2 Jun 2020

The most important classical concert of all time?

From Upbeat, 11:36 am on 2 June 2020

With the musical world focusing on Beethoven's 'Pastoral Symphony' on 5th June, we take a look at the extraordinary concert at which it was first performed.

Vienna, 22 December 1808. A cold winter’s day.

It was the custom, so close to Christmas, for the city’s theatres to close. So plays and opera gave way to a multitude of concerts.

Among them, at half past six in the evening, a benefit concert for Ludwig van Beethoven: a programme of some of his most recent compositions.

Benefit concerts such as this had been known to raise anything up to a whole year’s income. But a failure could be financially disastrous for this self-funded endeavour; there was certainly no guarantee of box office success.

This concert was a risky one. For one thing, the programme was long. Four hours or so was not all that uncommon in early 19th century Vienna, but this was a bitterly cold winter and the hall lacked heating. With the exception of a concert aria and some excerpts from the 'Mass in C', the music was all new; and Beethoven’s music was renowned for being intense, uncompromising and difficult to comprehend at first hearing.

There was also heavy competition from other events at the time. It had taken Beethoven no small effort to secure the venue for this concert: he’d had to push quite hard, and give many reminders that he had been most generous in recent months in playing at charity concerts for others.

At last, though, he prevailed, and the building was hired.

Theater an der Wien

Theater an der Wien Photo: Welleschik / CC BY-SA Creative Commons

The Theater an der Wien was located in suburban Vienna, and was one of the newest, largest and most lavish venues in the city. Only finished in 1801, it had already staged the first performances of some of Beethoven’s most significant works to date: the opera 'Fidelio', the Second and Third Symphonies, the Third Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the oratorio 'Christ on the Mount of Olives'. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was a place where he felt at home. And for a while it literally was his home: when composing 'Fidelio' Beethoven took rooms within the theatre complex – a generous offer from the theatre’s intendant Emmanuel Schikaneder, best known for having been the librettist of Mozart’s 'Magic Flute'.

Unfortunately, the concert’s date turned out to be problematic. Beethoven had hoped to engage the theatre’s resident orchestra along with the venue, but many of its players had a prior contractual engagement across town. There was no enticing them to play for Beethoven instead: there were substantial penalty clauses written into the contract, including a sizeable fine if they didn’t participate. Amateurs had to be roped in to make up the numbers, but even so, it was a much smaller ensemble than ideal. To add to the difficulty, relationships were strained early on in rehearsal: tired of Beethoven’s interference, the players went to the extreme measure of barring the composer from further rehearsals! Not quite the birthday present Beethoven might have wanted, having celebrated his 38th just days before! 

Scholars believe that the performance standard must have been quite dreadful – perhaps at the level of a not-very-good community orchestra today. But for all that, it went down in history as a unique event: at no time before or since have three works that went on to become some of the most foundational in the repertoire been premièred together.

No-one at the time, of course, could have predicted its significance; but among those who regarded Beethoven as a major musical presence there was considerable anticipation. Composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt was visiting Vienna at the time, and was invited to the concert by Beethoven’s friend and patron the Prince von Lobkowitz: “This… I could not conceivably miss!”.

The concert began with a substantial new symphony by Beethoven: the Sixth, the Pastoral.

Reichart’s view was that “each number was a very long, thoroughly developed movement”, and that the work “went on even longer than an entire court concert of ours is allowed to last”. 

 But this was far from the entire concert! After this new symphony, a concert aria: 'Ah! perfido'.

Unfortunately, it highlighted another of the difficulties Beethoven encountered. He’d originally engaged the soprano  Anna Milder-Hauptmann who had created the role of Leonore in 'Fidelio' and had performed this aria before. The two fell out and she withdrew. A new singer had to be found, one Josephine Schultz-Killitschky. She was 17 years old, and had never previously sung the aria in public. Whether because of nerves or because of the freezing temperatures, it was reported that she shivered rather than sang her way through it. 

After this, voices with choir: the Gloria from the 'Mass in C'. 

The Piano Concerto No 4 was next, with Beethoven himself at the piano. It had been played before, at a private performance at Lobkowitz’s home, but this was the first public outing for the ground-breaking work. The critic in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote of it, “the most admirable, singular, artistic and complex Beethoven concerto ever". 

The interval came at this point, and no doubt some in the audience would have left, seeking refuge in warmer surrounds. But for those who persisted, the first performance of a work that would establish itself as the most recognised in the repertoire, and that for many people symbolises the whole of classical music itself: the Fifth Symphony. 

The score of the Fifth was published about a year after this 1808 concert. An anonymous reviewer (later revealed to have been ETA Hoffmann) gave his assessment:

"Radiant beams shoot through this region's deep night, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy everything within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up in jubilant tones sinks and succumbs, and only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with full-voiced harmonies of all the passions, we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits."

The Sanctus & Benedictus from the 'Mass in C' followed. 

Beethoven himself then presented a piano improvisation. It’s generally agreed that this may have been later written down as the 'Fantasia in G minor' Op 77. 

And then, finally, the 'Choral Fantasy'. The rehearsal time had been insufficient for this, and the ink was quite literally still wet on some of the vocal parts. 


Half of the orchestra took a repeat and the other half didn’t. It all ground to a halt. Beethoven insisted the whole thing be played again from the top, rather than just pressing onward. At the time, this was seen as a terrible slight to the musicians. Beethoven later apologised profusely and explained that it was simply so that the paying public had a chance to hear the whole composition complete. 

So what did people at the time make of this extraordinary concert? 

For the critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung,

"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."

But what of the aforementioned Johann Friedrich Reichardt, fellow composer and friend of Beethoven’s patron, who’d been looking forward to the concert so much? 

"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."