Beethoven in America

by Michael Broyles

13 October 2011


A Thousand Strange and Thrilling Sensations

Between 1815 and 1820, publishers began to cash in on Beethoven’s newfound popularity. The publisher Allyn Bacon brought out his Piano Sonata for four hands, op. 6, in 1815, and in 1818 the collection “Twenty Four Sonatas for the Pianoforte… from Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Steibelt… and other esteemed authors,” which included two pieces by Beethoven, neither of which were sonatas. In Charleston, where Beethoven had first landed in America, Charles Gilfert published Beethoven’s Rondo in C, op. 51, no. 1, and Six Variations on a Theme in G in 1817. The real measure of Beethoven’s popularity, however, lies with the many other pieces attributed to him. In this time of loose copyright, publishers found it lucrative to attach whatever name to a piece that they thought would encourage sales. Whether the piece was legitimate or even who actually wrote it was irrelevant. Thus we find four waltzes by Beethoven, even through Beethoven did not compose waltzes. Two are at least legitimate Ländler, German dances upon which the waltz was based, that Beethoven did write. The other two were given detailed and fanciful titles: “Prince Blucher’s grand waltz” and “Bonuparte’s [sic] waltz as performed in Vienna.” The waltz craze was just catching on in America, and one can be certain that some other name, such as Mozart, would have been attached had the publisher not thought Beethoven’s name would attract more buyers.

Tracking American publications of Beethoven’s music is at best an indirect measure of his popularity. The existence of scores with American imprints tells us that there was some demand for Beethoven’s music. The absence of such scores, particularly for the bigger pieces, such as sonatas or string quartets, tells us nothing, however, for most music at this time was imported from England. Sometimes it was imported commercially through music stores that existed in all large cities, sometimes privately through transatlantic travelers or correspondence with family members still in Europe. In 1799 William Tudor was in Paris. Tudor was the brother of Frederick Tudor, who later became known as the “ice king,” having made a fortune cutting ice from the rivers and lakes of New England and importing it to the South. William wrote to his mother about music: he had purchased about eighty sonatas, fifteen overtures, a set of quartets, and a number of small pieces. Beethoven’s name is not mentioned, and it is unlikely that much Beethoven music would have been available in 1799, but Tudor’s purchase, about $400, was a huge sum for the time. Although few private imports would be that large, Tudor’s activity indicates a conduit undoubtedly followed by many other Americans. Since most pianos and other instruments were imported from Europe before 1820, it is not surprising that most sheet music would also have been. Early newspapers regularly contained advertisements of music stores announcing the arrival of instruments and music, although they seldom catalogue the contents by individual composers.

One of the clearest measures of Beethoven’s popularity was his mention in the Euterpeiad, a Boston musical magazine published from 1820 to 1823. It was the same magazine to which S. P. M. sent his letter about the Mount of Olives. The Euterpeiad’s importance lay in its uniqueness. It was the only musical magazine in Federal America that took music seriously and that had any staying power. Three-plus years may seem a short life for a magazine, but compared to others in the nineteenth century, it continued into venerable old age. Had John Rowe Parker, the founder, not been such a bumbling businessman, it probably would have lasted longer. Parker was a member of the merchant class in Boston and had inherited wealth, most of which he lost in bad business dealings. His activity did take him to Europe frequently, however, where he could observe a much more sophisticated musical culture. Although not a practicing musician—that would have been unacceptable for a Boston Brahmin at the time—Parker developed a keen interest in music and was one of the few people in Federal America to see the artistic value of secular music beyond entertainment. In 1817 he began writing a music column in the Boston Intelligencer and Morning and Evening Advertiser, one of the principal newspapers in Boston. By 1820 he decided to expand with his own magazine, giving it the same title as his earlier column.

Beethoven was often praised in the magazine. Parker took some of the material from British magazines and other, unidentified sources, but he also wrote some material himself. One poem extolled a young pianist’s performance of a Beethoven concerto:

On hearing Beethoven’s difficult Concerto played with
full Orchestra accompaniments by a young lady
not twelve years old.

You that possess soft souls to feel,
Who wrapt in Music’s softest lays
With extacies, your ears will fill,
When fingers swiftly plays.

Although she least expects it here,
Fond tribute, demands my praise,
Her tones, will linger on the ear,
So early taught in youthful days.

She bears my mind, on grandeurs wings
To Musics loftiest fount,
To feast at Science’s purest springs,
And endless joys recount.

This probably refers to Alexis Eustaphieve, the daughter of the Russian consul in Boston. According to Parker, by the age of twelve she was studying the “master pieces of Kalkbrenner, Ries, and the gigantic Beethoven himself,” and she possessed “possibly the largest private collection of music in the United States.” Yet there is no extant record of a public performance of a Beethoven concerto with orchestra at this time. The poem seems to have been original; above it is the heading “For the Euterpeiad.” It is possible that this performance occurred elsewhere, even in Russia, or that the term “full orchestra” is a euphemism. More likely the performance was a private one in Boston at the Russian Consul’s residence, accompanied by a few amateur and possibly professional musicians.

Two other lengthy articles in the Euterpeiad that discuss Beethoven were copied directly from European magazines. This was not an unusual practice for American journals, and the original source was normally acknowledged. In a two-part article on “Modern Music,” which originally appeared in the British Gentleman’s Magazine, Beethoven is described in laudatory and gendered terms: “This author, who is now the first master living, is bred up purely in the new school, and possesses great and original powers. Though less perfect than Haydn, he disdains to imitate him; his genius loves to rove in the darkest recesses of modulation, which impart to his compositions a peculiar strength and rudeness; and the science which has been nursed in the lap of Italy, is now masculizing in the regions of the earth.”

An article taken from the Scottish magazine the Edinburgh Pamphlet attempts to distinguish Beethoven’s style from those of Haydn and Mozart. The essence of the argument is that Beethoven’s music is not as polished, proportional, or regular. But he is powerful and moving in a way that neither Haydn nor Mozart are: “We think his subjects of a higher order, more original, more deeply affecting, more general, more fervid, we had almost said more superhuman, than the strains of any other composers. They work more powerfully upon our sympathies, we feel something like the sensations produced by an odour never smelt before. Such his melodies appear; his harmonies are equally peculiar.” Beethoven is also discussed in gender terms here: He has “entered further than any other upon the rugged domain of dissonance,” and “the works of the great master are less remarkable for purity and correctness, than for a certain brilliancy and masculine energy of style which are more easily to be felt than described.” The power, the masculinity, and the ability to move the listener already point to a Romantic vision that, while clearly not unique to America, would become integral to Beethoven’s American image later in the century.

Parker clearly wanted to indoctrinate his readers into the power of Beethoven’s music, even though, with the exception of the Hallelujah Chorus of the Mount of Olives, not much Beethoven had been heard. There was a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 12, op. 26, in 1819 by Sophie Hewitt, believed to be the first of a Beethoven piano sonata in America; the daughter of musician James Hewitt and later the wife of another musician, Louis Ostinelli, she would become one of the most established pianists and organists in Boston, a rare status for a woman at the time. Beethoven symphonies, meanwhile, were heard only occasionally and, except for Charleston, in out-of-the-way places. American references to Beethoven, such as S. P. M.’s, more often than not were to his vocal music. One such example was an advertisement placed by a Mr. Huntington in the Euterpeiad for his Grammatical Music School, in which he specified that he would teach young ladies “in the pure style of singing” and would use “fashionable songe duets, and choruses of Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.” Thus, at least to readers of the Euterpeiad, Beethoven’s reputation preceded familiarity with the bulk of his music. He was a celebrity before most people had an opportunity to hear why.

Between 1820 and 1840, performances of Beethoven’s music continued to be scattered and irregular. The Second Symphony was played by the Musical Fund Society, the most important musical organization in Philadelphia, at their inaugural concert in 1821. In two concerts in Boston in 1831, Charles Zeuner, newly arrived from Germany, performed on the piano “A Favorite Cotillion, with Variations for the Pianoforte, composed by Beethoven.” Exactly what the piece is and what part of it Beethoven composed is not clear.

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