Beethoven concert of 22 December 1808

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Beethoven 3.jpg
Time22 December 1808
VenueTheater an der Wien

The Beethoven concert of 22 December 1808 was a benefit concert held for Ludwig van Beethoven at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna that featured the public premieres of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy. This concert, then called an Akademie, occurred in a very cold hall and lasted for approximately four hours. Its featured performers were an orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists, and the composer was featured as soloist at the piano. Beethoven biographer Barry Cooper refers to the concert, in terms of its content, as the "most remarkable" of Beethoven's career.[1]


Conditions for the performance of symphonic music in the Vienna of 1808 were hardly optimal, as Robert Kahn explains:[2]

Even a grand public concert could draw only from the aristocracy and the city's small middle class, [estimated at] no more than 2.5 percent of Vienna's 200,000 to 250,000 residents. The standard price for a concert ticket was two gulden ... which was more than a week's salary for a laborer. Musicians could not give academies in the summer, when the nobility fled the dust and heat of Vienna to their country estates, and during the fall and winter the theaters were given over to rehearsals and performances of operas, the high status form of musical production. The only time available for academies was during Advent and Lent, when operas were forbidden. During these six weeks, competition for halls was fierce, and theater managers could and did refuse nights to Beethoven in favor of mediocrities.

The Theater an der Wien as it appeared in 1812. The theater still exists and thrives today as a major venue for opera.

In Vienna, the theaters were either under government sponsorship (the Burgtheater and the Kärntnertortheater, both in central Vienna) or were private enterprises located in the outer districts of the city. Beethoven's chosen venue, the Theater an der Wien, was in the latter category. It was a very substantial building, described as "the most lavishly equipped and one of the largest theatres of its age."[3] It had opened to rave reviews in 1801; for instance, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung called it the "most comfortable and satisfactory in the whole of Germany" (which meant at the time, "all German-speaking lands").[4] Beethoven had already premiered several of his most important works to date in this theater; for a listing see Theater an der Wien.

During 1807 and 1808, Beethoven had provided his works and services to a series of charity concerts at the Theater an der Wien. The Theater's director, Joseph Hartl, ultimately permitted Beethoven to use the venue for the 22 December 1808 concert, which was for Beethoven's private benefit. Beethoven had lobbied for a private benefit concert for many months—in return for his participation in the charity concerts—and expressed frustration at what he perceived to be Hartl's procrastination on the matter.[5]

The Wiener Zeitung carried an advertisement for the concert on 17 December 1808, labelling it a "musical Akademie";[6] this was the common term for a concert in Beethoven's time.


The Beethoven memorial now displayed on the exterior wall of the Theater an der Wien. The text reads, "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."

The concert commenced at 6:30pm and lasted for approximately four hours, with an interval separating two sessions. The programme was as follows:[7]

Part 1
Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral", Op. 68
"Ah! perfido", concert aria for soprano solo and orchestra, Op. 65
"Gloria", from the Mass in C major for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 86
Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58
Part 2
Symphony No. 5, Op. 67
"Sanctus", from the Mass in C major, Op. 86
Extemporised fantasia for solo piano
Choral Fantasy for piano soloist, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80

Of the non-premiered works, "Ah! perfido" had been composed in 1796. The C major Mass had been premiered the previous year in Eisenstadt under the auspices of Prince Esterházy. According to Sutton, the improvised piano fantasia is the work that was later written out and published as the Fantasia in G minor [fr; scores], Beethoven's Op. 77 (1809).[8]

The Choral Fantasy was the last of the works to be composed; it was barely finished in time for the concert, leaving insufficient opportunity for rehearsal. Its role in the concert was as the concluding work, bringing together pianist, choir and orchestra.[9]

The two movements from the Mass in C were not advertised in the programme as such, due to restrictions on performing church music in theatres.[7]

The program would strike most concertgoers today as being extraordinarily long. Yet in Beethoven's time, this was perhaps not so; Lowe writes:[10]

In the decades around 1800 the number and variety of pieces on this concert was not all that unusual. Each half of a public concert program typically opened with a symphony, followed by an aria or two, a concerto, perhaps some chamber music and keyboard improvisations. Another symphony, or at the very least the finale of one, usually closed the concert.

Thus is it possible that the difficulty of the concert for listeners may have arisen from the need to take in a whole series of complex and original works (see critical reactions below), as well as the cold.

Musical forces[edit]

Forced to squeeze in his benefit concert at a very busy time, Beethoven was handicapped in summoning adequate musical forces. In principle, he had access to the professional orchestra of the Theater an der Wien,[11] but many of its members had a conflicting engagement: the Tonkünstler-Societät, a benevolent society for the widows and orphans of musicians, was putting on one of its four annual oratorio performances at the Burgtheater.[12] The Society generally required its members to participate in its benefit concerts or pay a fine;[13] this reduced the number of skilled professionals available, and amateurs were required to fill the gaps.[14] The orchestra thus available to Beethoven was a moderately sized ensemble that is likely to have had in the order of six to eight first violins for the evening.[11] Amateur and semi-professional concerts of the period saw larger orchestras.[15]

Beethoven was the pianist for the concerto, the improvised fantasia and the Choral Fantasy. Never again would Beethoven appear as a soloist in a piano concerto: his declining hearing would render it impossible.[16] Contemporary accounts describe Beethoven as the conductor of the orchestra; however, it is possible that because of frustrations arising at a November 15 concert,[17] Beethoven only had limited direction over the orchestra, and the orchestra had refused to rehearse under his baton.[18]


The hand-copied parts used for the premiere of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. They include corrections hand-entered by the composer, and are on display in the Lobkowitz family museum in Prague.

By all accounts, the execution of the music was inferior. One review targeted the orchestra, saying that it "could be considered lacking in all respects".[19] Initially, Beethoven had chosen soprano Anna Milder to sing the “Ah! perfido” scene and aria, who then dropped the role after he insulted her. The soloist instead was the teenage Josephine Killitschgy, the sister-in-law of Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who was so taken by stage fright that she butchered the solo.[20]

An aggravating factor for the audience was the extremely cold weather.[19]

The lowest point in the performance occurred during the Choral Fantasy, which had been insufficiently rehearsed; adherence to the score fell apart at one point, leading Beethoven to stop and restart the piece. Ignaz von Seyfried later wrote:,[7][21]

When the master brought out his orchestral Fantasia with choruses, he arranged with me at the somewhat hurried rehearsal, with wet[22] voice-parts as usual, that the second variation should be played without repeat. In the evening, however, absorbed in his creation, he forgot all about the instructions which he had given, repeated the first part while the orchestra accompanied the second, which sounded not altogether edifying. A trifle too late, the Concertmaster, Unrath, noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out dryly: 'Again!' A little displeased, the violinist Anton Wranitzky asked 'With repeats?' 'Yes,' came the answer, and now the thing went straight as a string.

This part of Seyfried's account emphasizes the humor of the situation, but there were also some negative consequences for Beethoven. Seyfried goes on:[21]

At first [Beethoven] could not understand that he had in a manner humiliated the musicians. He thought it was a duty to correct an error that had been made and that the audience was entitled to hear everything properly played, for its money. But he readily and heartily begged the pardon of the orchestra for the humiliation to which he had subjected it, and was honest enough to spread the story himself and assume all responsibility for his own absence of mind.

Critical responses[edit]

Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, patron of Beethoven and attendee

In this troubled venture Beethoven did enjoy the advantage that many in the audience were enthusiasts for his music and eager to attend. One such was the composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt, who was visiting Vienna. He later wrote (in his Personal Letters Written on a Trip to Vienna, 1810):[23]

[25 December 1808] The past week, during which the theaters were closed, the evenings filled with public concerts and musical performances, causes me no little embarrassment in my ardent resolve to hear everything. This applies particularly to the twenty-second, when the local musicians gave the first of this season's great performances at the Burgtheater for their "deserving widows" fund [Tonkünstler-Societät; see above], while on the same day Beethoven also gave at the great suburban theater [Theater an der Wien] a concert for his benefit, at which only his works were played. This last I could not conceivably miss; that morning, accordingly, I accepted with many thanks the kind invitation of Prince von Lobkowitz to join him in his box.

Prince von Lobkowitz was a patron and supporter of Beethoven.[14] Reichardt goes on to say:[23]

There we sat, in the most bitter cold, from half past six until half past ten, and confirmed for ourselves the maxim that one may easily have too much of a good thing, still more of a powerful one.

Reichardt's opinion echoed that of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung:[24]

To judge all these pieces after one and only hearing, especially considering the language of Beethoven's works, in that so many were performed one after the other, and that most of them are so grand and long, is downright impossible.

The concert provoked the ire of fellow composer Antonio Salieri, who had been Beethoven's teacher. Also on 22 December, Salieri organized his annual concert to benefit widows and orphans, and he threatened to ban any Tonkünstler-Societät musicians who had played in Beethoven's concert instead of his own. However, soon after the relationship between the two composers improved.[25]

Financial results[edit]

Nikolaus II Esterházy, who both commissioned the C major Mass and financially supported the 22 December benefit concert. Portrait by Josef Lanzedelli, 1803.

Beethoven's biographer Thayer writes, "the pecuniary results of this concert to Beethoven are not known"; adding however that there is a record indicating that Prince Esterházy ordered "the sum of 100 gulden to be paid to Beethoven in support of this "musical Akademie."[26]


Review of Beethoven concert of 22 December 1808 in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung issue of 25 January 1809

This concert's fame has resulted in modern recreations by various orchestras, such as:


  1. ^ Cooper 2008, p. 194.
  2. ^ Kahn, Robert S. (2010) Beethoven and the Grosse Fuge: Music, Meaning, and Beethoven's Most Difficult Work. Rowman and Littlefield, p. 48
  3. ^ Peter Branscombe and David J. Buch, "Emanuel Schikaneder" in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (subscription required)
  4. ^ Honolka 1990, p. 187[incomplete short citation]
  5. ^ Thayer 1991, pp. 445–446.
  6. ^ Thayer 1991, p. 446.
  7. ^ a b c Cooper 2008, p. 193
  8. ^ Sutton, John C. (1997). A Historical Study of Beethoven's Choral Fantasia Op. 80 (M.A). San Jose State University. p. 26.
  9. ^ Jones 1995, pp. 3, 42.
  10. ^ Lowe, Melanie (2007) Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 23.
  11. ^ a b Brown 1988, p. 9
  12. ^ The society had programmed Il ritorno di Tobia by Beethoven's old teacher Joseph Haydn, in a new version prepared by Sigismund Neukomm. See Carl Ferdinand Pohl (1982:68) Denkschrift aus Anlass des hundertjährigen Bestehens der Tonkünstler-Societät, im Jahre 1862 reorganisirt als "Haydn", Witwen- und Waisen-Versorgungs-Verein der Tonkünstler in Wien, available on line at [1].[full citation needed]
  13. ^ For details of the workings of the Society see Tonkünstler-Societät.
  14. ^ a b Jones 1995, p. 43
  15. ^ Brown 1988, p. 10.
  16. ^ Lunden, Jeff (1 August 2007). "A Beethoven Extravaganza Recreated". National Public Radio.
  17. ^ Thayer, ed. Forbes, pp. 446-447.
  18. ^ Brown 1988, p. 14.
  19. ^ a b Gallagher, David (15 November 2011). "Beethoven's marathon concert ... recreated on Radio 3". BBC Radio 3.
  20. ^ Thayer 1991, p. 447.
  21. ^ a b Quoted from Thayer 1991, pp. 448–449
  22. ^ "Wet" refers to the ink; in Beethoven's day the performance parts would have been prepared by copyists using pens.
  23. ^ a b Translation from William Oliver Strunk and Leo Treitler (eds.) Source Readings in Music History. New York: Norton.
  24. ^ Lowe, Melanie (2007). Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony. Indiana University Press.
  25. ^ Ross, Alex. "Antonio Salieri's Revenge". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2020-10-09.
  26. ^ Thayer 1991, p. 449.
  27. ^ Eckert, Thor Jr. (1986-05-08). "New Jersey welcomes conductor with fresh ideas. Hugh Wolff sows high hope for state symphony". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2018-12-17.
  28. ^ Raabe, Nancy (18 April 1994). "Historic concert re-creation establishes performance standard". The Milwaukee Sentinel.
  29. ^ Wigler, Stephen (12 October 1998). "Even for Beethoven, four hours is a lot". The Baltimore Sun.
  30. ^ Hunt, Brian (28 August 2001). "Re-creation of Beethoven's 1808 marathon is startlingly new". The Daily Telegraph.
  31. ^ Oestreich, R. (6 August 2007). "Just Like Beethoven's Big Night, but Longer". The New York Times.
  32. ^ Sinkovicz, Wilhelm (2008-12-23). "Theater an der Wien: Der Schockerlebnis von anno dazumal". Die Presse. Retrieved 2016-10-08.
  33. ^ Huss, Christophe (2012-07-28). "Festival de Lanaudière – Yannick Nézet-Séguin sur les traces de Beethoven". Le Devoir. Retrieved 2017-07-24.
  34. ^ Yardley, Duncan (2015-05-09). "The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven 1808". ABC Classic FM. Archived from the original on 2015-05-22.
  35. ^ Winn, Steven (2015-06-22). "S.F. Symphony Leaps Across Finish Line with Beethoven Marathon". San Francisco Classical Voice. Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  36. ^ Molleson, Kate (2016-10-04). "BBCSSO/Dausgaard review – epic Beethoven programme takes us back to the future". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  37. ^ Clements, Andrew (2017-06-09). "Hamlet and A Beethoven Feast: this week's best UK classical concerts". The Guardian. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  38. ^ "University Symphony Orchestra and Combined Choruses". University of the Pacific. Retrieved 2018-12-20.
  39. ^ "Beethoven-Akademie 1808". Stadt Kaiserslautern (Press release). 3 April 2018. Retrieved 2020-03-22.
  40. ^ "Suosittu PianoEspoo-festivaali starttasi tänään – Beethoven – Akademie 1808 – suurkonsertti ensimmäistä kertaa Suomessa". Amusa. 2019-11-01. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
  41. ^ Sinkovicz, Wilhelm (2020-01-12). "Beethoven und seine Bayreuther Dimensionen". Die Presse. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
  42. ^ Evans, Rian (2020-01-20). "Beethoven: the 1808 concert review – a remarkable evening, then, and now". The Guardian. Retrieved 2020-01-20.
  43. ^ Breski, Edda (2020-02-09). "Beethovens Akademiekonzert von 1808 im Konzerthaus Dortmund". Westfälischer Anzeiger. Retrieved 2020-03-22.
  44. ^ Mishke, Joachim (2020-02-11). "Beethoven-Konzert klang wie Tarantino-Soundtrack". Hamburger Abendblatt. Retrieved 2020-03-22.
  45. ^ Barone, Joahua (2020-03-02). "Review: Beethoven's Biggest Concert, Now With Heat". The New York Times. Retrieved 2020-03-22.
  46. ^ Pullinger, Mark (2020-03-16). "Beethoven keeps the flame burning: Salonen and the Philharmonia recreate the 1808 Akademie". Bachtrack. Retrieved 2020-03-22.