Beethoven and the Philharmonic

Classic Arts Features   Beethoven and the Philharmonic
The New York Philharmonic adds another chapter to a long history of Beethoven performances.

With the current Beethoven Festival, Lorin Maazel becomes the fourth New York Philharmonic Music Director to lead the Orchestra in all of the composer's nine symphonies and five piano concertos, and only the second to do so in a single season. With this feat, he fortifies a rich and beneficial Beethoven tradition that has thrived since the very moment of the Philharmonic's founding.

When the Orchestra was born in December 1842, with its first-ever musical utterance ‹ the now-ubiquitous four-note motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony ‹it introduced its audience to a storied symphonic repertory that was virtually unheard in the United States. Philharmonic founder Ureli Corelli Hill, who conducted that performance, had also led the New York City German Society in the only prior American rendition of the complete Fifth the previous year. Present at both concerts was the great diarist George Templeton Strong, who, after his first exposure to the work, described it as "generally unintelligible," but after his second acknowledged, "I never knew before half the grace and delicacy of this composition."

These statements reveal not only the skill of the nascent Philharmonic, but also the difficulty Americans initially had with Beethoven. While articles written by European émigrés boldly argued for Beethoven's genius, the German master's volatile music proved, upon direct contact, to be far thornier than either the more familiar work of predecessors such as Mozart and Haydn, or the Italian opera that was very much in vogue in America by the second quarter of the 19th century.

Both of the remaining concerts on the New York Philharmonic's inaugural season featured new (for America) Beethoven symphonies. In February 1843, the Orchestra introduced the Third ("Eroica") and in April the Second. Shortly thereafter, an article in the political and literary journal The Pathfinder assessed the Orchestra's first season and its impact on the musical scene: "Already has its influence been felt…We, ourselves, in many houses have seen Beethoven's Symphonies arranged as duets on the Piano Fortes of young ladies, where we used to see Quicksteps and Gallops."

This expansion of American public taste would ripple out from the country's cultural epicenter over the remainder of the decade, as the Philharmonic played every Beethoven symphony but the First, including the American premieres of the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth. The last of these, the great Choral Symphony, was featured on an 1846 concert held at Castle Garden in Lower Manhattan. Despite poor acoustics and lackluster attendance, the work‹with Schiller's "Ode to Joy" sung in an English translation commissioned by the Philharmonic ‹ was well received.

The Ninth was a challenge for the New York forces. Days before the premiere, journalist George William Curtis observed: "The symphony is found so difficult that they almost repent having undertaken it." Nonetheless, pioneering American music critic John Sullivan Dwight enthused: "We went away physically exhausted by the excitement of listening to so great a work, but unspeakably confirmed in all our highest faith…We trust our own hearts and God's word, and the Symphony, that Light will prevail, that Society will be saved…"

The Orchestra, like the country, was somewhat slower to embrace the Beethoven piano concertos, which were initially deemed too intellectual, too technically difficult, and insufficiently flashy for widespread acceptance. By the end of the 1840s only the Third Concerto had found its way to the New World, having had its premiere in Boston in 1842. The Philharmonic didn't tap into this repertory until March 1855, when Carl Bergmann led a performance of the Fifth ("Emperor"). The Orchestra then proceeded to present the concertos in reverse order of their creation until, nearly 100 years later, Leopold Stokowski led the New York Philharmonic Premiere of the Second (which Beethoven had actually composed first) in 1949. The fact that this too-often neglected work is being programmed for only the 21st time in Philharmonic history on the current festival (compared to, say, the Fifth Symphony, which receives its 303rd hearing) affirms the value of a full Beethoven cycle, as well as the still-developing bond between a great orchestra and its oldest composer friend.

Daniel Sonenberg is a composer and visiting assistant professor of music at Brooklyn College.

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