally long and large in scale. As far as the actual performances of the music are concerned, these can only be described as poor in every respect.«

Recreation of the Concert

To mark the beginning of Beethoven Year, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth, Thomas Hengelbrock and his marvellous Balthasar Neumann ensembles reconstruct this memorable concert with the music in its original order – and certainly at a much higher musical level. They use authentic period performing techniques and instruments, with a fortepiano among the latter. So the audience will actually experience a kind of musical journey back to the year 1808. With an added benefit that is not to be sneezed at: the Laeiszhalle has central heating!

Text: Clemens Matuschek, last updated: 12 Dec 2019

Title Image: Theater an der Wien © Karl Wenzel Zajicek

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