Beethoven stands behind the conductor on May 7, 1824

The glorious Ninth

Relive the moments when music changed forever


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Early in the morning of 7 May 1824, Ludwig Beethoven went for a haircut. This might seem a small issue of personal grooming, but with Beethoven nothing is insignificant. In a society where appearance was valued as much as existence — Schein über sein — Beethoven made a noxious fetish of self-neglect. He was unwashed and unkempt, his clothes frayed, his shoes unsoled.

Yet hours before the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven took the trouble to locate a barber who would shave him and cut his hair, taking so much time that he missed lunch at home. Later, leaving for the concert, it was found he lacked a black jacket and would have to conduct in green.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: Rehearsing and Performing its 1824 Premiere, Theodore Albrecht (Boydell Press, £70)

We know these minutiae from conversation books that the deaf composer scribbled in, as many as 400 in all, though more than half of them are lost. Theodore Albrecht, an expert in Beethoven jottings, devotes this engaging book to the months in which he composed the greatest of all symphonies, the first to involve a chorus and the first to proclaim a social and political agenda — that all mankind will be as brothers.

Beethoven was never that sure about the choral finale. Although he had known Friedrich Schiller’s poem for half his life, setting it to music immersed him in “a struggle seldom encountered before”. He had three movements done by October 1823, then toyed with a cello solo before, on 8 December, tackling the exhortation “Seid umschlungen, Millionen”, embracing all humanity. A previous sketch had the bass soloist lamely intone, “Let us sing the Song of the immortal Schiller”. By mid-January, he was still wondering whether the symphony might work better unsung.

Further entries find Henriette Sonntag, 18, and Caroline Unger, 20, throwing up with nerves

Money was a worry. For previous symphonies, Beethoven had relied on rich admirers to defray copying and rehearsal costs and secure him the best hall. The Ninth Symphony, however, was scheduled for a Friday when the aristocracy was away at its country castles, hunting and carousing. The Kärntnertor theatre happened to be free, but its orchestra was substandard, full of amateurs. Beethoven filled half an exercise book with names of the professionals he needed to call in.

He could afford just two general rehearsals — “one for correctness, one for expression”. At the first, he was told: “The girls don’t understand their parts. They must have a rehearsal for themselves.” Further entries find Henriette Sonntag, 18, and Caroline Unger, 20, throwing up with nerves.

There was much running around in premiere week. Beethoven’s brother Johann and nephew Karl took charge of ticket sales. His unpaid secretary Anton Schindler did everything else, knocking on doors of specified musicians, members of string quartets, two army trumpeters and a French Jew, Elias Lewy, as horn soloist. Beethoven, alone in the Vienna of his time, was averse to antisemitism.

The indispensable Schindler, a paralegal functionary and part-time conductor, is remembered for destroying many conversation books after using them in a Beethoven biography. Beethoven, who stood by Schindler when others mocked his homosexuality, fired him two weeks after the Ninth.

The premiere of the Ninth was preceded by a 12-minute overture and 45 minutes of extracts from Missa Solemnis. The overworked orchestra was in tatters by the end of the first half; the theatre’s resident conductor Michael Umlauf made a sign of the cross, “so worried was he that (the Scherzo) would not come together”. As Karl Beethoven noted, “it would never have worked without Umlauf.”

When it was over, Schindler reported: “Never in my life have I heard such stormy and yet sincere applause.” Beethoven, unhearing, had to be turned around by Unger to witness the triumph. It rained “quite hard” as they left the theatre.

Details, details, each of them enlarging our focus. Next morning, Beethoven jotted, “pay the cleaning people at the theatre”. The concertmaster, Schuppanzigh, reminded him to write thank-you letters to principal players. Beethoven booked a celebratory fish dinner at a restaurant on the Prater, only to blow up at his friends when they showed him the box-office losses. The prices he set had been too low. Beethoven slumped in a scowl of existential misery.

On the Monday morning, he got up and wrote an ethereal Bagatelle, the fifth of his opus 126 set. His thank-you letters contained a summons to players to appear unpaid in a repeat performance. Albrecht, emeritus professor of music at Kent State University, Ohio, succeeds in reconstructing the tensions of 200 years ago, reliving the moments when music changed forever. Read no more than ten pages, and you will find his book utterly indispensable.

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