On this day in 1824, Beethoven’s 9th Chorale Symphony, one of his greatest masterpieces, premiered in Vienna at the Kärntnertortheater. This symphony was the first time a major composer integrated the use of voices into a symphony. The words are sung during the final movement by four vocal soloists and a chorus. They were taken from the “An die Freude” or as we refer to it “Ode to Joy,” the literal translation “To Joy”, a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with additions made by the composer. This was an important performance for Beethoven for so many reasons,it was his return to the stage after twelve year and he felt that Vienna was far too influenced by Italian composers. However his friends and financiers urged him to choose Vienna although he was leaning toward Berlin.
The story goes that Michael Umlauf, the theatre’s Kapellmeister officially directed the performance and he shared the stage with the famous composer. There are many accounts of that night one of my favorites comes from Josef Böhm a violinist: “Beethoven directed the piece himself; that is, he stood before the lectern and gesticulated furiously. At times he rose, at other times he shrank to the ground, he moved as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus. All the musicians minded his rhythm alone while playing”. I can’t even begin to imagine how Beethoven must have felt, as this piece that he’d been working on for six years, was played before a live audience. And yet, he was unable to hear it. I’m guessing he heard it in his head and leaned into the musicians to capture the essence of their enthusiasm.
When the music ended, there are accounts that Beethoven was a little off on the measures and still conducting. The audience moved by the piece began applauding and Caroline Unger one of the singers walked over to the lectern and gently turned the composer to face the audience and accept the applause. Another attendee recalls there were five ovations, and noted: “the public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them.”
Wow….talk about goodness! I’ve often wished I could have been there on that night, I’m sure the evening was magical. Beethoven never let his physical challenges stifle his creativity. He was on a mission with this piece focused on delivering what he thought would be musical goodness. And he delivered mightily…even today the piece is played all over the world. The moral, don’t let anything be a barrier to pursuing your passions, focus on the goodness. What’s keeping you from pursuing your passions? Tangible or intangible…don’t let it hold you back, the gift it may bring could be something years from now audiences treasure.
As I leave you today here’s a little something for your listening pleasure:
Leonard Bernstein passionately conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, performing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
I wish you lots of joy on this beautiful day.