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In December 1808, one of the most famous concerts in music history was given in Vienna. In the throes of worsening problems with his hearing, Ludwig van Beethoven presented a four-hour marathon that featured the premiers of several of his masterworks. One of the attendees wrote that he experienced the truth that one can easily have too much of a good thing and still more have allowed. Today, the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York recreates this historic event.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: It's probably the most famous phrase in all of classical music.

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 5")

LUNDEN: The opening of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony." It's so well known in fact, it's hard to think of a time when it wasn't part of the cultural landscape. But on a cold December evening, 199 years ago, an audience in Vienna heard it for the first time.

Professor CHRISTOPHER GIBBS (Music, State University of New York, Buffalo): We perhaps have a romantic view of how great it would be to hear the premiere of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony," "Sixth Symphony or the "Fourth." Vienna contributes works on this program.

LUNEN: Christopher Gibbs is a music historian and has written program notes for the Mostly Mozart recreation of the concert.

Prof. GIBBS: But the reality probably is that they were terrifically under-rehearsed. I think we would view it as probably one of the worst community orchestras that we might encounter today.

LUNDEN: In the early 19th century, performers and composers had to be both artists and entrepreneurs. Christopher Gibbs says for a musician like Beethoven, there were many logistical challenges in presenting his own work.

Prof. GIBBS: The Vienna Philharmonic didn't exist. And there wasn't even, in fact, a concert hall in Vienna during Beethoven's lifetime so theaters were used, or sometimes, even restaurants and ballrooms.

LUNDEN: In 1808, Beethoven was in the middle of his most fertile period as a composer. He hired the Theater An der Wein, where his opera "Fidelio" opened a few years earlier to present many large-scale pieces he'd been working on. Louis Langree, Mostly Mozart's music director who will conduct today's marathon, says the concert was, in effect, a composer's sampler.

Mr. LOUIS LANGREE (Music Director, Mostly Mozart Festival): Now, we have composers who say if you want to listen to my music, go to my Web site. Beethoven did the same, but didn't come to my concerts.

(Soundbite of "Mass in C Major")

LUNDEN: The concert, by today's standards, was not only long — clocking in at four hours in an unheated theater — but it was a crazy quilt of musical genres. In addition to the two symphonic premieres and the new piano concerto, Beethoven's program contained a concert aria, selections from his "Mass in C" - we're hearing the song tunes from it right now - a solo piano improvisation, and his "Choral Fantasy."

But Christopher Gibbs says letting an audience hear such a varied menu of new music wasn't Beethoven's only motive.

Prof. GIBBS: He was hoping to make quite a lot of money for it. This could actually be as much as a year's worth of income for him.

LUNDEN: The concert began with a surprisingly gentle opening. The "Sixth Symphony," also known as the "Pastoral Symphony."

(Soundbite of "Symphony No. 6")

LUNDEN: Beethoven performed his piano soloist on three pieces. A good thing, says Louis Langree, because it was the only way he could actively participate.

Mr. LANGREE: Beethoven was interfering all the time. So I read somewhere that - the musicians said that, if this guy is going to interfere again, we quit. We leave the orchestra. And so Beethoven was banned from the rehearsal. He was only allowed to stay in another room and could come only when he was playing.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: For Beethoven, being locked out of rehearsals was not the only isolating aspect of this performance, says Christopher Gibbs.

Prof. GIBBS: This is the last time that Beethoven performs as a concerto soloist. With the next concerto, the so-called "Emperor," it really has to be written for someone else because of the decline of his hearing, because of the deafness.

LUNDEN: But Jeffrey Kahane, who is today's pianist, says when Beethoven took the stage to play an improvisation — much like today's jazz musicians — he was electric.

Mr. JEFFREY KAHANE (Pianist, Mostly Mozart Festival): We have many reports, eyewitness or ear witness reports that were written down. People said that, as wonderful as it was to hear Beethoven play his own composed works, that when he just sat down and improvised, he was on fire, that it was an absolutely transcendental experience.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: The Mostly Mozart Concert, like the original, will end with a piece that Beethoven composed specifically for the event, says Louis Langree.

Mr. LANGREE: Every player and singer from the chorus, from the soloists and the pianist share and sing together this ode to the beauty, to the fraternity, and this is the "Choral Fantasy."

(Soundbite of "Choral Fantasy")

LUNDEN: If the music sounds familiar, Beethoven later reworked this material for the finale of his "Ninth Symphony." This is the kind of musical insight that Louis Langree hopes audiences will discover when listening to the Beethoven marathon. It begins at 4 p.m. this afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of "Choral Fantasy")

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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