Beethoven in America

by Michael Broyles

13 October 2011


Scalpers Working a Beethoven Symphony

What made this crowd so enthusiastic, and why this reversal from attitudes prevalent only a few years earlier? As with any change there were a number of factors, but the most important can be summed up in one word: Beethoven. The repeated performances of Beethoven’s symphonies had an emotional impact on Boston audiences like nothing before, not just in Boston but throughout America. When the only way to hear a symphony was through a live concert, repetition was important. From 1841 through 1847, when the rise of a competing orchestra forced the Academy to abandon its performances, the Academy gave between six and eight concerts a season. In those seven years, Beethoven’s Fifth became the favorite and was performed at least twelve times, the Seventh at least nine, and both the Fourth and the Sixth four times. While other symphonies, such as those of Haydn, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, were presented, none were repeated as often as Beethoven’s.

Dwight attributed the establishment of classical music in Boston to the repeated performances of Beethoven symphonies, particularly the Fifth, at the Academy of Music in the early 1840s. Recalling that time from the 1880s, Dwight observed that “the first great awakening of the musical instinct here was when the C-minor Symphony of Beethoven was played” by the Academy of Music. In 1844 he had noticed that the “performance and subsequent frequent repetition” of Beethoven’s Fifth created a “living bond of union between audience and performers, an initiation into a deeper life.”

What happened in Boston closely paralleled events in New York, although the circumstances were quite different. Boston had been a relatively homogeneous city ethnically. In the early years, the Puritan theocracy was not inviting to many ethnic groups, and later colonial Bostonians were not especially welcoming, either. The one immigrant group that arrived in large numbers were the Irish, beginning in the 1830s. By 1855 Boston was thirty percent Irish, while Germans, who composed significant minorities in many cities after 1849, were only one percent.

New York, by contrast, had been a polyglot city from its founding. New Netherland, the original Dutch colony, contained at least a dozen nationalities. Killiaen Van Rensselaer, who established a patroon, or plantation, on the upper Hudson River, recruited Norwegians, Danes, Germans, Scots, and Irish in addition to Dutch. According to the Jesuit priest and later martyr Father Isaac Jogues, eighteen different languages were spoken in the immediate area of Manhattan Island in 1644. In 1709, thousands of Germans from the German Palatine area settled in the Hudson Valley area, many moving to New York City. The Revolutionary War swelled the German population. England brought more than 29,000 German mercenaries, or Hessians, to America, and after the war at least 12,000 chose to remain. Even though they fought on the losing side, most had been forced into service and were only too glad not to have to return to Europe. Many French, who fought on the American side, also chose to remain. Italians began to appear around 1820, most fleeing from revolts against Austria, which ruled much of the Italian peninsula at the time. Beginning around 1840 large numbers of Irish came, and starting around 1849 Germans began to arrive en masse, many as political refugees of the revolts of 1848.

New York thus became a city of ethnic neighborhoods, a trend that continued as immigration swelled through the First World War. Some Beethoven performances within these communities were attended strictly by members of the community. In 1841 George Templeton Strong, a wealthy supporter and staunch fan of music in New York, attended such a concert by the German Society at the Tabernacle, a large concert venue in the city. The performance closed with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, probably the first performance of the work in America. The symphony puzzled Strong: “It was generally unintelligible to me, except the Andante,” and he also noticed the audience: the hall was “jammed with Dutchmen like a barrel of Dutch herrings. I scarcely saw an Anglo-Saxon physiognomy in the whole gallery.” Beyond Strong’s condescending description, it is clear that this was an event for the German community. Only a year and a half later, with the founding of the Philharmonic Society of New York (today’s New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in America still in existence), did the Fifth Symphony become familiar to the mainstream concert audience in New York.

The 1842 orchestra was not the first New York Philharmonic, but rather the fourth. The first three were founded in 1799, 1816, and 1824, and each had its own demise. These were all primarily private social groups, consisting mostly of amateurs who met either weekly or biweekly, played music, and then enjoyed refreshments and socializing. They would give regular private concerts for the benefit of members of the society and their invited guests and usually presented at least one public concert each year, normally followed by a ball for which the orchestra provided the music. This pattern was typical for concerts in Federal America, and even in these early attempts the parallels between Boston and New York are striking. In Boston there were at least two other orchestras before the 1840s, the Philoharmonic Society, founded in the 1790s, and the Apollo Society, founded in 1824.

These societies of the 1790s were organized in both cities by European immigrant musicians who quickly established themselves as the leading instrumental musicians of their respective metropolises. In Boston, Gottlieb Graupner had emigrated from Germany and arrived in Boston with his wife, Charlotte Elizabeth Rowson, a member of a British theatrical troupe. In New York, James Hewitt emigrated from England in 1792. Both soon became leaders of theater orchestras, the one type of steady employment for an instrumental musician. Both had to supplement their income with other activities, and both opened music stores. Neither city at the time would be considered large by today’s standards; in the 1790 census New York had a population of 33,131, Boston 18,320. New York was the largest city in the country, edging out Philadelphia (population 28,522), and Boston was third.

Because most of the activities of these societies were private, they left few records. We are able to trace more details about them only from when their activities became more public, mostly in the 1820s. Least visible of all are their demises, for silence in the public record does not mean they ceased to exist. The first New York Philharmonic Society probably collapsed when Hewitt, after a contract dispute with the Park Theater, left New York for Boston. The second Philharmonic, the most elusive of all, appeared in 1816, about the time Hewitt returned to New York. All that is known about it is one concert announced for December 7, 1816. That this was not the 1799 society was stressed in the announcement, which stated, possibly to ensure that no one mistook it for the older organization, that it was “the first effort of an infant institution.” It was never heard from again.

Much more is known about the third Philharmonic, founded in 1824, which had no connection with Hewitt (he was no longer in New York). The constitution and bylaws have survived, indicating a growing interest in music by upper-class New Yorkers as well as a mounting tension between amateur and professional musicians. The constitution refers to promotion of the “science of music,” a term that meant the cultivation of European classical practice, and it bars professional musicians from any governing authority. A board of wealthy New Yorkers would manage the institution. Membership was divided between subscribing members attending concerts and amateur performing members. Professional musicians could belong only as associates. Membership was also limited to men, a stricture common at the time, with the number of ladies each member could invite depending on the level of his membership.

The founding of this organization has parallels in Boston, where a group of nine prominent citizens attempted to found a strikingly similar organization in 1826. The Boston effort went no further than a detailed printed circular, however, which outlined the purpose, goals, and justification of the proposed society. In tone, explanation, and proposed governance the circular may well have been modeled on the 1824 New York Philharmonic. Boston, it appears, was not ready for this type of musical organization, or at least the elite were not ready to fund it.

On December 17, 1824, Dennis Étienne, a French hornist from the Paris Conservatoire, conducted the first concert of the new New York Philharmonic. It included as the closing number, listed as a “finale,” a movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Interest was so high that four hundred extra tickets were put on sale for the extraordinary price of two dollars. Seldom did any concert ticket go for more than one dollar at the time, and many sold for less. Perhaps a Beethoven symphony was part of the first instance of ticket scalping in the United States.

With this auspicious beginning, the society’s future seemed assured, and except for some grumbling from a self-styled critic, Musaeus, writing to the New York American, concerts for the next two years appeared to be successful. Some of Musaeus’s complaints were probably legitimate, such as the lack of proper instrumentation—not enough violins and some wind instruments— but his tone undoubtedly was influenced by the society’s refusal to grant him membership. Yet he provided more information about the society than exists for any of the previous ones.

Soon, however, the society made a fatal decision. In 1825 Manuel García arrived from Spain with a small troupe to present the first opera in the United States in the original Italian. English theatrical troupes had performed opera in America but had treated operas mostly as skeletons on which to hang an evening’s entertainment. Not only were they translated into English, the libretto was often modified to be more attuned to current situations, and in many cases English ballads were substituted for the original arias. In one performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the lead role was played not by a singer but an actor, so they simply omitted all music from his part. García, however, promised the real thing.

Excitement ran high at first and newspaper reviews were ecstatic, but soon interest dwindled. The novelty wore off, and the troupe, with a limited repertoire, repeated the same operas again and again. After a few months the opera company was in serious financial difficulties, exacerbated by the impending loss of its star singer, María Felicia, García’s eighteen-year-old daughter; she had married, much to her father’s chagrin. In the fall of 1826 García and what was left of his troupe departed for Mexico.

The Philharmonic Society unfortunately intertwined its fate with the García company. Many of the musicians formed the orchestra for the opera performances, and on at least four occasions García singers appeared in Philharmonic concerts. Further compromising the Philharmonic, in May 1826, as financial difficulties began to mount for García, the Philharmonic board agreed to a guarantee of $1,500 to the troupe, equivalent in 2008 dollars to $1,140,861. As a consequence, when the García Troupe departed in October of that year, the Philharmonic was in serious financial difficulties. Regular rehearsals were suspended because of the debt they incurred, and their final concert occurred on February 27, 1827. Gracchus, writing in the New York American, implored New Yorkers to attend to help save the society, but apparently it was not enough. Like its predecessors, the third New York Philharmonic Society was never heard from again.

The fourth, final, and ultimately most important New York Philharmonic Society was founded in 1842 on very different principles from the 1824 model. It was created by musicians themselves, to be run by musicians. For several years prior a number of musicians in New York lamented the absence of a decent orchestra, and finally on Saturday, April 12, 1842, Ureli Corelli Hill called a meeting of professional musicians in New York with the idea of forming an orchestral society. Hill was an American violinist and conductor who in 1837 had returned from Europe after studying with Ludwig Spohr, considered one of the finest violinists as well as an outstanding composer in his time. Anthony Heinrich, then in New York, was selected to serve as chair of the meeting. In the next two weeks a constitution was adopted, and Hill was elected president and chosen as its conductor. The constitution stipulated that membership would be limited to seventy and only to professional musicians, although not all would necessarily be orchestral performing musicians. The society would present four concerts a year, and performing members would be paid $25 a year for their efforts. The society was a cooperative in that any profits at the end of the year would be divided among the members. Repertoire and condutor would be chosen by the members, and compositions by American composers were encouraged.

The Society gave its first concert on December 7, 1842, with an orchestra numbering between fifty and sixty, a large ensemble for the time. In contrast, the Academy of Music Orchestra had thirty-one players. The program was lengthy, featuring chamber and vocal music, including two opera scenes, as well as orchestral music. It opened with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and also featured a scene from Beethoven’s Fidelio. The sheer size of the orchestra as well as the performance level impressed the audience and critics. George Templeton Strong, who could make no sense of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when he had heard it performed by the German Society, gave no indication whether it was more intelligible to him, but he did comment that it was “splendidly played” and that the instrumental part of the program was “glorious.” This was in comparison to the vocal performers, one of whom “sounded like a hand organ,” and another whose voice cracked completely. Newspaper reviewers were also pleased with the overall level of performance and the very fact that virtually all the professional orchestral musicians in New York were on the stage at the same time, but they had quibbles with some aspects of the performance. Nevertheless, all judged the concert a success, and Beethoven was launched in New York.

Two more similar programs were held during the first season. Each of these concerts also opened with a complete Beethoven symphony, the Third and the Second Symphonies, respectively. The Philharmonic Society programmed more contemporary works and had a wider range of music than the Boston Academy, but Beethoven symphonies still formed the core of its repertoire. Through the 1840s the Second, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies were each played once, the Seventh three times, the Third and the Fifth four times. The performances of the Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth were the first in America. Thus over the course of twenty-eight concerts, the New York audiences heard seventeen performances of a Beethoven symphony. This far out-stripped presentations of any other composer.

In 1850 Samuel Jennison, a Bostonian, was asked to give the annual lecture to the Harvard Musical Association. For his topic he chose “Music in the Past Half-Century.” He noted the changes that had occurred in Boston in only the past few years, including chamber concerts of the Harvard Musical Association and the orchestral concerts of the Academy of Music. Music occupied a very different place in 1850 than it did even in 1840. Not only were major instrumental ensembles thriving, but the entire notion of music as an art had begun to take hold. Even though Jennison’s frame of reference was Boston, it could easily have pertained to New York. Dramatic changes had occurred in two of the largest cities in the country, and Beethoven’s music had become lodged deep in the mind and heart of concertgoers in New York and Boston. The second half of the nineteenth century would see Beethoven’s impact grow, as more of his repertoire became familiar, and as performances of his music spread from coast to coast, to large cities and small towns. Americans would also grapple with questions that had already begun to surface about the meaning of music, its role as art, and its place in society. Beethoven would turn out to be at the center of all of those questions.

The author with Ludwig, taken at the American Beethoven Center

The author with Ludwig, taken at
the American Beethoven Center

Michael Broyles is Professor of Music at Florida State University and former Distinguished Professor of Music and Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, Leo Ornstein: Modernist Dilemmas, Personal Choices (IUP, 2007), written with Denise Von Glahn, won the Irving Lowens Prize in 2007.

©Michael Broylew

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