On December 22, 1808, concertgoers in Vienna, Austria, were witness to a monumental event in music history.
Ludwig van Beethoven held a concert where he debuted several of his greatest works in one program.
While the concert has gone down as one of the most important in history, the conditions during the concert and actual performance was….. sub-par.
Learn more about the concert of December 22, 1808, aka the Greatest Concert of All Time, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
215 years ago, the business of music was very different than it is today.
Today if you go to a concert, you are going to hear a band or a performer play music that you are already familiar with. Music is first released as a recording, people listen to it and then go see the artist perform it live.
However, before there were recordings, you probably hadn’t heard any individual work created by a composer. There was only live music, and there weren’t a lot of live performances.
In the world of classical music, it still mostly works that way. An orchestra will often commission a work and perform its world premiere.
So, if you attended an orchestral performance, which very few people did, no one was really sure what they were going to hear. Whatever it was, it was something they had probably never heard before because the only time you would have heard something was at another concert.
So when I’m talking about a concert in this era, I’m not talking about the Taylor Swift Eras Tour. I’m not talking about James Brown Live At The Apollo. I’m not talking about the Allman Brothers, Live At Fillmore East. I’m not talking about Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison. I’m not talking about Cheap Trick Live At Budokan.
….and I am not talking about Jimmi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival.
The economics of being an 18th or 19th-century composer was rough. There were basically three ways that you made money.
The first was that you might get lucky and have someone commission a new composition. This would usually have to be someone like a monarch, a rich member of the nobility, or maybe a bishop.
The primary way that most composers made money was by teaching music to the children of wealthy patrons.
However, it was also possible to make money by simply being entrepreneurial and holding your own concert on your behalf.
This wasn’t done that often, but if you could do it, you could make a year’s worth of income in a single evening.
In 1808, this is what Beethoven decided to do. He was going to host a concert, which at the time was called an Akademie, and perform a collection of his compositions, including several works never heard before.
There was, however, a problem.
The number of places where you could host a concert was very limited. There were only so many venues available in Vienna.
You couldn’t do it in the summer, because most of your audience left the city for their country estates.
There were no concert halls specifically designed for music as we know them today. Of the venues where you could host a concert, all of them were theaters booked most of the year for operas, which was the dominant form of entertainment for the upper class at the time.
Operas were banned during Advent and Lent, the periods just before Christmas and Easter, which meant that you had a six-week window every year where you could host a non-operatic concert.
Beethoven ended up reserving the ??Theater an der Wien for December 22,1808, just a few days before Christmas.
The Theater an der Wien was a venue that Beethoven was familiar with. He had debuted several of his compositions there before, including the only opera he had ever composed, Fidelio, as well as his 3rd symphony, dubbed the Eroica.
Opened in 1801, it was a private facility that had a reputation for being one of the best and most comfortable theaters in Europe at the time. The interior of the theater was so lavish that it was said it could make money by charging people admission to see it without ever having to put on a performance.
Also of note, in German, Vienna is known as Wien. However, the Wien in Theater an der Wien actually refers to the Wien River, which flowed nearby.
The theater owner allowed Beethoven to do a private benefit concert because he had been very generous in the past in supporting concerts that benefited charity.
The schedule Beethoven put together was a bit of a sampler. There really was no consistent theme to the evening other than it was music he composed.
Moreover, Beethoven himself would be performing as a piano soloist. At the time in Vienna, Beethoven may have been better known for his abilities as a musician than he was for his compositions. He would often do improvisational performances where he would riff like a jazz performer.
I should also note that by 1808, Beethoven’s hearing loss had become quite severe.
Even though Beethoven had secured the venue, he had difficulty finding musicians and performers.
The Theater an der Wien had its own in-house orchestra, which was one of the better ones, but most of them had been previously scheduled that evening to perform at a benefit for the widows and orphans of musicians.
So Beethoven had to get amateur musicians and musicians from other venues to fill in. A group that had never played together before.
Beethoven was actually banned from rehearsals by the musicians because he kept interfering. It eventually reached a point where he was asked to leave, or they wouldn’t perform.
The evening of December 22 finally arrived, and the performance was scheduled to begin at 6:30 pm….but there was a problem. The heating system for the theater wasn’t functioning, so everyone had to sit in the theater for four hours without any heat.
So far, nothing I’ve mentioned would lead you to believe that this would be considered the greatest concert of all time by music historians. So, why has it gained this reputation?
The program set by Beethoven was in two parts with an intermission in between.
The first half of the performance began with the world premiere of his Symphony number six in F major, dubbed the Pastoral.
The audience, for the first time ever, would have heard something like this:
<insert audio clip of the start of 6th symphony>
The debut of his Pastoral symphony would probably have been enough to make the evening noteworthy.
However, this was just the opening.
Next on the list was an aria he had written over ten years earlier called Ah! Perfido. The soloist for the evening was 17-year-old soprano Josephine Schultz-Killitschky. The original soloist quit because Beethoven insulted her…which he was known to do.
After that came the “Gloria” from his Mass in C major. At the time, in Vienna, it was illegal to perform church music outside of a church, so he didn’t publicize this piece beforehand.
The first half of the performance ended with another world premiere, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, with Beethoven himself at the piano.
The audience was treated to something like this:
<insert audio clip of the start of Piano Concerto No. 4>
That was just the first half of the concert, and that would be a full performance for most orchestras today.
As the intermission finished, the crowd sat down for the second half of the performance in the still-cold theater.
The second half of the performance opened with yet another world premiere. This time the audience, for the first time ever, heard the four most famous notes in music history.
<insert audio clip of the start of Symphony No. 5>
That is, of course, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
The audience had now been hit with the world premiers of not one but two of the greatest symphonies of all time in the span of a single evening.
The evening wasn’t over yet.
Next on the schedule was another unpublicized piece from his Mass in C major, the “Sanctus.”
That was followed by an extemporaneous fantasia piece performed by Beethoven on piano, which was something, as I mentioned, he was famous for.
The final piece of the evening was one which Beethoven finished writing just days before the performance. It was to be the fourth and final world premiere of the evening.
Beethoven wanted to end the concert with a bang, so he wrote something that brought together all of the musical performers of the evening; himself as a piano soloist, the vocalists, and the choir, as well as the full orchestra.
The result was his Choral Fantasy for solo piano, solo vocal, chorus, and orchestra.
<insert audio clip of Choral Fantasy>
The significance of the Choral Fantasy wasn’t the piece itself. It isn’t one of Beethoven’s better-known compositions. As he himself later admitted, it laid the groundwork for perhaps his greatest composition, his 9th symphony, on which I’ve done a previous episode.
Beethoven had thrown the kitchen sink at his audience. To put this in modern terms, imagine if the Beatles held a concert and, in the first half of the concert, they performed the entire Sgt. Pepper’s album for the very first time, then in the second half, they performed the entire Abbey Road album for the first time.
This was the classical music equivalent of that.
While I hope most of you can at least appreciate why this concert is considered great, at least by historical standards, I also have to confess that in terms of the performance, the concert wasn’t actually that good.
This mainly had to do with the lack of preparation by the orchestra, having to bring in amateurs to perform, and a last-minute substitution of the solo vocalist.
In fact, during the Choral Fantasy, everything fell apart, and they had to start over from scratch. Something that would never happen with a modern professional orchestra.
As for the audience, they were hit with a lot all at once, not to mention that it was four hours in a cold theater.
Johann Friedrich Reichardt, a composer and contemporary of Beethoven, was in attendance. He recalled the evening by saying,
There we sat, in the most bitter cold, from half past six until half past ten, and confirmed for ourselves the maxim that one may easily have too much of a good thing, still more of a powerful one.
A German music periodical of the time, Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, wrote of the concert:
To judge all these pieces after one and only hearing, especially considering the language of Beethoven’s works, in that so many were performed one after the other, and that most of them are so grand and long, is downright impossible.
It wasn’t until years later, as Beethoven’s works became more widely performed and eventually recorded, that the scope of what happened on December 22, 1808, was recognized for what it was.
Over the last several decades, several orchestras have recreated the December 22 concert, performing all of the same works, in the same order, in a single evening. They will often serve dinner during the intermission just to give the performers and the audience an extended break.
The concert was also noteworthy for another reason. It was the last time that Beethoven ever performed in public. He was 38 years old, and his hearing loss had become so severe that he was no longer able to perform to his standards.
He did keep composing, however, until his death in 1827.
A concert like the one Beethoven held is unlikely ever to happen again. This isn’t just a function of Beethoven’s singular genius but mostly a function of how the music industry works today.
You could make far more money by releasing music in pieces and as a recording than by doing everything at once in a live concert.
Nonetheless, at that point in history, the forces of music and business came together to create a singular concert that has gone down in history.