Beethoven: What did the 19th century think?

We take a look at the initial public reception of Beethoven’s 9 Symphonies

Ludwig van Beethoven (Credit: Getty)

Beethoven’s symphonies are today so familiar that it may be hard to imagine what it was like to be present at their very first performances. Barry Cooper takes a look at their premiere performances…

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The conditions under which these took place in Vienna in the early 1800s were certainly very different from those of the present. There were no regular public concerts in Vienna at the time (though there were in Paris and London), and the musical scene was heavily dominated by opera. No purpose-built concert halls were available, and Beethoven had to make use of other buildings such as theatres, ballrooms or large rooms in private palaces when he wanted to perform orchestral music. Theatres were generally the best option, but almost the only time they were available was in the week before Easter, when operas were forbidden. Even then, he could by no means be guaranteed one of the few slots, since there was inevitably much demand for the use of the theatres during that week.

Symphony No. 1​

It was in this context that Beethoven wrote his First Symphony, in the early months of 1800, and he managed to book one of the two court theatres – the Burgtheater – for a concert that took place on Wednesday 2 April that year. Although public concerts in Vienna were quite rare, there was at least one slight compensation: they were often extremely long by modern standards. This particular concert included two excerpts from Haydn’s Creation (premiered two years earlier), a Mozart symphony, a piano extemporisation by Beethoven, and three of his then unpublished works – a piano concerto (probably No. 1), the Septet, and the First Symphony.

This type of concert was known as an Akademie or benefit concert, in which the organiser (in this case Beethoven himself) made all the arrangements and collected any profit at the end. Thus he was responsible for ticket sales, hire of the orchestra, and arranging for copyists to prepare instrumental parts of any unpublished works. There was probably only one rehearsal, as was usual, and the difficulties of his new works clearly taxed the performers very considerably. How successful this concert was in financial terms is unknown, but he certainly made a large profit in his next Akademie and probably did so in this first one too.

What did the critics make of this event? Here again, there is a problem. Music criticism was still in its infancy, and the only regular music journal was the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, published by Breitkopf & Härtel in faraway Leipzig. Fortunately the AmZ frequently included reports from other cities, and a brief account of Beethoven’s Akademie was published. As usual, the AmZ account appeared anonymously, but it was probably written by Haydn’s friend Georg August Griesinger. The account praised the event as ‘truly the most interesting concert in a long time’, and the new symphony possessed ‘considerable art, novelty and richness of ideas’. But this is surely a somewhat guarded comment – only ‘considerable’, rather than exceptional, art and novelty? Yet what could one expect after a single hearing? The account also complained that the wind instruments were used too much. Beethoven’s highly imaginative orchestration does indeed give the wind more prominence than in a Haydn symphony, but ‘too much’? This seems an unjustified criticism today. Within three or four years, however, critics’ references to this symphony were much more enthusiastic, and its quality was quickly recognised.

Symphony No. 2​

The Second Symphony was begun not long after the success of the First, and Beethoven probably intended it for a similar Akademie that he would have hoped to stage the following April. His attention was diverted, however, to a commission for music for a large-scale ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, and so the symphony project became deferred for a year. It was apparently completed in early 1802, in time for an April concert, but this time he could not obtain an evening at the theatre. As his brother reported in a letter to Breitkopf & Härtel: ‘The theatre director… has refused him the theatre for his Akademie, and turned it over to other thoroughly mediocre artists, and I think it must really annoy him to see himself so unworthily treated’. The longed-for Akademie finally took place a year later, in a different theatre, the Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven had recently taken up an appointment.

Again the concert was a lengthy affair, containing Beethoven’s first two symphonies and two other premieres – his Third Piano Concerto and his oratorio Christus am Oelberge. Ferdinand Ries, at that time a pupil of Beethoven, mentions the performance in his reminiscences written many years later. He recalls that the rehearsal ran from 8am to 2.30 pm, by which time everyone was exhausted (again the technical difficulties proved too great a challenge). He adds that a few other pieces had to be omitted at the concert as it was so long even without them.

This time the event was not reviewed in the AmZ, but one writer sent in a report to the Zeitung für die elegante Welt. The writer said very little about the two symphonies except for opining that the First was better than the Second because the latter strove too hard for ‘novel and surprising effects’. The AmZ eventually reviewed the Second when it was published the following year, giving it high praise (‘of a depth, power, and artistic knowledge like very few’). But the review warned that repeated hearings were necessary before the work could be properly appreciated. Meanwhile another reference in the AmZ a little later considered the symphony too lengthy, and the modulations in places far too strange. The length of the work does not seem a problem today, but it is easy to forget that at the time the Second Symphony was much longer than any previous one.

Sympony No. 3 ‘The Eroica’​

If the sheer duration of Beethoven's Second Symphony had challenged its contemporary audience, the problem of length was even more acute with No. 3, the Eroica, which was almost half as long again. Even before the premiere, its exceptional qualities were being recognised. The composer Ferdinand Ries wrote at the time: ‘I believe that heaven and earth will tremble when it is performed.’ Beethoven was more modest, however: ‘I think that it will interest the musical public.’ The work was given some trial runs – the first of which went ‘appallingly’ according to Ries – at the palace of Prince Franz Lobkowitz. It then received its notorious public premiere in 1805, when, according to one critic, some of the audience asserted that it was a great masterpiece while others denied that it had any artistic value at all. Thus the pattern over the first three symphonies is of Beethoven gradually leaving many of his listeners further and further behind, while drawing increasing admiration from a relatively small circle of connoisseurs such as Ries and Beethoven's patron, Joseph Lobkowitz.

Symphonies Nos 4, 5 & 6​

The Fourth Symphony, like the Eroica, was first heard at Lobkowitz’s palace, and it caused few problems for the critics, the public having meantime grown accustomed to Beethoven’s earlier symphonies. Nos 5 and 6, however, were again marked by extraordinary novelty of underlying idea – the one an intense, concentrated struggle leading to ultimate triumph, the other a gentle evocation of the pastoral ideal. The premiere of both was another all-Beethoven Akademie, this time lasting four hours in a very cold theatre (the Theater an der Wien) in December 1808. The AmZ critic wisely refrained from an assessment, saying one needed to hear new works such as these several times before reaching an opinion on them. A detailed account of the two symphonies followed in April 1809 after a critic had studied the scores, and it was largely enthusiastic. Even more striking was ETA Hoffmann’s celebrated account of the Fifth Symphony that appeared in July 1810. This lengthy critique combines detailed analysis with poetic suggestions about the character of the work, which Hoffmann describes as ‘one of the most important works of that master who no one will now deny belongs among the first rank of instrumental composers’. 

Symphony Nos 7 & 8

These symphonies were written in 1811-12, and were first heard in trial runs in April 1813. There was a problem in finding a suitable venue – Beethoven wanted to use the University Hall on Easter Eve (17 April), but permission was refused shortly before the event. In the end, the performances were held at Archduke Rudolph’s palace the following Wednesday. Public premieres followed, in the University Hall in December (No. 7) and in the Large Redoutensaal, a grand ballroom, in February 1814 (No. 8). The Seventh was hugely successful, while the Eighth, a work of much more modest dimensions, achieved a commensurate level of praise.


Symphony No. 9

For the premiere of the Ninth, in May 1824, we have an unprecedented amount of documentation, thanks in large part to the survival of Beethoven’s conversation books, which he needed to use by that date to circumvent his deafness. He initially proposed a premiere in Berlin, a city he had not visited for over 25 years, but he was soon persuaded by local dignitaries to hold it in Vienna again. Detailed preparations for the premiere were being made from about March, but numerous problems were encountered, concerning choice of venue, price of tickets, arranging copyists, choosing an orchestra, choir, soloists and leader, and dates for rehearsals. The venue finally selected was one of the two court theatres (the Kärntnerthortheater), and the house was packed. The performance generated tremendous applause, though a famous story relates that Beethoven was too deaf to notice it at one stage until the contralto soloist pulled him by the sleeve to direct his attention to it. One suspects, however, that much of the applause was directed towards the composer, and to the efforts of the performers to cope with the enormous difficulties of the music, rather than to the inherent qualities of the symphony itself.

The Viennese reception of the Ninth, then, was extremely positive, but elsewhere reaction was more mixed. This was particularly true of the London premiere given in 1825 by the Philharmonic Society, for whom the symphony had been expressly composed. As with several earlier symphonies, the critics were particularly bothered by the inordinate length, the apparent absence of clear design, and by the use of ‘crude, wild, and extraneous harmonies’. The sheer volume of sound towards the end disconcerted at least one critic, who deplored ‘the obstreperous roarings of modern frenzy’. Yet even this critic had to concede that ‘everywhere I hear the praises of this his last work’. Thus many of Beethoven’s symphonies initially generated a mixture of bewilderment and admiration, but there was no general hostility. Many people seem to have recognised that these were works for future generations, and within a few years they became accepted as great masterpieces.

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