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No Surprise: Beethoven Was 19th-Century Boston’s Favorite Composer

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At its founding in 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society committed to performing music both old (Handel) and new (Haydn). And before the composer’s death in 1827, several members proposed commissioning Beethoven for a new oratorio. The details and mysteries around this endeavor can be gleaned from this H + H feature.

The Society’s early interest in Beethoven was not limited to this possible commission. By 1837, they had performed his oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives eight times.

The Boston Academy of Music, an outgrowth of composer-educator-businessman Lowell Mason’s publishing ventures, formed a small orchestra under the direction of George James Webb. During the 1840s, this ensemble gave the first performances of seven of the nine Beethoven Symphonies, many of them on multiple occasions, and the Fifth, a dozen times. To our advanced ears, the orchestra would surely have sounded execrable, but certain auditors of the time became enchanted. Chief among them was John Sullivan Dwight, a Transcendentalist-Unitarian minister, who may be considered America’s first music critic. During the four decades he published Dwight’s Journal for Music, he gushed that Beethoven’s Symphonies exhibited the boundless striving to pronounce the unutterable, to embrace the infinite . . . the hearer, spell-bound, must follow the heaven-storming Titan, as far as his strength holds out.’’

The new Germania Musical Society, émigrés bound for the New World after Germany’s 1848 revolution, easily surpassed those standards of play. Their first 21 concerts in Boston (between April 14th, and June 4th, 1849) surely served up a feast of music Boston had never experienced before. The Beethoven Symphonies 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (twice) and 7 (twice) formed the core of their repertoire. After the opening of the more spacious Boston Music Hall (on November 20, 1852, in which an unnamed orchestra performed Beethoven Symphony No. 5); the Germanians teamed up with the Handel and Haydn Society on April 2 and 3, 1853 to give the Boston debut of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Dwight’s admiration for Beethoven bordered on deification. Thus it was not a shock that a larger than life size statue of Beethoven by Thomas Crawford stood, not in the foyer, but directly on the stage of the Music Hall, as if the composer was looking over the shoulder of the musicians performing. It remained there for nearly half a century.

Max Klinger’s 1902 evocation of the master.

Though the Germanians disbanded in 1854, Boston maintained a steady diet of Beethoven thanks to the Handel and Haydn Society, and eventually the Boston Philharmonic and the Harvard Musical Association Orchestra, all led by the Germanians former flute player, Carl Zerrahn. Though the HMA Orchestra gave only 100 concerts in its 17-year existence (1866-1882), the run included all nine symphonies of Beethoven, many of them on several occasions.

Then came an ensemble that truly raised the standards of Boston, as well as the country, if not the world: the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. Thomas, who began his career in New York, later recounted in his autobiography that in order to maintain a truly fine orchestra, he would not be able to stay in one city, but needed to travel. And travel he did. From 1869 through 1880 one of the annual principal stops was Boston. Typical was 1870, when the Theodore Thomas Orchestra gave ten concerts in Boston’s Music Hall—two of them all-Beethoven events as part of the composer’s centennial. Beethoven remained central to Theodore Thomas’s repertoire, and Boston showed willingness and enthusiasm. As Thomas later put it: Beethoven is nearest us in spirit…he expresses more than any other composer. He gives delight to the educated, and teaches the uneducated.

Perhaps this set the stage setting for the debut of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 1881-82 season. In the course of 20 concerts in the Boston Music Hall that season, the symphonies appeared in order, concluding with the Ninth. That first season also brought the Piano Concertos in G major and the Emperor Concerto, the Triple Concerto, and six Overtures: the Coriolan, Egmont, Consecration of the House, as well as all three Leonores.

As if to show that this wasn’t a mere fad, the conductor Georg Henschel repeated this feat the following two seasons. For his third and final season (1883) Henschel asked his good friend in London, Sir George Grove, to put together a small book describing all nine in detail. Published by Bostonian George Ellis in 1884, it included a preface Henschel wrote at his Beacon Hill residence at 6 Otis Place. We may consider this small volume a preview of  Grove’s “Dictionary of Music,” the primary musical reference in English since 1889.

The statue of Beethoven that once graced the Music Hall stage has been residing in a foyer at the New England Conservatory since 1903. A few years after the installation, the president of the Conservatory, composer George Whitefield Chadwick, wrote an amusing piece in which he had something of a conversation with the statue. As “Beethoven” later recounted:

I remember the first time I saw you. It was at a Thomas concert in the old Music Hall, where I used to be when I first came to Boston, you know. You were a little fellow, and were deposited in a seat in the middle of the hall by a gentleman who looked very much as you look now. Pretty soon Thomas began with my ‘Eroica,’ and how you did prick up your ears!

When the Boston Symphony gave its final concert in the Boston Music Hall, on April 28, 1900, conductor Wilhelm Gericke settled on the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. With the completion of Symphony Hall in the summer of 1900, there was space on the proscenium for the names of many composers. The name of Beethoven, in the keystone position, is the only one ever carved. Naturally, the first Boston Symphony concert at Symphony Hall, October 15, 1900, concluded with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

This December 16th (or 17th as a few maintain) the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth may be largely overlooked in many quarters. But for decades in Boston, the composer from Bonn remained undoubted King of the musical canon.

For further reference, especially on the impact of Theodore Thomas in Boston, turn to “Classical Music in America” by Joseph Horowitz; Part One is titled “Boston and the Cult of Beethoven.” A wonderful volume on the Germanians is Nancy Newman’s “Good Music for a Free People” published by the University of Rochester. The Beethoven statue that spoke to Chadwick can be found in the full-length Chadwick biography by Bill Faucett, published by Northeastern University Press. And of course, much of this above comes from John Sullivan Dwight’s History of Music in Boston which can be found right HERE.

Brian Bell has produced audio features, written articles and given lectures on the Boston Symphony’s history for nearly 30 years.

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  1. Another book that those curious about the development of American art music should have is Douglas Shadle’s “Orchestrating the Nation” (Oxford U. P., 2016), which examines the considerable history of that music in the decades before the New England titans took the stage in the last quarter of the 19th century. Shadle condemned the baleful and inhibitory effect Dwight’s Beethoven obsession had on the development of a native style of composition, which until J. K. Paine was heavily influenced by Berlioz-type Romanticism and featured American subject matter. Dwight saw no reason why anyone, much less any American, should attempt to improve on what he considered perfection; but if any should so dare, the style better not be anything too far from Beethoven’s model. That’s probably why most Americans have never heard of Anthony Philip Heinrich, George Frederick Bristow, and William Henry Fry.

    Comment by Vance Koven — December 11, 2020 at 4:52 pm

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