Saturday 10 September 2022

What masterpiece?

Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.

On December 22, 1808, a small private concert was held in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.  It was bitterly cold, and as the under-rehearsed musicians sat in front of the sparse audience they rubbed their hands together and blew on their numb fingers.  The concert that was about to begin consisted of the following programme: the sixth symphony in F, the recitative and aria 'Ah! perfido', the Gloria from the Mass in C, the fourth piano concerto, the fifth symphony, the sanctus from the Mass in C and the Fantasia for piano, chorus and orchestra.  All of them were conducted and performed by the composer, Ludwig van Beethoven.  All the works were receiving their first public performance.  It would be the greatest concert in the history of western music.

Did that audience know this as they sat shivering through the long and gruelling programme?  It seems hard to believe that they could have failed to be overwhelmed by works such as the fifth symphony, whose opening unison challenge has now burnt itself into the collective memory of the world.  And what of the first performance of the ninth symphony, some years later?  Surely the audience then realised they were listening to the zenith of orchestral and symphonic music?

It is too easy for us naively to imagine ourselves at those first nights, and too difficult to appreciate the music's full pristine impact.  For we would come with our ecstasy and adulation ready prepared; our ears would not be innocent.  As a guide to what those early audiences heard and felt, we have to look for analogues in our own experience.  How often, for example, have we attended the first performance of a modern work, and known - as certainly as we know now that the ninth symphony is a towering achievement - that we are part of a unique and important occasion, one -  like that day in 1808 - that will go down in history?

I have attended at least one such historic occasion.  It was at a Promenade concert, during a long hot summer several years ago.  It was the first British performance of Tippett's 'Mask of Time', a work he had been labouring over for many years, and one which promised to be the summation of all that he had attempted in his richly creative life.  I had assumed that since it was a contemporary work I would be able to turn up just before the start and buy a good seat.  In fact, the concert was sold out when I arrived, so I went to the back of the long queue of promenaders. 

Eventually I reached the ticket desk; by now, even the arena was full, and so I was forced up to the gallery.  There promenaders wandered like lost souls across the echoing floors and through the deep gloom.  Down below me in the auditorium the choir and orchestra looked like toys.  At last the music began.  The sounds seemed to reach us minutes later.  My feet soon ached, it was hot and stuffy, my head hurt; the music was clearly the work of a madman.  I left after about a quarter of an hour.

A couple of years later, I listened to the work on records.  From the first chords it gripped me: I knew it instantly for one of the twentieth century's greatest masterpieces.  I also knew how that audience of 1808 had probably felt.


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