For Beethoven, Rossini was a composer of light comedies, who embraced the “rankest lap of luxury” by pandering to populist demands. And supposedly, Beethoven quipped “Rossini would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked him enough on the backside.” Whether this meeting actually took place or not is clearly beside the point, as it quickly became, and still is, part of a much larger narrative.
Beethoven’s threat to take his 9th symphony to Berlin was real enough, and it took a petition signed by a number of prominent Viennese patrons, friends, financiers and performers for the composer to change his mind. As such, Beethoven assembled a large orchestra and recruited Henriette Sontag and Caroline Unger to sing the soprano and the contralto parts, respectively.
According to participating musicians, the work had only two full rehearsals before it was premiered on 7 May 1824 in the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna. Various stories and anecdotes surround this momentous occasion, but Beethoven—stone deaf at this time—took part in the performance by giving the tempos for each part and turning the pages of his score “as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.” However, the “official conductor” Michael Umlauf, had instructed the singers and musician to ignore all of Beethoven’s instructions. When the work had ended, Beethoven was apparently still conducting and Caroline Unger is credited with turning Beethoven to face the applauding audience. Beethoven’s underlying conception of music as a mode of self-expression still resonates strongly today, and whether one agrees with, or rejects his compositional approach, after him, nothing in music could ever be the same.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Op. 125
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