A contemporary likeness of Herr Beethoven, who sat for this
portrait in 1808, showcasing the composer as he would have
appeared that December evening.
December 22, 1808, Vienna.

On this day in December over 200 years ago, a thirty-eight year old Ludwig van Beethoven was having a hell of a night.

The troubled composer, then considered to be of middle age, had envisioned a glorious, sell-out evening of concert performances in a specially crafted Akademie (a benefit concert) featuring an ode to his latest compositions, specifically the premieres of his Fifth, and Sixth (“Pastoral”) symphonies. This was in spite of losing more than half of his hearing ability, which had been in steady decline for the previous decade (current historians believe the composer suffered from a lesion in the inner ear, possibly of unknown origin; it’s symptomology, in Beethoven’s case, consisted of a constant state of tinnitus, accompanied by other, nondescript sounds. According to memoirs of the composer that survive, modern medical analysts and musicologists can now pin-point the moment deafness would have set in, and track the residual decline of hearing in the late composer. It is believed Beethoven began experiencing the symptoms of paracusia (auditory illusions or ‘hallucinations’) in 1798, at around age twenty-seven, followed by a whopping sixty percent loss of hearing in a mere three year span by the age of thirty, while continuing to experience a rapid and consistent degeneration with total deafness setting in at age 45 in 1816).

The Christmas concert of 1808 was anything but glorious. In addition to the composer’s outright defiance in the face of deafness (Ludwig famously conducted several pieces - at least the Fifth Symphony), the Theater an der Wien where it was being held had little to no heat, save for the ambiance of candle-lit chandeliers and candelabras lining the theater). The already chilled and agitated audience was aghast at having to sit through such uncomfortable conditions for what was to be a four hour long self-salvaging - and for the audience, self-sacrificing, experience.

The ill-equipped Theater an der Wien as it would have appeared in 1808.
Adding to the ill-envisioned atmosphere was an orchestra so under prepared (with only one rehearsal prior to opening day), that the ever effervescent Ludwig halted the entire performance during “The Choral Fantasy” (a composition for piano, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra in C Minor), and ordered the orchestra to repeat the piece from the beginning! This certainly did not help the already prostrated crowd. Famed soprano Anna Milder-Hauptmann (one of Beethoven’s favorites: Ludwig even wrote the part of Leonore for her for his opera "Fidelio"), slated to sing the solo aria “Ah, Perfido” was nowhere to be found as the composer reportedly offended the would-be bride’s husband - one Peter Hauptmann - during a private quarrel. Milder was replaced by an inexperienced demoiselle, Josephine Killitschky, who was plagued by a horrible case of stage-fright.

Austrian composer and conductor Ignaz von Seyfried was amongst the musicians present at the Wein that night. He recorded the mishaps thusly:

Famed soprano Anna Milder's infamous absence
from the Wien that night was presaged by 

a tiff between her would-be beau and Ludwig.
“When the master brought out his orchestral Fantasia with choruses, he arranged with me at the somewhat hurried rehearsal, with wet voice-parts as usual, that the second variation should be played without repeat. In the evening, however, absorbed in his creation, he forgot all about the instructions which he had given, repeated the first part while the orchestra accompanied the second, which sounded not altogether edifying. A trifle too late, the Concertmaster, Unrath, noticed the mistake, looked in surprise at his lost companions, stopped playing and called out dryly: 'Again!'...”


"At first he could not understand that he had in a manner humiliated the musicians. He thought it was a duty to correct an error that had been made and that the audience was entitled to hear everything properly played, for its money. But he readily and heartily begged the pardon of the orchestra for the humiliation to which he had subjected it...”

Posterity, however, has been far kinder to the works performed and premiered that frigid December night:

The 5th Symphony later garnered some notable reviews, one of them in the form of celebrated Gothic author E.T.A. Hoffmann, who publicly declared it to be one of the “most important works” of contemporary classical music, while the 6th, "Pastoral" Symphony (a so called “program-piece” referring to a symphonic composition that represents, in the form of music, a story or poem: in Beethoven’ s case a detail on the reverie he often experienced during his much loved walks in the rural regions outside of Vienna) has gone on to become one of the most commonly performed of the composers masterworks, while the Santus and Gloria of Ludwig’s Mass in C Major, (originally commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II of Austria in 1807 and premiered on the 13th of September that year in the latter’s ancestral seat of Eisendtadt, just outside of Vienna) originally shunned by the Prince, is now a critic's delight - in spite of its sparsity in terms of performance.

The Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, also performed that night, went on to become a noted composer/musician favorite, with artists of such reverence as Johannes Brahms, Camille Saint-Saëns, Clara Schumann, Anton Rubenstein, and Hans von Bülow (just to mention a few) adding their own ornamental improvisations (“cadenzas”) to the celebrated work, while the solo aria “Ah Perfido” would see itself being performed by some of the twentieth centuries’ most prized sopranos, from the cult-goddess Maria Callas to powerhouse Brigit Nielson, to Wagnerian diva Kirsten Flagstad and coloratura aficionado Marilyn Horne.

The Akademie of that evening may have been less than accommodating or even prepared, but the compositional oeuvre contained within the concert itself has undisputedly found it’s redemption in retrospect.

At least it wasn’t a total wash.

Sound familiar? Beethoven's infamous 6th Symphony, the "Pastoral" Symphony, as conducted by my
maestro innamorata, Carlos Kleiber.

READ MORE OF MY POSTS ON LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN in the Beethoven archives here.


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