Beethoven in America

by Michael Broyles

13 October 2011


The Beethoven of America

In 1811 disaster struck. Because of the Napoleonic wars, the financial markets in Austria and hence much of eastern Europe collapsed. Heinrich, along with the Austrian government, went bankrupt. Possibly to recoup what he could, Heinrich and his pregnant wife left for Europe in 1813, and after giving birth to a daughter at Heinrich’s ancestral home, his wife, suffering terrible homesickness, became so ill that Heinrich decided they must return to America. Because of her own illness their daughter, Antonia, was left behind with relatives. Almost immediately upon their return to Boston his wife died.

Heinrich found himself in America broke and widowed and with his only child a continent away. He returned to Philadelphia to play in the theater orchestra again, but this time to earn a living. Soon he was invited to direct the music for the one theater in Pittsburgh, and Heinrich began the three-hundred-mile journey on foot. At this time it was a journey into the wilderness, over and through the Allegheny Mountains to a town of seven thousand. The theater itself, in the words of the actor Noah Ludlow, was “the poorest apology for one I had then ever seen.” Not surprisingly, almost as soon as Heinrich arrived the theater went bankrupt.

Heinrich now made a crucial decision. He was alone, isolated even from the East Coast, with no means of support, and still grieving over the loss of his wife and his inability to see his daughter. Rather than return east he decided to continue west, destination Lexington. He had been captivated by the vastness and splendor of nature that he had seen on his way to Pittsburgh, and he may have wanted to lose himself in the wilderness, but he also made a shrewd choice. Lexington was the largest city west of the Alleghenies, a cultural center, and home to the theatrical empire of Samuel Drake. By 1817 Drake had established regular performances in Lexington, Louisville, Frankfort, and Cincinnati. Spinoffs from his company went as far as Nashville and Fayetteville, Arkansas. Since Heinrich had experience in theater orchestras, it offered intriguing prospects, and there would not be the level of competition he would find in the large East Coast cities. Besides, he was already halfway there.

Heinrich’s stay in Lexington turned out to be different from what even he thought. Soon he received an invitation to live on the estate of Judge John Spiegel, where he was a guest for two years. He spent the spring and summer of 1818 in a log cabin on the estate and began to compose. He had no training in composition, but by 1820 he had finished his Opus 1, a potpourri of piano, violin, and vocal pieces, which he called The Dawning of Music in Kentucky. An original, eccentric, dense, and complex collection of music, it created a stir in Boston, where it was published. John Rowe Parker, editor of the music magazine The Euterpeiad, immediately pronounced Heinrich the “Beethoven of America,” and Heinrich for the rest of his life exploited the moniker “the Log Cabin Composer.”

When he first arrived in Lexington, Heinrich quickly demonstrated his worth as a theater musician. An “Amateur” writing to the Kentucky Reporter “notices with pleasure, that the music at the theatre has been greatly improved by the acquisition to the band of one of the first Violin performers in America. On Monday evening last, we heard with exquisite delight the finest Solo ever performed on that instrument in our Orchestra.” Heinrich is not named but the amateur observes that this soloist is a stranger newly arrived in Lexington, that he wants to remain there, and that he plans to give a concert in the next week.

Exactly one week after the amateur’s communication, Heinrich did precisely that. Like many musicians at the time who wished to announce their presence, he gave a benefit concert. He had quickly ingratiated himself to the musicians in town, for the concert was lengthy and, according to the program, included a “Full Band.” The word “band” at the time meant any instrumental ensemble from two or three players to what we would today call a symphony orchestra. A full band in this context could have any number of meanings. Even though Lexington at the time was a small town of 5,000 inhabitants, 1,500 of whom were slaves, Drake’s theatrical activities meant the presence of musicians: every theater had to have an orchestra, and theaters were the only regular source of employment for most instrumental musicians in Federal America.

Figure 1.1 Cover of “The Log House” by Anthony Heinrich. Heinrich is pictured composing the piece.

Figure 1.1 Cover of “The Log House” by Anthony Heinrich.
Heinrich is pictured composing the piece.

The first piece on the program was called a “Sinfonia con Minuetto,” by Beethoven, which was almost certainly the First Symphony. The printed program does not answer two questions, however: What exactly was played, and who played it? Did it include all four movements? A more intriguing but equally unanswerable question regards the instrumentation. How much adaption needed to be done? Was there really a full complement of woodwinds, including oboes and bassoons? Could this have been the European nonet version used by the Moravians in 1813? Even if he had a full band, it might have been easier to spread the nine parts over whatever orchestral members there were rather than reduce the full score. Finally, where did the score come from? Did Heinrich bring it with him, or did someone already have it in Lexington? It is more likely that Heinrich had obtained it in Philadelphia, although had it already been in Lexington, Heinrich’s may not have been its first performance. The presence of this program tantalizes more than satisfies, giving intriguing bits of evidence that naturally leads to more questions than can be answered. Whatever remains in the shadows of the past, however, this much seems clear: Heinrich directed a performance of at least part of a Beethoven symphony in Lexington, Kentucky, on November 12, 1817.

By 1820, Beethoven’s music had begun to seep into American musical culture, here and there a single piece finding its way onto a program. Most of what we have seen was instrumental music, the genres that Beethoven is known for today: the symphonies, the sonatas, the string quartets. In Federal America, however, Beethoven’s reputation rested more than any other on one other composition, his oratorio Christ am Ölberg (Christ on the Mount of Olives), which was also known as The Mount of Olives. The English, troubled by having Jesus appear on stage in what they considered an operatic setting, modified the libretto, and eventually a new version appeared titled Engedi, or David in the Wilderness. Because of the close cultural ties between England and America that remained long after the Revolution, this title is also found in the United States, although somewhat later than 1820.

Christ am Ölberg is not one of Beethoven’s most inspired pieces. Federal Americans were attracted not to the oratorio as a whole but to the final chorus, “Welten singen Dank und Ehre,” which was printed in 1818 as the Hallelujah Chorus. The popularity of this less-than-outstanding work had as much to do with the musical situation in Federal America as with the quality of the composition itself. Music in America was not considered art but entertainment. It was meant to be enjoyed much as one enjoyed a good barbecue, a pint of rum, or a horse race. Thus if a rousing chorus, such as the finale of Christ am Ölberg, was appealing, that the work as a whole lacked artistic merit mattered little. Furthermore, musical developments in Colonial and Federal America favored choral works over other types; as a result, choral societies were by far the most popular type of musical organization in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Various circumstances favored choral over instrumental music. There were only a handful of professional musicians in the country, mostly in the large cities where either a church or theater position could support them. Even the most successful had to supplement their income by other means, teaching, operating a music store or a publishing business, or being engaged in trades unrelated to music. William Billings, the most prolific American composer of the eighteenth century, was a tanner. The only instrumental musical organization found throughout America, especially outside the few large cities where theatrical orchestras existed, was the military band, which had developed during the Revolutionary War. With each city and town retaining its own militia, the accompanying band was a source of civic pride. For male amateurs, playing in the military band was an acceptable musical outlet. Women, whose rightful place was considered to be in the home, played the piano and sang. There was little gender mixing, at least in music. In 1800, Frances Mallet, Filipo Trajetta, and Gottlieb Graupner, three immigrant musicians of three different nationalities, joined to form a conservatory in Boston. Their advertising was gender specific: piano and voice lessons for girls and wind instrument study for boys.

Where the sexes could and indeed did mix was in the choral societies. These were a direct outgrowth of musical and religious issues in the eighteenth century, particularly in New England. Well into the eighteenth century, the Puritan church service was a daunting experience. Men and women sat separated on hard benches and listened to a sermon that often lasted more than three hours. The job of the minister was to terrify the congregation about the dangers and the torments of hell. The titles of the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, the best-known preacher in early eighteenth-century New England, hint at what those three hours must have been like: “The Eternity of Hell Torments,” “The Torments of the Wiked [sic] in Hell, no occasion of grief to the Saints in Heaven,” and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The historian Vernon Parrington referred to them as “notorious minatory sermons” that “sank deep into the memory of New England, and for which it has never forgiven him.” Puritanism was not for the weak.

After the sermon the congregation sang a Psalm, and here was the flaw in the service, from the clergy’s point of view. Unaccompanied Psalm singing was the only music allowed in the Puritan service, and without an instrument to hold the congregation together each singer could go his own way (women were not allowed to sing), bellowing out lustily the Psalm, extending it, adding ornaments, or even inventing a whole new tune. The congregation took full advantage of this part of the service, singing vigorously, ignoring rhythm or even melody, and paying little attention to those around them. To the clergy, chaos reigned. Aesthetics aside, however, the clergy saw a more serious problem. The emotional release that the singing of the Psalm allowed wiped out the effect of the sermon itself. It was as if the congregation were purging themselves through song from the horrors that the minister had tried to impose upon them.

The clergy fought back. They decided to organize singing schools, to teach the members of the church to sing properly and decorously, from written notes rather than free improvisation. This would be a way to confine the flights of emotional frenzy. Soon the singing school became one of the most popular organizations in Colonial New England, but having won the battle, the clergy lost the war. The singing school usually met once a week for a period of six to fourteen weeks and was taught by a musician, often an itinerant from the outside, hired specifically for the occasion. At first the singing school was to meet in the church, but soon it moved elsewhere. By the late eighteenth century a tavern was a favorite meeting place, and after the lesson the tavern master or the singing school leader would frequently take a fiddle off the wall and lead a round of dancing, the participants all the while enjoying the offerings of the tavern. Not surprisingly, the singing school became an immense attraction to young people, who lived in a society in which there were few social outlets and even fewer opportunities for the sexes to intermingle. It served the participants, especially the youth, well, but was far from what the Puritan ministers had originally envisioned.

The singing school spread from New England throughout the country, and from the singing school more elaborate choral organizations or singing societies grew. The first seems to have been the Stoughton Music Society, founded in 1786, soon followed by the Independent Musical Society in Boston, the Hubbard Musical Society in Ipswich, New Hampshire, and the Franklin, the Salem, the Middlesex, the Massachusetts Musical, and the Norfolk Musical Societies. The names of several societies included Handel and Haydn, including those in Boston, New York, and Lexington. The names reflect the importance of two pieces of music to the early societies, Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation. Most of these societies were founded for the purpose of improving music in the churches, which meant they performed at least some sacred music. As often as not, however, they had no direct connection with a church, and, like the singing school, most members joined for other reasons. The societies might provide music for civic or ceremonial occasions, or they might just put on occasional concerts. Whatever their stated purpose, and whatever their real purpose, they were very popular. Their appeal was both as a social group and a musical outlet, because they allowed participants to be involved in music without the training and practice an instrument required.

Within that context, Beethoven’s oratorio Christ am Ölberg appeared. Since few programs or newspaper announcements of these societies have survived, it is impossible to tell how many times it was sung, but by 1820 it clearly was popular, especially the final chorus, later called “the first Beethoven piece to make an impression in this country.” In 1820 a person identified only as S. P. M. wrote a letter to the editor of the Euterpeiad in which he called the work “the pride of modern oratorios.” He then placed it on a par with “the unrivalled productions of great Handel himself” and suggested its superiority to works of Haydn, whose Creation “must soon retire, notwithstanding its numerous excellencies, to a respectable station in the background.”

Also reflecting the popularity of Christ am Ölberg, a new choral society in Portland, Maine, founded on January 16, 1819, called itself the Beethoven Society. This was three years after the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston was formed, and the choice of Beethoven over Handel or Haydn was not coincidental. It was a direct slap at the Boston organization: “And while a similar society in Boston has inscribed on their escutcheon the celebrated names of Handel and Haydn, the Beethoven society of Portland assumes the name of one, whose genius seems to anticipate a future age, and labors for the benefit of posterity.” Handel and Haydn were considered the past; Beethoven was the future. It was just prior to the formation of the Portland society that the final chorus of Christ am Ölberg [sic] was printed in America as the Hallelujah Chorus. According to Otto Albrecht, Beethoven’s Hallelujah Chorus soon challenged Handel’s in popularity. Since Beethoven’s chorus was familiar in this country well before its American publication, and since publishers followed musical taste, the title is more an indication of how singers referred to it than an attempt by the publisher to sell more copies by sowing confusion with Handel.

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