The Kärntnertor Theater was packed with hundreds of people that afternoon, May 7, 1824. Flyers had been circulated throughout Vienna in recent months. It contained: a grand symphony composed by a great composer would be performed for the first time.
The whole of Vienna knew that the composer had long been absent from leading the orchestra. Twelve years earlier, he had decided to quit as an earner, to withdraw from the public face, and to be alone more often in his home.
He had to choose the tough decision because his deafness had reached an intolerable threshold. He could no longer hear voices, even when someone had to shout from a distance of one cubit. His hearing was destroyed due to an illness suffered since his 20s. In his 50s, the time when the concert at Kärntnertor was held, he was deafening.
In a period of loneliness and solitude and deafness that he devoted all his creativity to compose music. And his greatest works were born precisely in this period.
The work he presented that day was a long, very long symphony, written since two years before the premiere. Of course people are waiting curiously for what kind of music he will present. Two years earlier, he had succeeded in driving music lovers throughout the Kingdom of Prussia with Fidelio, the only opera he had ever composed.
Inside the theater, a large orchestra is ready on stage. The amount is unusual for the size of the era: 24 violinists, 10 violin bowers, 12 cellist players, 12 bassists, double brass and wind blowers, four singers, and a choir of about 50 people.
This is of course a concert that gives intrinsic honor to musicians and singers. They had the opportunity to play directly under the baton swing of the composer, the maestro Ludwig van Beethoven, after twelve years away from the sparkling Vienna musical stage.
That day, the audience who packed Kärntnertor were lucky people: listening to “Symphony Number 9 in D minor” by Ludwig van Beethoven – the best music composition of the 19th century – for the first time.
But actually it wasn’t Beethoven who officially led the show. Michael Umlauf, Kappelmeister (head of music) at the Kärntnertor Theater, had watched Beethoven lead a dress rehearsal and what happened was extreme chaos and confusion among musicians. A deaf, of course, would be very difficult to lead an orchestra.
Finally, Umlauf made a decision that relieved the music players. As Nicholas Cook noted in Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (1993), the Kappelmeister decided that he was the one who led the concert, while the maestro stood beside him. All musicians refer to Umlauf’s cue and Ignaz Schuppanzigh’s concert meister, not to the Beethoven baton swing.
Algemeine musikalische Zeitung, the leading music journal of the era, which aired reviews of the concert, reported that “Mr. Schuppanzigh directed the violin, Mr. Kappelmeister Umlauf gave a signal with a baton, while the composer directed everything.”
Of course Beethoven’s “direction” doesn’t work. He did see the sheet in front of him and moved the baton here and there while imagining music playing in his mind, but the signs were clearly wrong. Sometimes Beethoven looked like a crazy person who seemed eager to play all the instruments in front of him. He stood for a long time, occasionally sitting or shaking his body or displaying a strange look on his face.
Beethoven composed “Symphony Number 9” starting with the order of the Philharmonic Society of London (PSL) in 1817. He accepted the order because he was in need of money and had considerable debt to some of his relatives.
As Maynard Salomon revealed in Beethoven (1997: 251), PSL was impressed with the depth of the works of the man born in Bonn, 17 December 1770. The music is considered to represent the voice of 19th century European humanism. Five years later, in 1822, Beethoven began working on the composition seriously.
The maestro wrote Symphony Number 9 for two years — a long time span for working on a composition. The writing under the signature on the original sheet shows the symphony was completed in February 1824.
Beethoven is indeed a typical musician who is slow at creating works. Compared to his predecessor musician whom he admired, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven was far behind in terms of the quantity of work produced. In such a short life span (Mozart died at the age of 35), this musician from Salzburg produced 626 compositions consisting of various genres. Meanwhile, Beethoven, until he died at the age of 56, “only” produced 65 compositions with a range of genres that were not as diverse as Mozart.
Mozart’s obsession did create as much music as possible. Every time, he was ringing in his head ringing the instrument he wanted to immediately pour into a row of beam notations. He can create a song in less than an hour or write a full symphony in less than a week. Mozart sometimes has to write a finished work in his head. Therefore, the original score is often clean from scribbles.
Beethoven, meanwhile, is infatuated with depth. He can’t just write a song quickly. All through careful consideration and careful planning. There is hardly a tone in all of Beethoven’s works chanted. That is why Beethoven’s original scores were full of scribbles and corrections.
Symphony Number 9 shows clearly how obsessive Beethoven is to the depth and intensity of music. In this symphony, he seems to exert all his musical energy. This composition has a colossal duration — almost 70 minutes — and consists of 4 movements:
- Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
- Molto vivace
- Adagio molto e cantabile
- Allegro assai
In the history of classical music, the Beethoven era is commonly called the Classical era, where instrumental music is at its peak. More precisely, Beethoven lived in the last round of that period. Musicologists, one of them Grace Gridley Wilm in A History of Music (1940), argued that it was Beethoven’s music that was a marker of the transition between the Classical period and the period afterwards, commonly called the Romantic period (pp. 197-204). It was during this Romantic period that vocal music in the opera format began to develop rapidly. In other words, Beethoven bridges the two most important periods in the history of Western classical music.
“Symphony Number 9” is the clearest marker of this transition period. Beethoven gave birth to several new breakthroughs that had no precedent in the Classical period. The formal structure of a symphony which is considered standard by Classical musicians, for example, was just struck by Beethoven. He also extended the scale of the symphony and expanded its reach.
In movement 1, even though Beethoven still presents a sonata style in the style of the Classical era, he let his listeners enjoy a harmonious jumble of fortissimos stomping with a calm ending.
Not stopping there, Beethoven instead exchanged an energetic scherzo on the second movement. Typically, in the Classical period, Scherzo was placed on the 3rd movement.
While on the 3rd movement, the maestro presents calm and serene tones, as if the listener is in a pastoral atmosphere full of prayers. This is where Beethoven’s visionary ideas were seen in treating a symphony: placing adagio in the 3rd movement, rather than in the 2nd part.
In the ultimate movement, it became increasingly apparent that Beethoven was indeed a genius beyond his time. He added a vocal element (chorus) whose lyrics were taken from Friedrich Schiller’s long poem, “An die Freude”, or better known as “Ode to Joy”. Beethoven was the first person to creatively insert vocal elements in a symphony.
In this very “instrumentalistic” period, involving vocals in symphonies was heresy. But Beethoven dared to do it and even considered an important breakthrough as well as influential for generations of musicians afterwards. He, through “Symphony Number 9”, explored all possibilities that the genius Mozart or the Father of Symphony Joseph Haydn had never even thought of – two of the greatest icons of the Classical era.
The 4th Movement “Symphony Number 9” is only a few seconds away from being completed at the 7 May 1824 premiere. Michael Umlauf was increasingly eager to swing the baton at the chrous part, the very end of the symphony where the sounds of all instruments and vocals were in the highest power.
Next to Umlauf, the maestro showed an even greater surge. He half jumped, swaying here and there, trying to sing verses from Schiller.
Beethoven continued to swing the baton. He did not realize, rather did not hear, the music had stopped and the show was over. Seeing such signs, contralto singer Caroline Unger approached the maestro, stopped her movements, and guided her to the audience. That evening, after Beethoven dropped his baton, there was nothing in the Kärntnertor Theater except for sobs and thunderous applause.
Three years after the premiere of “Symphony Number 9”, Beethoven died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. His funeral was attended by 20,000 people.