Making a living as a composer has never been easy, particularly if you don’t have a rich patron. Mozart died in near-poverty in Vienna in 1791. A decade later, Ludwig van Beethoven was scraping by in the same city. He enjoyed occasional patronage and sold some of his music to publishers, but what he really needed was a benefit concert – essentially a charity fundraiser in aid of himself.

Ludwig van Beethoven
© Portrait by Joseph Mähler (1804-5)

Earning such a concert took years, but his opportunity came in December 1808 at the Theater an der Wien. It was a fine venue, only seven years old, large, with great acoustics. The Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung cited it as “the most comfortable and satisfactory in the whole of Germany” (meaning the German-speaking world). Several of Beethoven’s works had premiered there, including the Second and Eroica Symphonies, the Violin Concerto and Leonore, the original version of his only opera, Fidelio, so he certainly knew the theatre well. Indeed, he even lodged in rooms there between 1803-4 whilst composing his opera (as you can see on a plaque on the theatre’s wall).

Plaque at Theater an der Wien
© Zyance | Wikicommons

Unfortunately, the only time slots available for booking the theatre were during Advent and Lent (when performances of opera were forbidden) and the competition was fierce. Joseph Hartl, the theatre’s director, eventually allowed Beethoven to use the venue for his concert on 22nd December 1808. An advertisement appeared in The Wiener Zeitung on 17th December, describing the concert as a "musical Akademie", a familiar term for a concert at the time.

And what a concert! Imagine hearing the Fifth Symphony for the first time, encountering this iconic work which broke the symphonic mould and shook up the musical world. Now imagine hearing it alongside the Pastoral Symphony. And the Fourth Piano Concerto. And the Choral Fantasy. Incredibly, all four works were premiered at the 1808 Akademie, with Beethoven as piano soloist too, but that wasn’t all. He crammed the concert with other works: the concert aria “Ah! Perfido”, an extemporised solo fantasia for himself to perform on the piano, and two movements (the Sanctus and Gloria) from his Mass in C major, which had premiered in 1807 in Eisenstadt. These two movements were not advertised beforehand, given the ban on performing church music in theatres! No wonder the evening ran to over four hours! However, programmes of this length were quite normal at the time, so it wasn’t really a case of Beethoven trying to stuff in as much music as possible.

Theater an der Wien in 1801
© By Franz Asner, courtesy of Theater an der Wien

Scheduling a four hour concert just a few days before Christmas in Vienna led to an inevitable problem – there was no heating in the Theater an der Wien and it was bitterly cold, making conditions taxing for the audience and the orchestra. The solo soprano was shivering too, although in her case this could have been through nerves having been drafted in at very short notice to sing “Ah! Perfido” after Beethoven had insulted the scheduled soprano, Anna Milder.

Beethoven also had a problem assembling an adequate band. He would usually have had access to the Theater an der Wien’s professional orchestra, but many of its members were already committed to the Tonkünstler-Societät, a benevolent society for the widows and orphans of musicians, which was putting on a performance at the Burgtheater on the same evening. Amateur players had to fill the gaps in the ensemble. That charity concert could also have had an impact on the size of the audience for Beethoven’s Akademie, as could the ticket price: two Gulden was more than a week’s salary for some labourers.

Under such circumstances, it was no wonder that this ambitious concert was not entirely well received. Firstly, there was a lot of new music to digest. The critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote that “To judge all these pieces after only one 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.”

Even among Beethoven’s supporters, there were doubts. Composer and critic Johann Friedrich Reichardt described the concert as proof “that one may have too much of a good thing, still more of a powerful one”.

The orchestra Beethoven had scraped together did not have a felicitous evening, one critic laying the boot in by describing it as “lacking in all respects”, but it was Beethoven himself who bore most of the brickbats. By this time, the composer was nearly deaf. Indeed, the Akademie was his final public performance as a pianist. His playing of the Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major appeared to go well, as did the improvisatory fantasia (the work that was later written out and published as the Fantasia in G minor, Op.77).

But the Choral Fantasy – composed to utilise all the forces of the evening in one grand finale – was a complete disaster. It was barely finished, the ink still wet when Beethoven went through the score with the players in the briefest of rehearsals. There, Beethoven had agreed that the second variation would be performed without repeats… but in the heat of the performance, he forgot and played the repeat oblivious of the orchestra ploughing on without him! With the wheels coming off, Beethoven angrily demanded they started the whole thing over again. (He later publicly owned up to his mistake to spare the orchestra any embarrassment.)

Ludwig van Beethoven
© Portrait by Christian Horneman (1803)

Despite all these trials and tribulations, Reichardt reports that the Akademie gave Beethoven “his first and only cash profit of the entire year”. Imagine if the circumstances had been different, if the conditions in the theatre had been warmer, if the Theater an der Wien orchestra had been available and adequately rehearsed.

This season, for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, several orchestras are “recreating” that 1808 Akademie – including the Wiener Symphoniker, the Philharmonia, the Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble, the BBC NOW and Welsh National Opera – but they’ll be properly rehearsed (one trusts) and the audience will be comfortably seated in a warm auditorium. And how many in the audience will be encountering these masterpieces for the first time? Now that’s an experience that would be very difficult to recreate.