Thomas Kelly’s book First Nights – Five Musical Premieres is outstanding: well researched, beautifully written, and highly entertaining. It tells the stories behind five musical premieres, premieres that by their inclusion in the book implies that Kelly considers them to be the most important/interesting premieres in Western music history. Those premieres are Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, on Saturday, February 24, 1607; George Frederick Handel’s Messiah on Tuesday, April 13, 172 (at 12 noon); Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on Friday, May 7, 1824 (at 7 pm); Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique on Sunday, December 5, 1830 (at 2 pm) and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on Thursday, May 29, 1913 (8:45 pm).
I know it’s all-too-easy to criticize anyone’s “top ten” list (or in this case, “top five”). Furthermore, I am loath to criticize a scholar as distinguished as the American musicologist Thomas Forrest Kelly (born 1942), who is the Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music at Harvard. Nevertheless, I must humbly assert that Professor Kelly missed the boat with his list (and not just missed the boat but fell into piranha-infested waters without his pants on), because nowhere in his book (including the preface and introduction) does he mention what is arguably the single most important concert of premieres in the entire history of Western music: the concert of December 22, 1808, held in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien exactly 192 years ago today. That was the day and the place that saw the marathon concert on which Beethoven presented the public premieres of Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Symphony No. 6 in F major, Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major; the Choral Fantasy in C major for piano, vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra; and the Viennese premiere of excerpts from the Mass in C Major; among other works.
It was an excruciatingly long, painfully under-rehearsed concert, one that ended badly: with Beethoven screaming at the orchestra and the members of the orchestra vowing never to play for Beethoven again. Nevertheless…
December 22, 1808
The following advertisement appeared on December 18, 1808 in the Wiener Zeitung:
“Musical Akademie [Concert]
On Thursday, 22 December, Ludwig van Beethoven will have the honor to give a musical AKADEMIE in the Theater an der Wien. All the pieces are of his own composition, ENTIRELY NEW, and not yet heard in PUBLIC. First Part: 1, a symphony, entitled ‘A Recollection of Country Life’ in F Major [No. 6]. 2, Aria. 3. Hymn, with Latin text, composed in the Church style with chorus and solos [Kyrie and Gloria from the Mass in C Major, Op. 86]. 4, Piano Concerto played by himself [No. 4].
Second Part: 1, Grand Symphony in C Minor [No. 5]. 2, “Holy” with Latin text, composed in the Church style with chorus and solos [Sanctus from the Mass in C Major, Op. 86]. 3, Fantasia for pianoforte alone [Piano Fantasy Op. 77]. 4, Fantasia for pianoforte which ends with the gradual entrance of the entire orchestra and the introduction of choruses as a finale [Choral Fantasy, Op. 80].
Boxes and reserved seats are to be had at 1074 Krugerstrasse, second floor. Beginning at half past six o’clock.” (Steinberg)
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