When Beethoven’s Fifth was new: thoughts on newer new music

During my lifetime, American audiences have stayed away in droves if they know their orchestra is playing a new piece. For much of the twentieth century, a lot of new music was indeed hard to appreciate at first hearing. For about two and a half decades after the Second World War, the most “respectable” composers had such contempt for the general public that they seemed not to care whether anyone liked their music or not. Guess what: in a way, finding modern music difficult is nothing new. Beethoven’s symphonies struck many of their first hearers the same way.

Nineteenth-century New York lawyer George Templeton Strong kept a diary that has become one of the very best primary sources for American musical history. He had trouble at first with one particular piece of new music: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I hope any of my readers who have any influence on a professional orchestra’s programming will take his comments as a cautionary tale.

Strong first heard Beethoven’s Fifth as a young man of 21, played by a pick-up orchestra in 1841. He wrote, “The music was good, very well selected and excellently well performed, so far as I could judge. The crack piece, though, was the last, Beethoven’s Sinfonia in C minor. It was generally unintelligible to me, except the Andante.’

Notice that this orchestra placed the Beethoven piece last on the program. If a twentieth-century orchestra did the same with a new piece, most of the audience would have been gone. It became a programming cliché that if any orchestra (string quartet, pianist, etc.) decided to play something by difficult composers like Stravinsky, Bartók, (gasp) Schoenberg, or (heaven help us) Webern–or worse yet, any piece by a younger composer–it had to come right before intermission. If it came first, most of the audience would be late. If it came after intermission, they would leave.

In 1842, Strong subscribed to concerts by the brand-new New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It programmed Beethoven’s Fifth on its very first concert. Strong panned the vocal selections. Neither soloist sang well. On the other hand, “The instrumental part of it was glorious . . . Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor was splendidly played, and the Overture to Oberon still better, if possible.”

He wrote a couple more sentences about the overture and nothing about the symphony, but even though he had not heard it for more than a year, he did not hedge about his ability to judge the performance. In those days before recordings, people who wanted to become familiar with a new piece had to buy a piano reduction and try to play through it. Perhaps Strong had done so. The next time he heard the Beethoven (in 1844), Strong wrote a rapturous diary entry:

Feel today particularly happy–or particularly unhappy–I can’t certainly determine which–for did I not hear the Symphony in Ci minor by one Ludwig van Beethoven, opus 67, played ad unguem [played to exactness] by the Phiharmonic? Haven’t I been fairly tingling all day with the remembrance of that m sot glorious piece of instrumental music extant, the second movement? (Twice played, by the by–the first encored symphony on record.) Haven’t I been alternately exulting the accurate possession of this relic and lamenting the fruitlessness of my efforts to get hold of that all day long?

I expected to enjoy that Symphony, but I did not suppose it possible that it could be the transcendent affair it is. I’ve heard it twice before, and how I could have passed by unnoticed so many magnificent points–appreciated the spirit of the composition so feebly and unworthily–I can’t conceive.

The entry goes on for about four more paragraphs. His rapture seems to have been reserved for the second and last movements. The fact that it took the third hearing for Strong to “get” Beethoven’s Fifth surprised him, but it doesn’t surprise me. As soon as “classical” music became something distinct from “popular” music, it has meant, among other things, music that reveals its true worth only after repeated hearings.

Back then, music lovers could provide their own repeated hearings by learning to play a new piece on the piano. They wouldn’t necessarily have had to play it well enough to try it out in front of an audience to find the various themes and appreciate the clever ways the composer put them together, took them apart, and recombined the fragments into new themes. Only by playing it himself on the piano, or at least hearing other people play it, could he grow in appreciation of a piece he heard on one concert in February 1841, again in December 1842, and then not again until May 1844.

Today, not nearly as many people know how to play piano, and the music has become more difficult to play than even Beethoven’s. We have recordings, though. Anyone can get a record and listen to a new piece over and over, assuming than anyone had recorded it. Unfortunately, today’s performing organizations do not seem nearly as open to new music as were those of the nineteenth century.

Any composer’s web site will probably list all of the orchestras etc. that have played his or her music. But how often have any of them played any one particular piece? How many of the composer’s other pieces have they played? A new piece of classical music will become popular to the extent that it becomes familiar. Lately, composers once again desire to connect with a general audience

It appears that, quite often, an orchestra that commissions a new piece will present the premiere with great fanfare, and then not play it again. How is anyone supposed to know, at first hearing, if it is a good piece or not? I have long thought that any orchestra that commissions a new work should program it on two programs the first year, and at least once over the next two years.

If after that, the musicians and the audience enjoy it more, it is a good piece and the organization should actively encourage performances in other cities. If the musicians and audience enjoy it less over time, then perhaps it’s a weak piece, but they’ve played it and heard it enough to find out.

I’m sure some listeners grasped more of Beethoven’s works on first hearing than Strong did, but it is also a matter of historical record that many others had at least as much difficulty as he did. How could a revolutionary symphony like Beethoven’s Fifth ever have become such a warhorse if the first generation of its audience had not been able to enjoy multiple hearings? And how else can we discover which pieces by living composers might become universally popular themselves?

Source: Judith Tick (ed.) Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 9780195139884), pp. 172-73.

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