On This Day (December 22)…Beethoven’s Benefit Concert

Ludwig Van Beethoven held a concert on this day in 1808 at Theater an der Wien in Vienna. While it’s called a “benefit concert” in several places I’ve seen, a term usually associated with charity, the beneficiary of this particular concert was Beethoven himself, as it was exceedingly difficult to make money as a composer in those days.

Beethoven in 1806. Retrieved from here.

Holding concerts in those days in Vienna was quite rare, as for the most part the concert halls were taken up by operas. Only during lent and advent were symphonic concerts, known at the time as ‘akademies’, common. Composers had to vie for spots in the limited space they had available to them, as well as the attention of the nobility.

This was one of the most legendary dates in the history of classical music. On one day, two of Beethoven’s symphonies, the 5th and the 6th, both had their world premieres. Also premiered was a Piano Concerto (Number 4) and a Choral Fantasy. Perhaps to placate audiences, Beethoven also included some previously-premiered music, as well as an on-the-spot fantasia for piano.

The program of this particular concert. Retrieved from Wikipedia after information given by Barry Cooper in his book ‘Beethoven’, p 193

The concert reportedly lasted around four hours long, probably the reason that at least one attendee remarked that he “experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing” (source).

Despite the remarkable music being premiered that night, the concert was quite poorly received. First of all, as stated above, the whole thing came out to be four hours long! Secondly, the hall was unheated, making for an uncomfortable experience in December. Third, according to music historians, the orchestra itself probably didn’t even sound that good, as they were “terrifically under-rehearsed” (source) and quite possibly got along so poorly with Beethoven that he was banned from the rehearsals of his own music (source). They fell apart so badly on one number, the Choral Fantasy, that they had to start over again from the beginning.

Meanwhile, a solo soprano on one of the pieces, “Ah! Perfido”, quit at the last minute. I’ve found no exact reason why, but it has to do either with a quarrel between Beethoven and her husband, an insult from the composer directed at her, or perhaps both. Either way, her replacement was quite inexperienced and suffered from stage fright (source). All of this resulted in rather poor critical response, with one newspaper going so far as to report that the orchestra “could be considered lacking in all respects” (source).

However, this was by no means a failure of a night despite all of the above. Beethoven himself was the piano soloist, for the final time in his career before his declining hearing made it impossible. He was reportedly a master at improvisation as well, making such an event well worth the lackluster orchestra and the unpleasant weather. Several sources also note that the concert was a financial success, though exact numbers cannot be known, enough to allow Beethoven to continue his life as a composer.

Despite its length and programatic difficulties, several orchestras have recreated the concert over the years. More information can be found here.

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