The Beethoven Symphonies in London: Initial Decades
Innumerable history textbooks record Napoleon's 1799 overthrow of the French Government. Five years would elapse before historians could begin to record Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, a British victory over the French fleet which, of course, gave England undisputed control of the seas. Sandwiched just between these major episodes of history is an event which, although causing less of an uproar in British circles, did provide a seed in British ears that would gradually bud before blossoming during the next three decades in London. Although the literature surrounding the birth and initial growth of the performances of the Beethoven symphonies in London is vast, no article has focused on the developments in the British capital during the first three decades which follow the 1803 premiere of one of Beethoven's symphonies.
An advertisement which appeared in the Times is perhaps the only surviving clue for what may be deemed a monumental event. Nicholas Temperley agrees that the Times' May 18, 1803 reference is the only extant evidence of the first performance of a Beethoven symphony in London.1 No previous edition of the Times indicates an earlier date, and the article does suggest that Mr. Cimador deserves honorable mention for conducting the "New grand symphony never performed in public—Beethoven." Before Temperley's article appeared in 1960, most scholars had relied on the programs of the Philharmonic Society of London, founded in 1813, to identify the performances of the Beethoven symphonies in London, but by mining daily newspapers and advertisements, Temperley proved that Beethoven's early symphonies were quite popular in the capital during the decade prior to the establishment of the Society.
The problem of identification continues to plague inquirers. Not until 1817 did programs include particular references to the pieces performed. A survey of newspaper articles prior to 1817 frequently reveals only "A Grand Symphony, Beethoven" or "A Grand Overture, Beethoven," and the fact that these references were sometimes used synonymously adds to the problem.
The first third of the century produced no British composer of more than moderate distinction, while abroad, many greats—Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Lizst, Verdi, and Wagner among them—were born. Although this period produced no British work which bears the marks of a genius, musical life in England was eventful nonetheless. Early nineteenth-century British ears became accustomed to Beethoven; Mendelssohn began his first visits; English singers could for the first time be classed with their European colleagues, and in London fine orchestral playing was now expected from enthusiastic musicians.
The First Decade, 1803-1812. During the first decade of Beethoven's symphonies in London, the three principal series of concerts included the Ancient Concerts, the Oratorios, and the Vocal Concerts, and of these only the former group performed symphonies. The orchestral music at the Ancient Concerts was casual, but these members comprised the most exclusive London musical group. This orchestra was considered London's best, but permanent employment to its members could not be guaranteed. Additionally, the standard of performance at the Ancient Concerts could not be compared with contemporary and established continental orchestras.
Individual benefit concerts were the most important concerts for Beethoven enthusiasts during this initial decade. The May 18, 1803 concert at the Great Room in King's Theatre was one such benefit. In addition to the "new Grand Symphony" by Beethoven, those present also heard six works by Mozart. Beethoven was at this time almost unknown in London. His Septet had been played twice in London in 1801, and this may have been the only Beethoven work heard before May 18, 1803.
Temperley's observation that the symphony was probably No. 1 is a safe one since the Second Symphony was premiered in Vienna on April 5, 1803, just six weeks prior to this London concert. Only one other symphony was heard in London in 1803, but five were heard in 1805. That frequency was repeated in 1806, and this number gradually increased in the years that followed. From 1803 to 1806, six symphonies were labelled "new" in the programs. Since Beethoven's Fourth Symphony was not premiered in Vienna until March of 1807, the adjective "new" did not accurately describe a first London performance. Temperley concluded that Beethoven's first three symphonies were probably heard during this first decade.2
Of the six symphonies which remain, only two London premieres can be stated with confidence: No. 5 was first performed on April 15, 1816 by the Philharmonic Society, and No. 9 was first performed by the Philharmonic on March 21, 1825.3 Approximate dates for Nos. 4, 6, 7, and 8 can be suggested only by circular reasoning. The Philharmonic performance of the Fourth Symphony of March 12, 1821 is the first known performance of that work. This might be regarded as the first performance, but the program did not specify "first performance in England." Since this designation was a Philharmonic tradition by 1821, we are left in the dark. The Sixth Symphony was heard on May 27, 1811, but this "benefit" at Mrs. Vaughan's may not have a claim for the first performance of the "Pastoral."4 Temperley's statement that the Seventh Symphony was performed at the Philharmonic on June 9, 1818 is incorrect, but his observation is valid.5 On June 9 at the final concert of 1817, the Philharmonic did perform the Seventh Symphony, but without the designation of the "first performance in England;" therefore, the Seventh may have been one of the unidentified symphonies in the Philharmonic programs between 1814 and 1817. Finally, the initial performance of the Eighth Symphony cannot be ascertained. It was first performed by the Philharmonic Society on May 29, 1826, but again the Society did not indicate this as a "first performance in England." Table 1 summarizes this information.
Table I. First performance dates of Beethoven Symphonies in Vienna and London
|No. 1||April 2, 1800||1803?|
|No. 2||April 5, 1803||by 1810 (probably earlier)|
|No. 3||April 7, 1805||by 1810 (probably earlier)|
|No. 4||March, 1807||by March 12, 1821 (probably earlier)|
|No. 5||Dec. 22, 1808||April 15, 1816|
|No. 6||Dec. 22, 1808||by May 27, 1811|
|No. 7||Dec. 8, 1813||by June 8, 1817|
|No. 8||Feb. 22, 1814||by May 29, 1826|
|No. 9||May 7, 1824||March 21, 1825|
An article which appeared in the Times on May 2, 1806 reveals interesting particulars of Mr. Harrison's benefit concert. The promise was made that the performance would be on the same scale as heretofore, with an orchestra, apparently of one hundred select performers. That this article is found at the top left-hand corner of the Times' front page, where the public would see it first, suggests that the concerts were paramount both to reporters and readers. Since the British knew no outstanding native composer, we might expect them to look to a new master who would surprise the musical world and who would begin to depart from Mozart and Haydn. Of all the countries outside the Austrian empire, none took a greater interest in Beethoven than England. The first engraved scores of his symphonies were issued in London: the Second Symphony in 1808, followed by the First and Third Symphonies early in 1809. The appearance of English admiration is heightened when these dates are examined alongside continental sluggishness. In Austria the scores appeared as late as 1816; and in Germany not until 1823.
While observations of this first decade of the Beethoven symphonies in London are scanty and comparatively incomplete, the stage is set for further development. Hamlet's comment that time is "out of joint"6 illustrates the theme of this initial decade by serving as a negative comparative. In London, time and conditions seemed to be in joint, and observations reveal that the Beethoven symphonies in London—much unlike Hamlet's aggravated and steady decline—did increase in popularity throughout the second and third decades.
The Second Decade, 1813-1822. On January 24, 1813, just less than four months prior to the ten year anniversary of the first London performance of a Beethoven symphony, John Baptist Cramer, Henry Dance, P. A. Corri, and Charles Neate, who claimed to be Beethoven's only English pupil, discussed the particulars of a bold venture—the Philharmonic Society. During a subsequent meeting, they began to draft London musicians to participate in a new orchestra. This new society consisted solely of professional musicians with high ideals, and for the first time in London, an entire group of men sought to improve the quality of orchestral sound. Some of the musicians were composers and publishers; a few were successful instrument manufacturers. Indeed, the story surrounding the origin and development of the Philharmonic Society is a familiar one, and a rudimentary retelling is appropriate merely because an established context is needed for an understanding of symphonic development during this second decade. During the London concert season, which ran from February to June, the ensemble gave eight concerts. The unprecedented reforms envisioned by the founders were illustrated in their preliminary announcement:
The want of encouragement, which has for many years past been experienced by that species of music which called forth the efforts, and displayed the genius of the greatest masters, and the almost utter neglect into which instrumental pieces in general have fallen, have long been sources of regret which, though it has hitherto proved unavailing, has not extinguished the hope that persevering exertions may yet restore to the world those compositions which have excited so much delight, and rekindle in the public mind that taste for excellence in instrumental music which has so long remained in a latent state. In order to effect this desirable purpose, several members of the musical profession have associated themselves, under the title of PHILHARMONIC SOCIETY, the object of which is to promote the performance, in the most perfect manner possible, of the best and most approved instrumental music, consisting of Full Pieces, Concertantes for not less than three principal instruments, Sestetts, Quintetts and Trios; excluding Concertos, Solos and Duets; and requiring that vocal music, when introduced, shall have full orchestral accompaniments, and shall be subjected to the same restrictions.7
Perhaps the most striking feature of this wholesome group is not their performance as a professional ensemble but their insistence upon avoiding individual glorification. Conducting responsibilities evolved as a division of labor, guaranteeing that the person at the piano would guide the orchestra since he had the score, while the violinist shared responsibility by occasionally emphasizing time with his bow.
Early in this second decade, the Philharmonic Society adopted Beethoven as their patron saint, paying him more attention than did any other single body. His symphonic melodies soon became familiar throughout the country, and the impact of the London concerts remains immeasurable.
The Society's first concert was held in the Argyll Rooms on Regent Street on Monday, March 8, 1813. Johann Peter Salomon was the concertmaster; Muzio Clementi was at the piano. The performance included equal amounts of orchestral and chamber music, with a few vocal pieces for variety. The program informs us that a Beethoven symphony was heard at this momentous concert, but unfortunately the program editors failed, particularly during the first half of this second decade, to specify works by key or opus number. Reginald Nettel's list of pieces is not as complete as the programs found in The History of the Philharmonic Society of London: 1813-1912, and his comment that the Beethoven symphony which was performed at the initial concert cannot be identified needs to be examined.8
At least four scholars agree with Nettel's observation that the piece can only be identified as one of Beethoven's first symphonies. David Hadley relates that "one" of the symphonies was heard at the first concert; Donald MacArdle refers to the "unidentified" symphony, and Henry Raynor and J.M. Levien both contend that the symphony is unidentifiable. However, evidence does exist which suggests that the symphony performed on the initial concert may have been Beethoven's Symphony No.1 in C Major.9
The hesitation for proclaiming this symphony as the First Symphony is due to the fact that it was not identified until twenty years later, when it was performed again, on May 27, 1833. Even more important than the anniversary is the comment concerning it which appeared in the final volume of the Harmonicon. The editor, William Ayrton, relates that
Beethoven's first symphony was that in C, which at once, without the usual gradation rise, placed him on a level with Haydn and Mozart. It is now nearly forty years since it was written, but, owing to the state of the continent did not reach this country till about fifteen years after its appearance in Vienna, and then was only attempted by bold instrumentalists. This Society, however, from its very commencement took it up—it was the first symphony ever performed by the Philharmonic band [italics mine].10
When considering the veracity of this antiquated editorial comment, one can begin by examining the comments which preceded the crucial statement: a) the author of the article is correct that Beethoven's first symphony is in the key of C; b) the author may be correct about "nearly forty years" elapsing since composition. A few sketches of the Symphony in C from the mid-1790s do survive, but Beethoven did not complete the Symphony until 1800. Thus, since only thirty-three years stand between composition and performance, the author's veracity hinges upon his understanding of the composition date; c) at first glance, the author's statement that fifteen years elapsed before the symphony appeared in England seems false. The first section of this paper demonstrates that Beethoven's First Symphony may have been heard in London just three years after the 1800 Vienna premiere. Furthermore, a premiere in London more than ten years after it was first heard in Vienna is extremely unlikely. Why does the Harmonicon editor appear to be confused? As we have seen, the scanty records of the benefit concerts which were popular during the first decade account, at least in part, for the editor's mistake. Although this third portion of the Harmonicon article may be deemed inaccurate, the inaccuracy can be explained by the absence of published programs during the initial decade.
Finally, the author's choice of words surrounding the Society's commencement is extremely significant. He does state that the C Major Symphony was "the first symphony ever performed by the Philharmonic band." Apparently, Ayrton was aware that a Haydn symphony was also performed at the initial concert, and the Society program reveals that Beethoven's symphony was, in fact, heard just prior to Haydn's. If the Harmonicon report is deemed inaccurate because of the author's confusion about a few of the particulars, a question creeps in: why would William Ayrton suggest the C Major Symphony as the Society's first if it were not? As editor of the most prolific musical journal at the time, he was probably not given to historical invention. Besides, Ayrton was the music director for the Society in 1813. He probably heard that initial concert and possessed a document in 1833, not extant today, which tagged the 1813 performance as consisting of one C Major Symphony by Beethoven.
The mystery surrounding the small mine of scholarship may never adequately prove that the First Symphony deserves honorable mention. Although some in London may have heard seeds of a revolutionist in the C Major Symphony,11 Beethoven's name appeared on each of the eight Philharmonic programs during the 1813 season, with his symphonies (all unidentified in the programs) heard at three of them.
Beethoven's name was seen on seven of the eight programs the following year, but only two of his symphonies were heard. One was unidentified; the other was the "Eroica." London listeners were immediately struck by the obvious departure from orthodoxy in the unprecedented expansion of the musical dimensions in each movement.
The two symphonies which were heard in 1815 are both unidentifiable, and the composer's name is found on only half of the eight programs. It seems that 1815 was an unproductive year at the Society for the Beethoven symphonies, but the programs do not reveal that the Society acquired three Beethoven overtures known today as Ruins of Athens, King Stephen, and Namensfeier.
In 1816, a year when many of the works were presented to the Society, the number of Beethoven performances doubled and included three symphonies (two unidentified). The Fifth Symphony was performed at the fourth concert on April 15, 1816, with symphonic trombones and a contrabassoon heard for the first time by patrons. When Salomon rehearsed this symphony with the Society members, he became frustrated and called it "rubbish." Sometime later, however, he retracted his statement before the members. After the first movement had been played in the rehearsal, Salomon laid down his violin and addressed the orchestra: "Gentlemen, some years ago I called this symphony rubbish; I wish to retract what I then said. I now consider it one of the great compositions I know."12 Grove pointed out that the audience's favorable opinion, like Salomon's, had to evolve:
The London Philharmonic band, at the first trial in 1814, received the opening with much laughter, apparently thinking it was intended to be comic, yet the C minor grew into favour here, and a curious scene, indicative of this, occurred at the York Festival of 1823, when, on account of the non-arrival of some extra parts, an attempt was made to omit the Symphony from the programme, and proceed to the next number, a Scotch ballad: One of the Stewards on this rose in the room and with stentorian voice exclaimed: 'Symphony, Symphony, I insist on the Symphony being played': And played at length it was, though with a small number of strings, amid universal applause.13
The 1817 Society programs suggest that Beethoven's popularity was increasing. His works were heard on eleven occasions, almost a forty percent increase above the previous season's concerts. The season was an interesting one for several reasons. Beethoven had made his initial plans for a trip to England, and his Fidelio Overture was performed at the first concert for the first time in England. Three concerts later, the program suggests that an important change took place. At the fourth concert of the season, Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony was the first piece of Act II; here and on all subsequent concerts, Beethoven's compositions were, without exception, identified in the programs. Thus, records of the Society's performances of the Beethoven symphonies can accurately be made from this concert.
What did the audience think of the "Pastoral" Symphony? In Vienna, both the C Minor and "Pastoral" Symphonies were first heard at a December, 1808 concert. This was appropriate because Beethoven had composed the symphonies simultaneously. The London audience may have been unaware of the composer's profound love of nature when they entered the concert hall, but they were surely aware of it when they left.14
No more than three Beethoven symphonies were performed annually by the Society until 1817, when four symphonies were heard. The growth in Beethoven's popularity is also represented by the increased performances of his other works: an unprecedented seven additional pieces in 1817. Grove's comment that the first performance of the Seventh Symphony took place at the Philharmonic on June 9, 1817 precludes the possibility that the symphony could be one of the unidentified ones from 1814 to 1816.15 That the Society did not play the Seventh Symphony again until 1821 suggests that it was not well received, surprising in the context of the composer's opinion of the symphony.
Beethoven's comments about his compositions were rare, but he did mention and evaluate the Seventh Symphony twice, once to Salomon and once to Neate, both active Society members. Beethoven's letter to Salomon on June 1, 1815 included these words: "A grand Symphony in A, one of my best works." Later, Beethoven wrote Neate: "among my best works which I can boldly say of the Symphony in A."16
Thus, one finds later British criticism puzzling. Since the rehearsals were inadequate by twentieth century standards, the chance that Society performances were poor is at least possible. That the Seventh Symphony provided great challenge to its interpreters is illustrated by a scene which occurred in Vienna during a rehearsal for the second performance of the Seventh. The violinists were struck by the piece's difficulty.
A passage in the Symphony was too much for them and after two or three attempts they stopped, and were bold enough to say that what could not be played should not be written. Beethoven, wonderful to relate, kept his temper, and with unusual forbearance begged 'the gentlemen to take their parts home with them,' promising that with a little practice the passage would go well enough. He was right. At the next rehearsal it went perfectly, and a good deal of laughing and complimenting took place.17
During the first half of this second decade of the performances of Beethoven's symphonies, overtures and chamber music, the composer's name was found on all but eight programs. During the second half of the decade, Beethoven's name appeared on all but four programs. The 1818 concert programs reinforced the observation that Beethoven's popularity was increasing; however, of the thirteen works by Beethoven that were heard that year, only four symphonies were performed: No. 5 (twice), No. 1, and No. 2. During the fifth concert of the season, the first known Philharmonic performance of No. 2 took place. The patrons were probably unaware that a man conscious of the vexing vicissitudes of life had composed such a relaxed work. The approaching deafness had begun just a few years prior to composition.
At first glance, 1819 seems to be an uninteresting year for an investigation of the Beethoven symphonies. Only two were performed: No. 1 and No. 2. A second look at the programs reveals, however, that Beethoven's name appeared more frequently than ever that year. Eleven of his additional works were performed during the season.
In 1820, four Beethoven symphonies were performed, and patrons may have recognized portions of all four previous concerts. Investigation suggests that Beethoven's symphonies were at that time less popular than those by Haydn and Mozart. When the 1820 season ended, Beethoven's symphonies had been performed by the Society on 25 occasions; Mozart's had been heard 29 times; Haydn topped the list with 39 renditions. Ten years later the Beethoven symphonies were undeniably the most popular symphonies at the Society. During the 1820s Beethoven's symphonies were heard 60 times, Haydn's 42 times, and Mozart's thirty-nine.
During this second decade of the performances, no year rendered more productions of the Beethoven symphonies than 1821. The master's name appeared twelve times during the season, and his six symphonies were heard at all but the third and eighth concerts. Table 2 summarizes the Beethoven activity at the Society during the second decade, 1813-1822.
Table 2. Beethoven at the Philharmonic Society: 1813-1822
Table 3 introduces the next decade of performances by suggesting among other things, a continued steady increase in Beethoven's popularity.
Table 3. Beethoven at the Philharmonic Society: 1823-1832
The Third Decade, 1823-1832. Although early nineteenth-century Londoners never realized the significance of 1823, later investigation reveals that the year was a milestone, representing a) the beginning of the third decade of performed Beethoven symphonies in London; b) the start of the Society's second decade of concerts, and c) the year in which the publication of the Harmonicon, "an excellent musical periodical, . . . the leading musical paper in London," began.18 It printed vocal and instrumental music, short biographies, essays and reviews, and represents the most complete description of contemporary London musical life. The editor was William Ayrton, a prominent member of the Philharmonic Society. Today we know that the journal was edited with great care and skill, and that the reviews are of particular importance at this stage because the Beethoven symphonies were on the brink of emerging as the most popular symphonies in England. What does Ayrton tell us about the symphonies? While a discussion of the Harmonicon critiques of all the Beethoven symphonies might tend to be loose and ultimately unconvincing because of the magnitude of the comment offered during this decade, a refined exploration, limited to the Fourth, Fifth, "Pastoral" and Seventh Symphonies, produces a clear picture of the development in thought and opinion.
A perusal of programs reveals that these four symphonies were the most popular at the Philharmonic Society from 1823 and 1832, with each of them performed annually at the concerts. None of the remaining symphonies claims such popularity. Only No. 2, which was heard five times during the decade, was half as popular.
A general critique based on the Harmonicon reviews of the Fourth reveals that it was perennially hailed as one of Beethoven's finest works. In 1823, some confusion delayed the commencement of a concert, and the symphony was not performed with the accuracy expected of the competent orchestra members. Coupled with next year's praise of this "fine and spirited composition"19 is the observation that the work is shorter than some of the other symphonies. Part of the favoritism shown No. 4 stems from this fact. Short orchestral works were generally welcomed throughout the early nineteenth century as a relief from lengthy concerts. An 1825 review reveals that the symphony did not strike the listener at once, but that it had been, according to the critic, carefully composed.20
The 1826 and 1827 concerts are noteworthy because of their obvious dissimilarity. Evidence suggests that the entire 1826 performance was plagued by imperfections. According to the review, the entire concert was "such as we are accustomed to hear at benefits which have no rehearsals, and where want of discipline most commonly prevails."21 Redemption for this performance of the Fourth Symphony came a year later when it apparently exhibited the brilliance of the fine orchestra. The reviewer admitted that the concert was just one of the Society's many gems.
Haydn's "Military" Symphony was performed after the Fourth Symphony at the seventh concert of the 1828 season. Both were executed in an "accurate, spirited, and efficient manner."22 The Fourth Symphony's appearance next year prompted a similar critique. By 1829, the editors admitted that they had "exhausted the language of praise in speaking of the best of symphonies of Beethoven."23 No finer praise of the Fourth during this decade of performances can be found than in the review of the third concert of the 1830 season. Mixed with praise is the editor's plea for tolerance.
The B-flat symphony of Beethoven, like most of this composer's works, establishes a stronger claim to admiration at every fresh hearing. Those accustomed to the modern instrumental music, who hear this for the first time, will receive a favorable impression; but it is only after a close acquaintance that its merits fairly unfold themselves. The fact is, we cannot stop to examine and enter into the beauties of this high order of music, as we do those of painting; they are no sooner presented than they fly from our view; and it is only by frequently observing them in their rapid passage that we become acquainted with their real forms and relative proportions. Hence many of Beethoven's compositions, which have, at first, been thought devoid of method, capricious, bizarre, prove, after further knowledge of them, to be regularly designed, strictly connected, and high finished. That he occasionally indulges a wayward fancy, and infuses into his works some of that wild impetuosity—that savageness, we have almost said—which disdains all rule, and exceeds all rational bounds, cannot be disputed. It is then we should throw a veil over his weakness, and not force it on public notice, as is now and then the case, under the false and injurious persuasion that his judgement can never err, that he must be uniformly and remittingly great.24
A comment made in 1831 that the symphony was welcomed because it was not as frequently performed as his other symphonies is puzzling at first. The Fourth was performed perennially from 1823 to 1832, but since it may not have been among the unidentified symphonies of the previous decade, one concludes that it may have been less popular before 1823.
The fondness for the Fourth Symphony during the third decade was not unparalleled. An examination of the Harmonicon reveals that the Fifth Symphony was apparently another favorite. On four occasions, 1823, 1824, 1826, and 1831, reviews indicated that the Fifth Symphony was the "chef-d'oeuvre," and by 1832 "it would be superfluous to say anything in praise of Beethoven's symphony [No.5], being familiar to all, and of its merits only one opinion is entertained."25
Ayrton suggests that "if sublimity were his object in writing it, he attained it."26 Apparently, the orchestra members were equally attracted to the piece. The weak interpretation of other pieces at the second concert of the 1825 season was balanced by a splendid performance of the Fifth Symphony that evening, and it alone met with success. Within the ten year period, one finds only slight mention of inadequate performance. The symphony was performed at the initial concert of the 1830 season, and Smart's directions were "exceedingly well executed; [however,] two or three slight failures were perceptible [only] to the watchful ear of the critic, but probably, not noticed by others."27
So often did the symphony call forth the warmest of praise, that Ayrton admits in 1826 and 1829 that he can find no fresh expressions of applause. In 1824 he suggested that it was inconceivable that Beethoven would ever produce a superior work. Finally, Ayrton acknowledged in 1824 that even the ultra-Handelians admitted its astonishing power.28
No more interesting records can be found than those which accompanied the performances of the "Pastoral" Symphony during this decade. The exploration of early nineteenth-century reaction to the "Pastoral" reveals that opinions concerning its merits were much divided. Traits of the master's genius were heard throughout, but most agreed that its length was too considerable. To twentieth-century audiences, the Harmonicon's repeated comment may seem perplexing:
The Andante alone is upwards of a quarter of an hour in performance, being a series of repetitions, might be subjected to abridgement without any violation of justice, either to the composer or his hearers. In saying this, we do not mean to undervalue the work, but range ourselves on the side of those who think that it abounds in traits of singular genius, and in beautiful effects; though we certainly never heard it through without rejoicing, on account of its prolixity, at its termination.29
This often repeated and ambivalent attitude is at first puzzling. Early nineteenth-century programs were almost always incredibly substantial. They contained twice the amount of music that twentieth-century listeners would later enjoy. The standard two symphonies would, by the twentieth century, become one; the three overtures that were frequently heard at each performance would only after many years be reduced to one. In addition to two symphonies and three overtures, at least one concerto and a quartet were usually appended during this period.
The editor's ambivalent attitude toward the piece was less pronounced yet more cynical in 1824:
The pastoral symphony of Beethoven has many excellent points in it, undeniably; there is enough in it to set up two or three second-rate composers; but the subjects are too much spun out,—it is an interminable piece. The Andante would please if about two-thirds of it were omitted; as it stands, it is upwards of a quarter of an hour in duration, and sheds its narcotic influence over the audience before it is half finished. In other parts of the symphony also, there is a great deal of false taste and whim, unworthy of such a composer.30
Throughout the decade, criticisms of the length continued to creep into the reviews. In 1826 a reduction of one-third was recommended for the lengthy symphony. So painful was the problem that in 1828 the Andante "wants abridgement," and in 1830 "curtailment" was viewed as the only cure.31
By 1830, Ayrton's comment was more eloquent, somewhat harnessed, and a sure sign of the change in attitude which began to emerge at the end of the decade. Ayrton admitted that the "Pastoral" Symphony had "won amazingly in affections of the people of this country. At first it was not much in favour, and we confess ourselves as among the number of those who did not discern some of its merits. We have since discovered many beauties."32 By 1831, abundant praise for the symphony was offered by the Harmonicon compilers, and their comment that the fine execution of the symphony at these concerts was "much more than an adequate return for the time and expense bestowed by the subscribers" demonstrates clearly that the "Pastoral" was well received by the close of this decade.33Unsurprisingly, when the performance decade ended in 1832, the critic at the concert which included the Sixth Symphony offered nothing but praise.
If a theme emerged from reviews of the Society's performances of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony during this third decade, it would indicate incompatible descriptors: praise and condemnation. Without exception, the piece is praised for its second movement, the Allegretto, and criticized for the remaining parts. The comic elements of the review which followed the sixth concert of the 1828 season are unique, but the criticism offered is typical:
The almost interminable symphony of Beethoven in A has one redeeming movement, that in A minor, which cannot be too highly praised; but judging from the practice of the Philharmonic Society, it may be compared to a pleasant member of a disagreeable family, who cannot be invited without asking the whole party. This movement was encored, and thus the unmeaning eccentricity of the rest was balanced.34
Since the reviewer's reference to eccentricity had also been offered on June 6, 1825, one might suggest that his criticism of meaningless repetitions is weakened by his frequently employed descriptions. The Seventh
is a composition in which the author has indulged a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity [italics mine]. Often as we now have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connection in its parts. Altogether it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma—we had almost said a hoax.35
In 1830, Ayrton's comment that "we cannot think the first and last parts would be twice listened to but for the sake of their companion" should be understood as only one viewpoint.36 When the editor attacked the composition after the third concert in 1826, his remark had suggested that general opinion concerning the symphony was at the time divided. In that year he stated that "when the exquisite [movement] in A minor is excepted, we do not perceive those beauties in this work which many connoisseurs discover."37
Throughout the decade Ayrton clung to his opinion, and after reading them, one concludes that the editor himself continued to commit the crime of redundancy, which he disdained. In 1823, the
Symphony . . . is indebted for its reputation to the movement in A minor, which is one of the brightest gems in the author's diadem. The other parts of the composition are without any settled design, confused, full of harsh combinations; and what is worse than all, the time occupied by the whole is at least fifty minutes.38
The next year's comment echoed the 1823 appraisal. Did Ayrton need to remind his readers that
frequent repetition does not reconcile us to its vagaries and dissonances; though we admit the movement in A minor . . . to be chef-d'oeuvre, and that which, in our opinion, alone secures to the other parts of the composition a hearing?39
In 1827 and 1829:
the charm of Beethoven's symphony is the middle movement in A minor; of the rest, and there is an almost endless quantity of it, we have frequently given an unfavourable opinion. . . . The symphony in A is, we hardly need remind our readers, that of which we published the lovely movement in A minor in our first volume, and we have often subsequently spoken of the whole. We shall certainly never become reconciled to either the first or last movements of this, both being full of asperities, and almost unbearably whimsical.40
Finally, by 1831, Beethoven's Seventh "never will afford . . . much pleasure."41
Indeed, London listeners must have loved the Seventh—Allegretto and all! Only the three symphonies composed prior to the Seventh claim equal popularity during this third decade. More importantly, the picture of British admiration for the composer is by this time amazingly clear. By the end of the decade, no other composer's symphonies were heard as often as were those by the genius from Bonn. His popularity continued to increase on the island. From this decade to 1850, the Society performed Beethoven's symphonies twice as often as the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn.
The blossom in popularity can be explained, in part, by the Philharmonic Society's eagerness to adopt Beethoven and his compositions, their unswerving readiness to cling to high ideals, and their understanding of the responsibilities of consistent quality performances espoused by all the members. When Berlioz visited England, he admitted that "there was no town in the world where so much music was consumed as London. There was . . . the Philharmonic Society."42 The rest of the explanation for the growth in popularity can be expressed in terms of the inventor, not the interpreters. Music like the Beethoven symphonies in which emotion and melody are unleashed and then balanced by extraordinary genius can hardly be found. When will another man caught in such a tangled web be able to give to the world that which Beethoven left?
Much more important than what ancient or contemporary critics have said about the symphonies is the penetrating freshness of the symphonies today. In this instance, primary material is far more important than secondary reaction. Today, this initial growth in popularity should not surprise. It is true that life guarantees no more days to the kind-hearted than to the most despicable, no more to the humble than to the haughty, no more to the mundane than to the most creative. How fortunate we are that the gifts which erupt from that unique breed survive their author.
1Nicholas Temperley, "Beethoven in London Concert Life," The Music Review 21 (1960), 208.
2Ibid. All nine Beethoven symphonies received their premieres in Vienna, of course. Temperley's chart of the "new" symphonies from 1803-1806 is helpful. None of the programs of "The Harmonic" concerts, a musical organization founded ca. 1800 by London merchants, are extant. Most of their concerts included instrumental music, and by 1813, the organization had dissolved.
3Temperley, p. 210. His statement that the Ninth Symphony was not performed again until 1836 is contrasted with a statement by Sir George Grove, Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies (London: Novello and Company, 1896), 394. Grove contends that the second London rendition of the Ninth was given on April 26, 1830, and furthermore, at the Royal Academy of Music on June 20, 1835.
4The "Pastoral" Symphony, which was first performed in Vienna on December 22, 1808, may have been performed by "The Harmonic" before 1811.
5Temperley, p. 210. This June 9, 1818 reference is probably a typographical error since the symphony was performed on June 9, 1817.
6William Shakespeare, Hamlet Prince of Denmark I.v.188.
7Myles Birkett Foster, The History of the Philharmonic Society of London: 1813-1912 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1912), p. 4.
8Reginald Nettel, The Orchestra in England (London: Jonathan Cape, 1856), p. 8; Foster, passim.
9David Warren Hadley, "Beethoven and the Philharmonic Society of London: Reappraisal," Musical Quarterly 59 (1973), 451; Donald W. MacArdle, "Beethoven and the Philharmonic Society of London," The Music Review 21 (1960), 1; Henry Raynor, Music in England (London: Robert Hale, 1980), p. 140; J.M. Levien, Beethoven and the Royal Philharmonic Society of London (London: Novello & Company, 1927), p. 14.
10Harmonicon, 1833, p. 154.
11Nonetheless, Edward Downes, Adventures in Symphonic Music (London: Frederick Naller, 1954), p. 52, suggests that Beethoven did not break radically from tradition in his First Symphony, and that he was personally a man with "pretentions to elegance."
12George Marek, Beethoven: Biography of a Genius (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), p. 533.
13Grove, p. 179.
14That Beethoven worked on both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies simultaneously suggests his ability to detach creative powers from immediate circumstances. Nonetheless, in his pastoral associations, where his creative power was lost in that which he adored most, Beethoven wrote in 1815: "O God, what Majesty in woods like these. In the heights there is peace." This expression was found on a small piece of paper formerly owned by Joseph Joachim.
15Grove, p. 268.
16Ibid., p. 270.
17Ibid., p. 235.
18Ibid., pp. 269 and 393.
19Harmonicon, 1824, p. 77. I wish to suggest that this and the following early reviews of the Beethoven symphonies (i.e., all nine) are almost always accompanied by superlatives. His symphonies are either praised or condemned. This should be clear in the reviews under investigation. Several writers mention a few of these reviews to illustrate their theses, but my primary purpose in this concluding section is to expose a substantial portion of the earliest commentary on the Beethoven symphonies in London: cf. Grove, p. 393, passim and Temperley, p. 209.
20Harmonicon, 1825, p. 48.
21Harmonicon, 1826, p. 84.
22Harmonicon, 1828, p. 166.
23Harmonicon, 1829, p. 144.
24Harmonicon, 1830, p. 215.
25Harmonicon, 1832, p. 92.
26Harmonicon, 1823, p. 58.
27Harmonicon, 1830, p. 174.
28Harmonicon, 1824, p. 144.
29Harmonicon, 1832, p. 86.
30Harmonicon, 1824, p. 77.
31Harmonicon, 1828, p. 137; 1830, p. 174.
32Harmonicon, 1830, p. 174.
33Harmonicon, 1831, p.115.
34Harmonicon, 1828, p. 138.
35Harmonicon, 1825, p. 118.
36Harmonicon, 1830, p. 304.
37Harmonicon, 1826, p. 105.
38Harmonicon, 1823, p. 100.
39Harmonicon, 1824, p. 122.
40Harmonicon, 1827, p. 100; 1829, p. 118.
41Harmonicon, 1831, p. 123.
42Raynor, p. 137.
Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018