The National Symphony's excellent idea of presenting all five of the Beethoven piano concertos during the course of its summer concerts makes a fine time to recall some of the startling, sometimes outrageous things Beethoven did in public in concerts in which he was taking part. Several of the most famous of these occurred in concerts when he was playing the first performance of one of these concertos.
There was no problem at the concert on March 29, 1795, when Beethoven made his Viennese debut in the Burgtheater, playing either his first or his second piano concerto. (Incidentally, the concerto numbered 1 was written second, and the one numbered 2 was written first. Historians are sure of that, though they are not at all sure which concerto was played at the Burgtheater and which one was heard on the night of Dec. 16, that same year when Josef Haydn conducted in the Redoutensaal in a program that included three of the new symphonies Haydn had only recently written for the London impresario, Salomon.)
In any case, those two concerts established Beethoven as one of the great pianists of his day, and a composer whose music would thereafter never fail to attract attention in Vienna. Beethoven had a fairly negative opinion about his first two concertos. He wrote to the publishers, Breitkopf and Haertel, in April 1801, saying, "Hofmeister has published one of my early concertos; it is not one of my better works." This, we are certain, was a reference to the B Flat Concerto, No. 2. In the same letter, Beethoven went on, "Mollo has also published one, which in fact was finished after the other; this also is not among my best in the style."
By the time Beethoven was ready to play his third concerto, a work in C Minor which he had openly patterned after the spirit and power of the C Minor Concerto by Mozart, he was sufficiently admired by the Viennese to announce a concert made up entirely of his own music, the profits from which, if any, were to be his. The proof of his popularity is that the concert took in 1,800 gulden.
It was played on the April 5, 1803, which happened to be Tuesday of Holy Week. In looking at the list of music to be given, you need to remember that in those days concerts lasted much longer than they do today. The program that Tuesday night included the oratorio, "Christ on the Mount of Olives," the First and Second symphonies, and the new concerto, with the composer as soloist. If the actual playing time for that music was only about 20 minutes longer than the average symphony program today, then keep in mind that Beethoven had intended to include several other pieces which he withdrew only at the last minute when some problems arose during the rehearsal.
Problems! Around 5 in the afternoon, after a rehearsal that had begun at 8 in the morning and continued until after 2 p.m. -- no musicians' union in those days! -- Beethoven was busy writing out the parts for the trombones he had just decided to include in the oratorio. In any case, when it came time for the new concerto that evening, Ignaz von Seyfried, a conductor, pianist, and close friend of the composer, was drafted by Beethoven to turn pages for him.
Seyfried later wrote: "Whilst he was playing his concerto I could see nothing but blank pages, or at most, here and there a few completely incomprehensible Egyptian hieroglyphics to help his memory, like an electric wire: In fact, he played the entire main section almost from memory, not having had time, as was nearly always the case, to put it all down on paper. And so he would throw me an apologetic glance every time he reached the end of one of these, to me, invisible passages, and my barely concealed anxiety not to miss the decisive moment amused him richly."
Five years later Beethoven was ready with his greatest concerto, the Fourth. By this time, things really turned nasty right in the middle of the concert. It was on a bitter cold night in December 1808. Cold or not, however, the historic program included, in their first performances, the Fifth Symphony, the Pastoral or Sixth Symphony, the Fourth Concerto, the aria, "Ah, perfido," two excerpts from the Mass in C, the fantasy for solo piano, Op. 77, and finally the Choral Fantasy. The concert lasted from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
The trouble came during the course of the Choral Fantasy. Something happened. Just what depends on whom you read and whom you believe, for there are several accounts. Robbins Landon's great study of Beethoven quotes Ries on the upheaval:
"In this last work, at the place where the last beguiling theme appears already in a varied form, the clarinet player made, by mistake, a repeat of eight bars." (Since Beethoven had not earlier made clear whether there was to be a repeat, the player might be forgiven, especially in a first performance.) But to continue: "Since only a few instruments were playing, this error was all the more evident to the ear. Beethoven leaped up in a fury, turned around and abused the orchestra players in the coarsest terms and so loudly that he could be head throughout the auditorium. Finally, he shouted, 'From the beginning!' When the concert was finished, the artists, remembering only too well the honorable title which Beethoven had bestowed on them in public, fell into a great rage, as if the offense had just occurred. They swore that they would never play again if Beethoven were in the orchestra, and so forth."
Problems Beethoven may have had at concerts in which he gave the first performances of his new concertos, but for his playing there was high praise. Composer J. F. Reichhardt, who heard the concert that cold December night, and who called the orchestral playing "mediocre, sometimes even bad," spoke warmly of Beethoven's playing of the now-famous slow movement as 'with a real singing tone and with deep and melancholy feeling.'"