After one full year of living within the constraints of Covid-19 protocols, I can almost see that proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel.” One of the unintended and unfortunate byproducts of the world-wide shutdown in 2020 was the dampening of the 250th Anniversary public celebration of Beethoven’s birth. (I must hasten to add that I am referring to the composer, not that same-named cute Saint Bernard movie dog.)
Ludwig Van Beethoven was born on or near December 16, 1770 in Bonn, Germany. His mother, Maria, gave birth to seven children but only three survived infancy. Ludwig had two younger brothers. Johann, his father was at times abusive to his oldest son, especially when drunk. He also recognized the boy’s genius and relentlessly promoted his musical gifts to provide needed family income.
This month marks the 194th anniversary of Beethoven’s death on March 26, 1827.
Post-Covid, I will resurrect my meagre social life. Will backyard barbecue gatherings lack interesting conversation now that there will be no more pandemic restrictions or Trump to complain about? If so, I will be ready to introduce my favorite fantasy game. I will ask those assembled to choose a time in history when they could be “a fly on the wall,” observing and listening to some significant real event being played out before their eyes.
In previous episodes, I have had participants decide to be in the stands when Canada beat the Soviet Union in that dramatic 1972 hockey match-up in Moscow. Others have chosen to be among the crowds who heard Lincoln’s Gettysburg address or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. More than one person nominated the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” oration in Washington D.C. Where would your own fly land?
My chosen fantasy venue to be a fly on the wall? I would be in Vienna on the evening of May 7, 1824. I would be among the hundreds of Beethoven’s fans seated among many of his fellow musicians to hear the first performance of his Ninth Symphony. This “Ode to Joy” was based on a poem written in 1785 by Friedrich Schiller. Beethoven composed it over two arduous years, despite his growing profound deafness. Given his handicap, it was under-rehearsed and the success of its premiere uncertain. (Apart from my own knowledge and reading, Wikipedia has been the primary source of information for this column.)
Why would I be in the concert hall? It might have been reason enough simply to hear the premiere of what many have declared to be the greatest of his works, among the most beloved music ever composed. It may have been reason enough to hear the radiant young voice of 18-year-old Henriette Sontag. She had been personally chosen as soprano soloist by the composer to sing his most difficult musical score. I would have been there, if only to witness Beethoven make his first on-stage appearance as conductor in 12 years. Or maybe I wanted to hear the first symphony to include a choir. But there was still a better reason to draw me across the ocean almost 200 years ago.
By the time of the premiere, Beethoven was almost totally deaf. In 1822 he had tried to conduct a dress rehearsal of his opera Fidelio, but it had been chaotic. Having witnessed that fiasco, the conductor of the Ninth’s premiere performance, Michael Umlauf, privately directed his orchestra and chorus to ignore Beethoven’s conducting and to follow his own baton instead.
The tired and unwell old Beethoven was frantically and dramatically waving his arms in front of the assembled huge orchestra and large chorus. Yet, he could not hear a note (hence the title of the This Day in History podcast: “Beethoven’s Silent Symphony.”) In fact, he was several bars behind the music and was still “conducting” when the symphony was already over.
The sold-out audience instantly jumped to their collective feet with rapturous applause. The composer who had no certainty that his new symphony would be well-received still stood with his back to the audience and still waving his baton. And now is the moment I would have cherished forever.
Henriette Unger, the soloist contralto, impulsively left her place in the choir, came to Beethoven and gently turned him around to receive with surprise the adulation he so richly deserved. The crowd, knowing of his deafness, threw hats and waved handkerchiefs so he could at least “see” their adoration.
The Ninth Symphony has lived on long after the death of its composer. It was performed in East Berlin following the tearing down of the infamous Wall in 1989. The word “Joy” (Freude) was replaced by “Freiheit” (freedom.) The symphony was adopted by the European Union as its anthem.
If I am ever risk returning to church post-Covid, I will be sure to request my favorite hymn ‘Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” based on the Ninth Symphony, with lyrics written by Presbyterian minister, Henry Van Dyke in 1907. For anyone wishing to sample the Ninth, the BBC has a 21-part series on Beethoven’s life rightly called “The Genius of Beethoven.” It is accessible on You Tube. The first part actually recreates that “fly on the wall” moment. For those motivated to venture a bit further into what may be the new field of classical music, I would suggest listening to a You Tube version of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s masterpiece.
As we imagine a post-Covid world, his opening words are timely:
O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs. More songs of joy!