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Discovering Beethoven?

Beethoven, 1803 (Christian Horneman)

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, March 5th, 5 to 6 pm... It's a composer we’ve barely touched on in Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, and with good reason. Beethoven isn’t a discovery to us (although, thankfully, people new to classical music discover him all the time).
But he most definitely was new to 19th-century America, especially to those American composers we’ve looked at who blazed the trail back to the old country, to Germany, for music studies. In the last half-dozen or so Discoveries we’ve been looking at American composers, with the most recent shows visiting the earliest stirrings of orchestral music in the United States with George Frederick Bristow and John Knowles Paine.

We’ve delved into this time before in our 14 seasons of Discoveries, but the question naturally occurs: What did Paine and later composers discover in Germany? A large part of the answer is Beethoven.

What did John Knowles Paine and later American composers discover in Germany? A large part of the answer is Beethoven.

Beethoven was still revered by everyone—whether they were traditionalist or cutting-edge—long after his death. Brahms and his followers loved Beethoven: Brahms said on more than one occasion that the master’s nine symphonies and their irrevocable logic shook him as he attempted, over many years, to compose his first. The Wagnerites, too, looking to the music of the future, loved Beethoven, his harmonic daring, and his revolutionary place in music history.

Beethoven was not unknown in the States, but until the mid-19th century and for well after, American orchestras simply did not exist to play his symphonies. In fact, the New York Philharmonic, begun in 1842 as the Philharmonic Society of New York, at its first concert performed the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. It gave the U.S. premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a fundraiser for a new hall in 1846, but the $2.00 ticket price kept many people away. The hall would have to wait.

Tellingly, the impetus behind the drive for full-time American orchestras was to have ensembles trained well enough to negotiate a Beethoven symphony.

This put American composers behind the eight-ball, of course, because the new orchestras wanted to prove their mettle with the latest and greatest from Europe, with Beethoven at the top of the list. And with no European training, American composers could hardly keep up. So, off to Germany they went, to breathe the air Beethoven breathed, and to study in the great line of Western classical music.

Three works of Beethoven comprise our program today. Two of them have catalog numbers with the odd prefix of WoO. This stands for Werke ohne Opus or “works without opus numbers,” meaning they were discovered after the main cataloging was finished. Rather than re-numbering the complete works, these became addenda and are therefore often overlooked. So: perfect for Discoveries.

To this we add what may be the least-played of the symphonies, the First. Within a few generations, American orchestras often became the benchmark for orchestral technique, and European musicians of all kinds—composers, performers, conductors—would flock to the States. The Discovery continues.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827): Mödlinger Dances, excerpts (1819)
Beethoven: Music for a Knightly Ballet (1791)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 (1800)