Beethoven’s 9th Symphony-a side look…

Posted on December 6th, 2009 by


A side look at Beethoven 9. Talk given as part of the ‘Barbirolli Lecture’ series at the Royal Academy of Music. 2008

On the 21st January 1825, the great double-bassist Domenico Dragonettti wrote to the Philharmonic Society:


“I will accept the engagement for the ensuing season at 10 Guineas per night, and play all the SOLOS [sic]in Beethoven’s new Symphony…I beg leave to add that I saw the score of Beethoven last Sunday, and had I seen if before I sent in my terms, I would have asked double.”


On the 12th March, Sir George Smart wrote to the Society-“I have not the vanity to understand that I can fully enter into the ideas of the composer, and I candidly own, that I do not understand his meaning as to the style of the Recitative for the basses, perhaps it should be played faster.”

 In 1799 Dragonetti had impressed Beethoven with his rendering of the Cello Sonata Op 2 No 5. Thayer remarked “The unlucky contrabassists of orchestras had frequent occasions during the next few years to know that this new revelation of the powers and possibilities of the instrument to Beethoven was not forgotten.” It is clear that, on first seeing the score of the 9th, Dragonetti counted himself one of those ‘unlucky contrabassists’.

 In a document sent to the Count Stefano Sanvitali at the beginning of November 1835, Paganini explained one crucial aspect of his reorganization of the orchestra in Parma. In all of this, Paganini repeatedly held up the goal, that his orchestra should “be able to play the works of the grand maestri, being the Symphonies of Beethoven”. In order to achieve “those effects of union and chiaroscuro“, which Beethoven’s works demanded, it would be necessary not only to have enough strings and wind instruments, but “sufficient rehearsal.”

 I come to Beethoven 9 as a performer. But I come to Beethoven 9 as a performer with almost no chance of ever taking part in a performance. This is scarcely due to any lack of interest in Beethoven, whose chamber, concertante music and latterly, arranged orchestral music, has always been central to my performing life. His voice, his expression of an intimate grandeur in humanity, has been one which I have always found equally alluring and infuriating. But my experience of his work has been essentially tactile; no composer enters the consciousness of a performer through the physique more than Beethoven. So it is a strange experience to face up to a work which I can only experience through score and performance. Not having the luxury of even the most rudimentary pianistic ability, I am not gifted with the opportunity to sit down, like Wagner, and play this piece. And because this is one of the few works of Beethoven that I have not played, it was one of the works that I do not hear. I am not, and never have been an orchestral musician, so excepting a youth orchestra experience of the 7th Symphony, which was admittedly, shattering, it was only the discovery of Beethoven’s only chamber transcription of the 2nd Symphony, the contemporaneous versions of Symphonies 1-8 by his colleagues and contemporaries for a variety of ensembles, and Hummel’s virtuosic and colourful versions for extended Piano Trio, which afforded me the opportunity to, at last, for instance, take part in performances of Eroica. However, the 8th symphony was the last of his major orchestral works to be first published in a series of instrumental publications, so there is no useful version of his time that could provide me entrée into the work.

 I have come to realise that, in this, I find myself in a similar situation to the musicians in the three cities that concern me, Vienna, Paris and London, in the two decades following the composition of this work. Amanda has already commented on Wagner’s difficulty in obtaining a full score of this work, and this affords me the opportunity to note that for orchestral musicians of the 1820’s, a full score would have behoved them little; even in direction, this was part-book culture.  The full score of the 9th was published in 1826, but the use of orchestral scores in performance was relatively rare. The greatest French orchestra director of the early 19th century Francois Antoine Habeneck, who in some ways could lay claim to being the inventor of the modern orchestra, never used a full score, directing as he did, from a vertical violin stand, instrument in his hand, or under his neck.

 Heller: “the symphonies of Beethoven were played there with an enthusiasm and precision, which I have rarely heard since-of course the duty of Konzertmeister fell to Habeneck, who conducted with his bow from the first violin part.”

 Even if a full score had been available to him for the 9th symphony, and he had been inclined to use it, it would have been too big to sit on the stand, and what is more, the frequent page turns which this score requires, as anyone following even a recording soon discovers, will render it impossible to direct with an instrument in both hands. But in addition, the absence of reduced performing material from the time would have prevented the virtuosi who sat at the front of, and directed early performances of Beethoven’s works, giving anything approaching a cogent performance of a piece like the 9th. The only part of the work published in reduction in Beethoven’s lifetime was the final chorus. Carl Czerny’s arrangement for four hands dates from 1829. The earliest chamber transcription was not available in Vienna until Schott-Verlag published a quartet version in 1838.


Beethoven’s remarked in a letter to Neate: “You must have limited rehearsals, perhaps four parts at a time; for this is the only way to study such a work  well…”, this remark seems innocent enough at first hearing, but what he was asking for was still, at this point, relatively unheard of in England, sectional  orchestral rehearsal.

Anyone who has worked with an early set of orchestral parts will know the problems and opportunities that this affords. Almost in passing, Jonathan Del Mar notes in his excellent introduction to his new edition of the Symphony in the Barenreiter-Ausgabe, that –“In order to render our Edition as convenient and practical as possible, we have retained the traditional rehearsal letters, as universally adopted in performing editions, of the Beethoven Symphonies. It should be emphasized, however, that these are in no sense authentic, originating only some decades after Beethoven’s death.”  It might be added that one should add:  “….we have retained the traditional bar numbers, as universally adopted in performing editions, of the Beethoven Symphonies.” 

In this innocuous and practical paragraph, lies the entire posthumous history of Beethoven’s orchestral style and performance, and one might go further; if is had not been for the appearance of works such as the 9th, we might still be writing and performing orchestral works that did not require a score.

Going back to the early part books; these contain no bar numbers, no figures, letters, and often, as is also noted in this introduction, no double bars, at for instance, changes of key or tempo. In addition, it was common practice for engravers to save time and paper by inserting inconsistent repeat signs. A simple example would be the third movement of an unadventurous early 19th century concerto. If this is a rondo, it is often the case that the brass players, and woodwind, only ever play in the rondo theme itself; this is often presented as repeated section with a sequence of bars rest, without Stichnoten, cues. This renders it nearly impossible to work out where the whole ensemble is in any given movement without referring to major cadential points, beginnings, ends and fermate. A few days spent rehearsing like this with an orchestra forces one back to early practises; a great reliance on play-throughs, far more vocal interaction whilst playing, and most excitingly of all, a greater reliance on corporate harmonic understanding to bring people together, to provide location. And this is before one has even started to approach the question of Tempo. Sir George Smart, when came to see him later in 1825, specifically asked about tempi in what he called this ‘characteristic’ symphony

Before I go on, imagine the experience for musicians in London and Paris, never having heard the 9th symphony, never having played the ninth, putting it together, and, dare I say it, dealing with some of its conundra. This of course, will go some way to explaining why Berlioz and Wagner can be said to have had such an impact on Beethoven practise. Put simply, the practise that they evolved in order to render their orchestral work playable rendered the 9th operable.  

But back to Tempo. It is here that the experience of Beethoven’s chamber music and the comparative experience of playing the transcriptions of his chamber arrangements, is instructive. I have to, at this point remind every one of Berlioz’ remark after hearing a performance of Pierre Baillot’s groups (and a carefully do not say quartet) play the Op 131 in 1829. He famously remarked that of three hundred people who attended this first performance, he was one of maybe three who understood it. Anton Borher, the leader of the quartet of siblings who were the first to rehearse Beethoven’s late quartets for performance in Paris in the early 1830s remarked that often his quartet performed with absolutely no understanding of what they were doing, reassured only by the ensemble at cadences and section endings that they were in the right place. Even Beethoven was known to have fallen prey to the same anxieties. He was found at breakfast one morning after an evening playing Ignaz Pleyel Piano trios ( which likewise, would only have been available in part books), counting bars, in the adjacent parts, presumably trying to work out whether striking features of the previous evening’s chamber music reading had actually been compositional felicities, or mistakes in performance or part construction.

Lets go further; one can whole heartedly suggest that many of the surprise moments in music of this period could be said to be ‘sourced’ in the mistakes that might happen in public chamber music readings where no score was available, and relied on the fact that nearly all music was new music, that nobody knew quite what was happening when, and that they did not, in the modern sense rehearse. The surprise, as a chamber player, brought up on the complexities of ensemble and organisation which are there from Beethoven’s earliest chamber music, is that the contemporary transcriptions of the symphonies reveal an unsuspected and very practical simplicity of structure, a playability, which on first encounter, is disturbing. Having been brought up wrestling to put together the intricacies of say, the slow movement of the Quartet Op 95 Serioso (terrifyingly, the first Beethoven quartet that I played in public), it is a tremendous shock to first play the authorised piano trio version of the 7th Symphony and to find that, not only does it play through, without a hitch, but that many of the shapings that a intrinsic to this music come naturally in the act of playing it. There would be very few quartet players who would aver the same, which explains why the first generation of true quartet players to come out of the Paris Conservatoire, such as Pierre Maurin, sought out the advice of Richard Wagner, to help them through the incomprehensibilities of Beethoven’s later chamber music.

Clearly, all of Beethoven’s earlier symphonies were composed with this playability in mind. The ninth is not. Just from a practical point of view, from the point of part building, rehearsal techniques and performance expectations, the 9th does not fit any of the expectations. This is maybe part of the reason for its rocky start. I am not sure that Beethoven intended this, but that is not for consideration here.

What is clear is that the orchestra in 1825, whether in Paris, Vienna and London, was at a turning point, which was expressed eloquently by the documentation of direction of performances. The hierarchical complexities which this imparted to the notion of a large, unified instrumental ensemble are exaggerated when we consider the melange of great soloists, big personalities all, theatre players, and hangers-on, who partook in major orchestral events in the 1820s. This confusion still bedevils the modern symphony orchestra today, talking to professional orchestral players today, one encounters a fascinating split of opinion as the relevance, function and authority, of say, conductor and Konzertmeister

 One might take this to its logical extreme, and observe that the modern orchestral hierarchy, where the principal first violin is referred to as ‘leader’ and viewed as prima inter pares is a hangover from this old system of collaboration between violin and keyboard Paganini explained that, in his opinion, the division of responsibility between violin and harpsichord, was very harmful to “unity of direction.”  In many ways this is a filtered version of the complex chains of command that seem to have existed in London and Vienna. My favourite example of this was the system of directors that Beethoven put in place for the performance of his previous big ‘event’ orchestral piece, the ‘Battle Symphony’. (In which Dragonetti, Mayseder, Spohr, Schuppanzigh, Hummel and even the guitarist Giuliani participated).

 His remark that ‘Kapellmeister Salieri did not disdain to give the beat to the big drum’, bespeaks a practical approach to the solution of putting on complex pieces with next to no rehearsal time, and no score or cued parts. But more importantly it raises the very clear notion that there was nothing extraordinary in the notion of mixed direction, various authority figures, all on stage at the same time, all giving signals of one type or another, a situation complicated when the composer was involved in some way in the performance. The very young Ludwig Spohr took part in the premiere of the Battle Symphony, which included the premiere of the 7th Symphony. His report of Beethoven’s indication of musical expression, crouching behind a music stand for a  piano , raising his hands to heaven for  forte and indeed, the problems that he ran into caused by closing his eyes when he could not hear  the orchestra, prefigure the description of Beethoven’s animateur- like role in the premiere of the 9th.

This orchestra concert was directed by Beethoven’s Falstaff, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose relationship with Beethoven went through the kind of hierarchical morphing over a lifetime as Joseph Joachim endured with his one time quasi-student, Johannes Brahms.  On Beethoven’s arrival in Vienna, he took violin lessons from the great violinist, and it is worth considering the function that this gave Schuppanzigh in later years. It is very clear that he was not the greatest technician or creative musician in Vienna at this time; Joseph Mayseder, who played in the premiere of the 9th, or the prodigious violinist and musical savant, Franz Clement, far out stripped him in this respect. By the 1820s it was clear that Beethoven was far from content with Schuppanzigh’s standards as a chamber musician, setting up alternative premieres for the Op 127 Quartet with the young Josef Boehm, who likewise played in this premiere. But it is clear that there was a natural authority which devolved from Schuppanzigh; Beethoven never said as such, in fact, in all of his insulting notes to him, he implied the complete opposite, but I like to think that there was something a little reassuring in having his former violin ‘professor’ on stage with him. However the principal direction was taken by Michael Umlauf, who had assisted Beethoven with Fidelio two years earlier. In addition to this, the place at the keyboard was taken by the composer Konradin Kreutzer. Beethoven had long since stopped directing from the keyboard, and the presence of both composer and Schuppanzigh on stage would suggest that Kreutzer’s role was subsidiary, maybe serving as a kind of musical prompter for the singers. The question of how corrective information was handed around an under-rehearsed orchestra mid performance at this period is fascinating, and at this point we should remember that we are dealing with a roomful of professional improvisers.

It had been Rossini who had first provided Paganini with the opportunity and the experience of serious conducting, though it should be remembered that Paganini, like Viotti, and Habeneck, directed standing at the front of the orchestra, using the violin, and reading from the first violin part. In 1820, Rossini had been commissioned to write Matilda di Shabrani for the Teatro d’Apolloue in Rome. A series of misadventures led to Paganini saving the day and conducting the three first performances. (Clement 189) The conductor being the victim of a heart attack, Paganini offered to take command of the very inexperienced orchestra of the Teatro d’Apolloue. He came up with a unique means of leading the orchestra through this new score without wasting time with lengthy verbal explanations. Rather than just playing the first violin part, as was normal, and breaking off to intermittently bring in an awkward entry, in rehearsals, Paganini played the whole time, shaping the phrasing, communicating the way he knew best, by means of playing an octave up, which guaranteed that he would always be heard. (Day 106)

It should be observed at this point that there is a complete difference between directing an orchestra from the leader’s chair from the violin, as is very common today, and directing standing with the violin. After all, the last generations of violin playing orchestral directors, Habeneck, Strauss, Julien, certainly did more than simply play the first violin part and lead thus. In addition, it needs to be remembered that all of the early 19th century performers were accomplished improvisers. Their response to music would still be considered very free by ‘modern classical’ standards. Once this is noted, it is clear that the director/conductor violinist has more weapons in the armoury to influence the musical argument of whatever they are directing. If the violinist is placed in the middle of the group, where J P Salomon stood, he or she is free to transfer allegiances from one section of the orchestra to another using movement. If they use the method of octave transposition enjoined by Paganini, that provides another means of influence, playing along with every part that they wish to influence.

In so-called ‘modern’ practice, there is almost not ‘acceptable’ means to provide an audible correction, which means that the ‘bar’ for performance disaster is set very high-the sound of a conductor calling out rehearsal figures in the course of the premiere of a concerto at the ‘Proms’ is an example of how impractical we have become in this respect. However this does raise the notion of the sound of an unscored piano, being audible during the premiere of this piece, which of course (and I would love to hear this) would push its Klang rather close to that of the Chorfantasie.

 The unsuccessful London premiere was not gifted, or bedevilled by so many directors, but a glance at the annals of the Philharmonic society will reveal that is would be another three decades before Leader and Director were not listed as equal. Joseph Haydn and the violinist Johann Peter Salomon had come up with a variation thereupon, which began to point the way to the modern system, of what Paganini would call a ‘centre of unity’. In the joint concerts which they gave in London, beginning in 1790, Haydn sat at the Keyboard, whilst Salomon stood and directed from the violin, not as a leader, but as a director.  

In the London premiere of the ‘9th’, they would seem to be equally confused. The leader was the brother of Johann Baptiste Cramer, Franz, who was mainly renowned for leading the ‘Ancient’ concerts, which focussed on oratorios, which may well have been the reason for his taking this role, as opposed to Nicolas Mori or Edward Eliasson, all of whom were rotating the post at this point. The director,at the piano, was Sir George Smart.  On this occasion we know that Smart, was playing from the copy of the symphony which had arrived in London in December 1824, which so alarmed Dragonetti.

 However, Franz Cramer,  probably standing, like Salomon, centre stage, next to Smart’s fortepiano, would have been directing from a violin part. A few copies exist from this period of parts used by orchestral leaders, which include handwritten cues, but they are rare. Not surprisingly, cuts are more common. No doubt, it was normal practice, if a section was not working, to simply cut it. This is certainly the appearance of much performance material from this period.  

 It is not my purpose here to try and solve any of these problems, but they go a small way to explaining the problematic early performances of the work. The Philharmonic society in London was not a regular orchestra, and whilst a considerable number of the players in the Vienna premiere were accustomed to playing together, there was still an ad hoc feeling to the ‘fitted up’ ensemble, which most particularly spelt disaster in the vexed opening to the last movement. It is at this moment that Dragonetti’s response to first seeing the recitative, his perception that he was looking at a ‘solo’ ,in which guise he proceed to play it, for the next years. I like to think that he had the violin solo recitative in the beginning of Haydn’s Sinfonie Concertante in mind. In 1795, he had taken part in the premiere of this work, with its solo part tailor made for Salomon, on the occasion of Haydn’s second visit to London-perhaps looking at the part, he thought that he was looking at a sinfonia concertante.

 What Beethoven’s symphony demanded is precisely what the Vienna and London ensembles were both not ideally equipped to offer, huge corporate unity and adeptness with complex tempo changes. The idea of playing the ninth, with little rehearsal, with no score, with no one with any experience of the work, and surviving the fits and starts of the last movement is inconceivable, even if the quartet-like subtlety of the slow movement had been successfully negotiated. What, of course, the work demanded was the unanimity of the Société des Concerts. This unanimity did not devolve solely from Habeneck’s orchestral training, but most importantly of all, from the fact that all the players came from the same school.


Felix Mendelssohn first played under Habeneck in 1832, and reported his sentiments to his old teacher, Zelter:

“Every orchestra really ought to be like this; wrong notes and rhythms should be eliminated once and for all, but since this is unfortunately never the case, this one is the best that I have ever heard. The school of Baillot, Rode and Kreutzer furnishes them with violinists, and it is a joy to behold the young people coming to the orchestra en masse with their instrument, and then commencing, with the same bowing, in the same style, with the same serenity and fire.”


The last great conductor to direct with the instrument in this manner would be Francois Antoine Habeneck, who so impressed Paganini on first hearing him direct Beethoven in Paris in 1831 Habeneck’s innovation at the Société des Concerts lay in his concentrating of all the power in his hands, wresting control away from the omnipresent hegemony with the keyboard, and paving the way for Ludwig Spohr to invent the modern conductor. Paganini explained that the function of this “centre of Unity”, as he called it, was to communicate his “thoughts to the singers and to the orchestra.”  He explained that it was absolutely necessary that whoever was to shoulder the heavy burden of this new figure of the director of an orchestra needed to be a composer, gifted with great experience and the “frankness that is so necessary for good direction.” A conductor experienced in this role would be able to communicate not only the movement and beat of the music, but also serve as a metronome, indicating with the eyes.  (LPELA P 118) This echoes almost to the word, the descriptions of the power of Habeneck’s conducting. The Revue Musicale described the impact of his Méthode:

“Habeneck conducts the concerts from the bow…the arrangement of the orchestra allowing him to transmit his flame to the musicians, as he can look at them.”

 On 25th January 1834, Berlioz attended Habeneck’s rehearsal for the second Paris performance of the 9th. The day before, he wrote to Joseph d’Ortique; “Could you come to the Conservatoire tomorrow morning to the rehearsal of Beethoven’s Cyclopean Symphony? It’s prodigious, astounding.” I cannot help but noticing the context…the next paragraph is his first reference to ‘a work for chorus, orchestra and solo viola for Paganini…’ almost as if Berlioz was pointedly seeing this as a similar ‘Cyclopean Symphony’….

 Prior to Wagner’s describing the ‘scales falling from his eyes, he wrote:

“I received a good lesson at Paris in 1839, when I heard the orchestra of the conservatoire rehearse the enigmatical 9th symphony…”


Despite Smart’s expedition to Beethoven, he was put off playing the symphony with the Philharmonic Society until 1830. In 1828, he wrote to the Society: “I have had a long conversation with Beethoven relative to this Symphony. And I should like the effects to be produced as he pointed out as far as I have the power.” On 26th April he finally had a chance to conduct the work for Neate’s benefit.  

The Harmicon opined:

“It was executed admirably, and seemed to afford the audience much satisfaction. We certainly do not at present rank ourselves among its admirers, and moreover cannot suppose that we shall ever enjoy a work in which there are so many extravagances, which is so heterogeneous a nature, and is an n hour and a quarter in duration.”

Clearly, Beethoven’s admonition to Smart that the work should take ’47 minutes’ had not been taken seriously!