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Beethoven's marathon concert ... recreated on Radio 3

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David Gallagher David Gallagher | 13:32 UK Time, Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Picture of Beethoven conducting


Radio 3 senior producer David Gallagher introduces today's recreation of Beethoven's marathon 1808 concert, which featured the premieres of two symphonies, plus a piano concerto and a new choral work ... 

It’s never been easy being a composer, unless you have a private income.  Plenty have died in near-poverty – including, reputedly, Mozart, in Vienna in 1791.  A decade later Beethoven was scraping a living in the same city.  He could make a bit of money selling his music to publishers, and fortunately he found some rich aristocratic patrons, but life was never comfortable.  Being the ‘latest thing’ – as both composer and performer – he was much in demand at charity fundraising concerts.  But he was expected to give his services free.  What he really wanted was a charity fundraiser in aid of himself.

It took him literally years to get one fixed up.  Eventually everything was to come to fruition in the local Theater an der Wien on 22 December 1808.  Presumably fearing he might never get another chance, Beethoven decided to pack into a single evening the world premieres of his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and a specially written Choral Fantasy… as well as his Fourth Piano Concerto… and a few other things besides. 

I remembered that crazy concert when we decided to include all nine of Beethoven's Symphonies in Afternoon on 3's celebration of the Symphony.  Afternoon on 3 is at the heart of Radio 3’s commitment to broadcast every note of every Symphony featured in the BBC4 television series presented by Simon Russell Beale; the television programmes skated over a couple of Beethoven Symphonies, but we reckoned we really ought to broadcast them all.  Do you think Beethoven was the greatest Symphony composer ever? I do. And every one of his Symphonies does something new.

If we were going to broadcast all of them, could we recreate that concert of 22 December 1808 as part of the series?  Problem: it was a four-hour marathon.  Afternoon on 3 only lasts two-and-a half-hours at most.  But when I added up the actual music, it came to less than three hours.  And there was rather a neat change of direction at the two-and-a-half hour mark, as – for the first time in the programme – Beethoven sat down at the piano and improvised a solo.  Could we could make a virtue of that and hand over to In Tune for the final straight?  And who better to impersonate the composer improvising on themes from the Fifth Symphony than the former Radio 3 New Generation Artist, jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock.  Even if his hair is a lot neater than Beethoven’s ...

The other essential feature of Afternoon on 3’s Symphony celebration is that almost every performance is by one of the BBC’s own orchestras – including several live concerts.  Both the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Philharmonic had told me they could, if we wanted, do live performances on Tuesday 15 November.  That date just happened to fall roughly where the middle of our Beethoven cycle needed to be.  Could they do one Symphony each, live?  They could.  The BBC Phil at MediaCity in Salford would kick off the afternoon at 2 o’clock with not the Fifth Symphony but the Sixth – because that’s how Beethoven began his concert.  He saved the Fifth Symphony for after his interval – so the BBC NOW in Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff would play the Fifth at, well, sometime after half past three, depending on when we get there.  Fortunately, on the radio we don’t have to wait through Beethoven’s interminable platform rearrangements: for the pieces with solo pianist, solo singers and chorus we’ll be playing recordings the BBC NOW made earlier. 

 In fact, we hope the whole thing might go a bit more smoothly than it did for poor old Beethoven back in December 1808.  The audience crammed into the theatre complained they were freezing cold – four hours is a long time to sit in an unheated theatre, even if you can afford a fur coat.  The solo soprano was shivering too – though in her case it might have been nerves: she was an inexperienced late replacement.  The theatre orchestra were no happier: Beethoven had had a row with them at their previous charity gig, and they almost refused to play for him at all.  Perhaps it would have been better if they had: one newspaper reported that their ‘execution… could be considered lacking in all respects.’  Ouch. 


In the circumstances it’s no surprise that nobody much appreciated the actual compositions – even Beethoven’s supporters, like the composer and critic Johann Friedrich Reichardt, reckoned it just ‘proved how easy it is to have too much of a good thing’.  So: can it ever work to hear so much music by one composer end to end?  Beethoven must have thought so.  There’s only way to find out for sure.  Tune in to Afternoon on 3 and In Tune.

There was one happy ending, though – and a very important one.  Reichardt tells us the concert gave Beethoven ‘his first and only cash profit of the entire year.’  Without it, who knows whether we’d ever have had the last three Symphonies at all.



  • Comment number 1.

    This brought back memories of a concert I went to in Oxford in 1983. It was called a Beethathlon, and was on the late May Bank Holiday at the Town Hall and all 9 of Beethoven's symphonies were performed in sequence by the Oxford Pro Musica. It started in the morning and ended with the Ninth in the evening. A wonderful event, and some of the symphonies were being performed for the first time by the orchestra, which made it 'authentic'. I managed to record the event in very low fidelity at the time, but the memories of the event are most treasured. Everyone ought to listen to these symphonies end to end in order - it's an education.


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