Beethoven in America

by Michael Broyles

13 October 2011

Beethoven is in American commercialism and the black power movements. He’s in film and theater, disco, country, rock and rap. To examine Beethoven on American soil is to examine America itself.
cover art

Beethoven in America

Michael Broyles

(Indiana University Press)
US: Oct 2011

Excerpted from Chapter 1 Arrival in America (footnotes omitted), from Beethoven in America by Michael Broyles. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The story of Beethoven in America begins in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1805. It was a fitting location, for until the local economy was decimated in the War of 1812, Charleston had a greater concentration of wealth than any other city in the country. At the time of the American Revolution, Charleston was the fourth-largest city in North America, and although it was only one-third the size of Philadelphia, its per capita wealth, measured by estates, was six to eight times that of Philadelphia, New York, or Boston. Nine of the ten wealthiest men in North America lived in Charleston or its immediate surroundings.

Charleston is situated in a protected harbor where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet and flow into the Atlantic Ocean. In the lowlands surrounding Charleston, rice farming flourished, planters prospered, and the rivers made for easy transport to the port. Charleston had one other advantage for trans-atlantic trade. Its location, at that spot where the Gulf Stream suddenly veers outward into the Atlantic heading toward Europe, was a boon for sailing ships.

Charleston prospered for reasons other than the rice trade, however. Since its founding it had had close ties with the West Indies and thus became the center of the slave trade in the colonies. Before the importation of slaves was abolished in 1807, hundreds of thousands of slaves, as many as forty percent of those brought to America, passed through the Charleston slave market. Rice farming especially created a heavy demand for slaves, for the work was hard and the conditions onerous. The heat and humidity, combined with the marshy fields that rice needed, not only created possibly the worst working environment that any slaves encountered, but were also ideally suited to the breeding of malaria. The death toll among rice field workers ensured a continuous demand for the arriving ships.

Conditions at the rice plantations also meant that any plantation owner who could afford to live elsewhere did so. Running the plantation was entrusted to overseers. The economic success of the rice trade thus allowed the rise of a class relatively close to the British aristocracy, a landed gentry who lived off the proceeds of the estate but who managed it from a distance. Freed from the grim reality of the plantation and its cost in human suffering, the gentlemen of Charleston and its environs emulated the British upper class in many ways; as Lord Adam Gordon observed when visiting in 1765, they stood apart from the inhabitants of other colonies in the degree to which they still considered England their true home. Almost all wealthy Charlestonians had visited England, and most sent their children there to be educated. Alexander Hewitt, visiting from England, commented on the social refinement of Charlestonians and of the “assemblies, balls, concerts and plays, which were attended by companies almost equally brilliant as those of any town in Europe of the same size.” In one sense, then, Beethoven arrived in America on the backs of African slaves.

To further their interest in music, the gentlemen of Charleston founded the St. Cecilia Society in 1766. Modeled directly on similar organizations in Europe, its function was to provide regular concerts for its members. Membership was carefully restricted to the male gentry, women being allowed to attend only as a guest of a member. Concerts were potpourris, featuring ensembles, soloists, and vocalists. At first many of the members participated in the concerts as amateurs, particularly in the orchestra, but as a critical mass of professional musicians arrived in Charleston, a greater differentiation between performer and audience ensued. By 1805 the performers were professionals. Until 1820 they offered fortnightly concerts followed by a ball during the social season, roughly November to May, although there were several years of interruptions during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Restricted as it was for most of its existence, the St. Cecilia Society was the most important musical organization in Charleston and arguably in the United States during the early Federal era. It was an appropriate debut for Beethoven.

To celebrate Passion Week in Charleston in 1805, the German-born conductor Jacob Eckhard arranged a special oratorio concert on April 10 for the St. Cecilia Society. Eckhard opened the event with a “grand overture” by Ludwig van Beethoven. One year later, Eckhard programmed a similar concert for the same pre-Easter celebration, this time not only opening the program with an overture by Beethoven but closing it with a “finale” by the composer.

The content of the program needs translation, as words were used differently then. The term oratorio does not necessarily mean that an oratorio was performed. This was a generic word that referred to any concert of mostly sacred or mixed sacred and secular music. If the opening piece on a concert was orchestral, it was usually called an overture, whether it was or not. Beethoven had written only one overture by this time, to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, and it was not well known. The 1805 overture was probably the first movement of a symphony. It is even more likely that the overture and finale by Beethoven in 1806 referred to one of his symphonies, as a concert would often begin with the opening movement of a symphony and close with the last, in effect creating for the entire program a large symphonic sandwich. Nothing is known about which Beethoven symphony it was, although we can guess that it was the First. Only the first three had been composed by 1806, and it is unlikely to have been the Third, the Eroica. The outer movements were too big and too difficult for an oratorio program, and it is hard to imagine that it would have already been known in Charleston at this time. It had received only a private performance in Vienna before 1805 and was not published until 1806. The Second Symphony is also an unlikely candidate, as the long slow introduction to the first movement would hardly be appropriate for the purpose of opening a varied program.

A more puzzling question is how Beethoven managed to get to the shores of America in 1805. Specifically, where did Eckhard obtain the score of a Beethoven symphony? Clearly he did not bring it with him. Eckhard emigrated to America in 1776, when Beethoven was five years old. In 1786 Eckhard was offered a position as organist at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, a post he held until 1809, when he moved to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church because it had a much larger and better organ. He remained in Charleston until his death in 1833, and there is no record of him traveling to Europe before 1806. In the pre-steam years of sailing ships, a European journey was not a light undertaking. Someone else must have imported the piece and brought it to Eckhard’s attention, but who we do not know.

Nevertheless, Eckhard almost certainly did perform at least part of a Beethoven symphony, and we may pinpoint Beethoven’s official debut in America as having been in Charleston on April 10, 1805.

For a few years afterward the Beethoven trail becomes cold. For reasons that are not clear, the St. Cecilia Society attempted no more Beethoven symphonies prior to 1820. Nicholas Butler, in his study of musical patronage in Charleston, speculates that they may have been too heavy for the lighter, more hedonistic tastes of the Charleston aristocracy, or there may not have been the orchestral forces to perform them. The latter problem, however, did not deter musicians in other cities. Possibly Beethoven was too revolutionary, too close to emerging Romanticism, to sit well with the conservative Charleston elite. Members of the St. Cecilia Society were more aligned with an eighteenth-century gentry approach to music rather than Beethoven’s more intense emotionalism. There is one record of a “Fantasie with variations” by Beethoven, a solo keyboard work, being performed on March 16, 1813. Otherwise, Charleston would have nothing to do with him.

If there are any concert programs with Beethoven’s name on them anywhere between 1805 and 1813, I have not been able to find them. Yet scraps of evidence, a hint of activity, and a casual comment suggest that he was not entirely ignored. A series of Amateur Subscription Concerts was given in Philadelphia from 1809 to 1812, although neither programs nor advertisements that list pieces exist, so the programming remains a mystery. Louis C. Madiera, however, reported that in the years prior to 1820, a group of amateurs, consisting of some of the best musicians in the city, along with invited guests met regularly to perform, among other works, the quartets of Beethoven. They also attempted to put together an orchestral ensemble, but as far as we know nothing came of that. Madiera’s description fits almost perfectly the Amateur Subscription concerts, though the musicians may not have all been amateurs. This does not mean that even in Philadelphia in 1810 there were ringers among the performers as much as that the distinction between amateur and professional at the time was not always a hard-and-fast one. After 1812, either Madiera’s group continued to meet and play for themselves, without the formality of the Amateur Subscription concerts, or since the concerts had been only for members and invited guests, not for the public, the concerts could have occurred outside the historical glare of public documentation. It is not hard to deduce, however, which Beethoven quartets were played. The six quartets of op. 18, published in 1800, were by far the most accessible, both technically and musically. The other quartets of the 1800 decade, the three Razumovsky Quartets, op. 59, and the two single ones, op. 74 and op. 95, are possible, but even in Beethoven’s time these lay outside Viennese audiences’ understanding. Except possibly for op. 74, performance of these pieces by amateurs with little introduction to Beethoven would have been a daunting experience. The late quartets, the ultimate challenge for any string quartet throughout the nineteenth century, can of course be discounted: they would not be composed for another ten years.

Also lying outside the public record is activity in the home. It is impossible to gauge in how many homes Beethoven’s music was a regular visitor, for unless something tragic or scandalous occurs, a young lady practicing a Beethoven piano sonata in the parlor is not the stuff of news. The growing interest in having a piano in the home, however, grew markedly in this period. In 1791 there were only twenty-seven pianos in Boston. By 1810, according to Loesser, almost every house between the Delaware and the Schuylkill, the area around Philadelphia, had a piano or harpsichord. This is not a geographical distinction. A few years later, in Boston, Lowell Mason observed that “among the wealthy every parlor must have a piano.” This imperative was soon to spread to the middle class, as piano manufacturing began in earnest in the United States around 1800 and pianos thus became more affordable. Prior to 1800 almost all pianos had to be imported from Europe.

Between 1813 and 1820, Beethoven’s name begins to appear on public programs, with even a few symphonic performances. After the Charleston beginning, the next known Beethoven symphony performance occurred in the Moravian community in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The Moravians, also known as the Unitas Fratrum, Unity of Brethren, were a Protestant denomination that first emerged in the fifteenth century in Moravia, today part of the Czech Republic. They were followers of Jan Hus, a theologian who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his heretical views. After considerable growth and even more persecution, including near annihilation in the Thirty Years War, they reemerged in Saxony under the patronage of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who encouraged them to expand geographically. They settled in Bethlehem and Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in 1741.

With a central European background, the Moravians brought with them a highly developed instrumental music culture. A small farming community attempting to tame a wilderness had little place for professional musicians, but many of the settlers were proficient on musical instruments, and the active musical life they had in Saxony continued. There was an orchestra, many chamber groups, and concerts. They brought a rich collection of scores from Europe, including many works of Haydn, Mozart, and other classical composers. Beethoven’s First Symphony, perhaps in a chamber version, was performed by the Collegium Musicum of Nazareth on July 13, 1813. The Moravians had a full orchestra, but the only score of the symphony in their still-extant library is a nonet version published in Europe in 1808. Otto Albrecht, who examined the Moravian records, is reasonably certain that all four movements of the piece were performed.

The Moravian performance, however, created no surge of interest or ripple effect for Beethoven in Federal America. It was held for a relatively isolated German community lying in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains, and it is doubtful if anyone outside the Brethren heard the symphony. Some four years later, Beethoven’s First Symphony received another performance in Lexington, Kentucky. Since Philadelphia, New York, and Boston had not yet touched a Beethoven symphony, how did one show up in Lexington? By 1817 Lexington was no longer on the western frontier, but was still relatively removed from the world along the eastern seaboard. For many years the principal barrier to westward expansion had been the Allegheny Mountains, and while Daniel Boone and others had forged the Cumberland Trail in 1775, travel to the west was still a challenge. In that context, one Anthony Heinrich arrived in Lexington in 1817. How Heinrich, a former wealthy Austrian merchant, ended up in Lexington, and how he came to direct a Beethoven symphony there is one of the strangest tales in the American Beethoven saga.

Oscar Sonneck, one of the pioneer historians of American music, called Heinrich “the oddest figure in American musical history.” Heinrich was born in Schönbüchel in northern Bohemia in 1781, and in 1800 he inherited an estate and a large international import and manufacturing business. This made him one of the wealthiest merchants in central Europe. Seeking to expand his business he came to America in 1805, and sometime between then and 1810 he married a young woman from Boston, whose name is unknown. By 1810 he was in Philadelphia directing the orchestra at the Southwark Theatre as an amateur. He had studied violin as a youth, and during his travels in Europe he obtained a valuable Cremona violin, maker unknown. Since Cremona was the home of the Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari family, one can only guess.

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