Beethoven in America

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Traveling Virtuoso

On September 9, 1839, Edmund Simpson, manager of the Park Theatre in New York, presented a new opera company that had just arrived from England. They brought with them an opera never before heard in the United States, Beethoven’s Fidelio. New Yorkers were used to opera as light fare, and if the critics’ remarks are any guide, locals were perplexed, even bewildered, by the work. The writer for the Corsair, probably Nathaniel Parker Willis, resorted to vague third-person rumor rather than comment directly on the merits of the opera itself: “Musicians tell us that [Fidelio] is a most masterly effort of genius, abounding in all the elements of a sublime, lyrical opera.” In New York at the time, opera and “sublime” were seldom used in the same sentence. Willis then played it safe, praising the singers in the company. The writer for the Knickerbocker pursued a similar strategy; he focused on the instrumental parts, finding them “beautiful and touching.”

Especially noteworthy regarding Beethoven’s reception is this comment from the American, September 10, 1839, which exalted the composer even beyond Parker’s tributes: “Oh! May you give your spirit up to him fearlessly! He will transport you to other worlds, and infuse a thousand strange and thrilling sensations—will cradle you in his arms until, in admiration of his strength, you forget how powerful you are, and when he has poured those notes into your ear, and you are filled with tremblings, of golden wires half conscious of their own thrilling—he leaves you petrified, enchanted—in a silent dream where even the echoes have subsided.”

This statement is something of a landmark in U.S. Beethoven attitudes. It is the first inkling of a reputation that would predominate by the end of the nineteenth century and would culminate in the composer’s virtual deification by the early twentieth century. It was not Fidelio, however, that ushered in a new, widespread appreciation of Beethoven. While the opera did appear occasionally in the repertoire over the next several years, it was only when all the Beethoven symphonies began to appear frequently in the 1840s that the glorification of Beethoven began in earnest.

Beethoven was making other inroads. Out of the spotlight young pianists had begun to plunk away on the Beethoven sonatas, and occasionally their efforts found their way into the historical record. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a cousin of Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, refers to his sister as “one of the first in this region to play Beethoven,” around 1830. Samuel Jennison, recalling his time at Harvard in the 1830s, remembered a “graduate, a devoted amateur, rooming in Massachusetts,” studying Beethoven sonatas, “then just beginning to become known.”

Thus as late as 1840 Beethoven was known and respected in America, but few were aware of his music. That changed dramatically in two of the largest cities in the 1840s, Boston and New York, and soon spread throughout the country. A conflux of factors came together to transform the American musical landscape and, with that, to establish both Beethoven’s canonicity and popularity.

The first and probably most important factor, which had nothing to do with music directly, was the railroad. As tracks began to appear in the 1830s, distance and time were altered radically. Prior to the railroad most travelers were lucky to manage twenty to thirty miles a day. The trip from Baltimore to Philadelphia took three days, in coaches that were at best uncomfortable and on roads that were subject to delays, difficulties, and danger. Ship travel between ports was possible, but steamships were not yet common, and sailing ships were slow and uncertain. Other water routes, either rivers or canals, offered somewhat better travel, but these did not always connect the important population centers. The Erie Canal, linking the Hudson at Albany with Lake Erie at Buffalo, had been completed in 1825, and, while important as an opening to the West, it soon became obsolete as railroad tracks crawled westward. When Baltimore and Philadelphia were joined, that three-day trip was cut to five hours.

The railroad opened America to the traveling virtuoso. By the 1840s European virtuosi, well established on the continent and starting to feel the competition from their numbers, began to look across the Atlantic to what seemed a lucrative and virgin field ripe for picking. In the early 1840s they began to arrive and created a sensation. One of the first, the violinist Ole Bull, opened American’s ears to what the violin could do. Fiddlers existed everywhere, and even those who had heard Anthony Heinrich had no idea of the level of virtuosic excitement the instrument was capable of in the hands of someone like Bull. Other instrumentalists followed suit, including the violinist Henri Vieuxtemps, the cellist Henry Knoop, and the pianist Harold Meyer.

No one, however, created quite the sensation that the soprano Jenny Lind did on her visit in 1850. P. T. Barnum, showman, shrewd businessman, and possibly the most successful promoter in American history, was keenly tuned to American tastes, or to what could be exploited. Something in both Lind and the rapidly developing American musical scene caught his eye. Thus began a strange, unlikely alliance between the demur, refined “Swedish nightingale” and America’s huckster extraordinaire. Her visit and Barnum’s shrewd tactics succeeded beyond anything the American public had seen, and can best be compared to the Beatles’ invasion of 1964. Barnum auctioned off the first ticket for $225, equivalent to $6,380 in 2009 dollars.

While neither Lind nor the other virtuosi featured Beethoven on their programs, they did much to further the notion of music as a powerful, moving experience. John S. Dwight, who was to become the leading spokesman in America for music as high art (see chapter 2), gave voice to that change in attitude when he first heard Ole Bull. Dwight later came to believe that virtuosic display such as Bull’s and manipulation of public taste à la Barnum only demeaned the nature of the art, but that was not his first impression. On that occasion Dwight wrote to his friend, the poet Lydia Marie Child: “The most glorious sensation I ever had was to sit in one of his audiences, and to feel that all were elevated to the same pitch with myself, that the spirit in every breast had risen to the same level.” Dwight knew that something was changing in musical America, but he had not yet had time to reflect on what it meant.

The factor most directly related to Beethoven’s impact was the development of orchestras in New York and Boston and their success with the American public. Prior to the 1840s, a number of musical societies existed on the East Coast: the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston, the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia, the Philoharmonic Society of Boston, three Philharmonic Societies in New York. None of these, however, should be equated with modern orchestras, such as today’s New York Philharmonic. Orchestral ensembles were one part of musical societies, whose concerts featured a wide-ranging potpourri of offerings. As in Charleston and Lexington, a typical concert would normally open and close with a piece by the “full band,” which usually meant orchestra, and in between would be a variety of offerings, solo instrumental or small ensemble pieces, songs, glees, improvisations, by whatever and whoever was available. The concerts were like variety shows meant purely for entertainment and amusement. The orchestras themselves were pickup groups, consisting of members of the society, professional musicians hired for the occasion along with some amateurs. According to most reports, the performance level ranged from barely acceptable to abysmal.

New societies in which orchestral music was more than a stage curtain to open and close a program emerged in both Boston and New York in the 1840s. Even though each city took a strikingly different path to that point, each city arrived at the same place almost simultaneously. In Boston the path spun off from the main road of sacred vocal music that had dominated public musical activity since the founding of the Handel and Haydn Society in 1815. Lowell Mason, the most important figure in the effort to instill in Americans a more uplifting style of hymns and sacred music, had become president of the Handel and Haydn Society in 1827. By 1832 he was discouraged with the level of singing in churches and had come to the conclusion that the only way to improve church music was to found a new society devoted to that cause. The problem, it should be noted, was not the same as the one that so riled the earlier Puritan preachers. Mason believed in a decorous, proper type of music more aligned with the European tradition. To further that end he left the Handel and Haydn Society to found the Boston Academy of Music. Article I of the Academy’s constitution states that “its object shall be to promote knowledge, and correct taste in music, especially such as is adapted to moral and religious purposes.”

The society provided vocal instruction for both adults and “juveniles,” sponsored lectures, formed choirs, and presented concerts. Buried in Point 8 of a long list of objectives specifying how the Academy would realize its goals was what may have been Mason’s real motivation: “To introduce vocal music into the schools.” Mason had come to the conclusion that the only hope for improving church music was to start when people were young, and the only way to make that happen was to get music instruction into the school curriculum.

For the first three years of the society Mason’s plan worked. He was appointed “Professor,” with one assistant, George J. Webb, and by the third year he and Webb were teaching music to some 2,200 pupils, in various locales, including some private schools. By 1835, the Academy had become a success and a major force in the musical community. Then it all began to change because of one person, Samuel Atkins Eliot.

In 1835 Eliot replaced Reverend Jacob Abbott as president of the Boston Academy of Music. How he came to be elected and why he even wanted the position is not known, but in retrospect his agenda was clear. Singlehandedly, he transformed the Academy from a religious-oriented, pedagogical organization into a secular concert-giving institution with an orchestra as its centerpiece. Primarily because of the Academy, Boston witnessed a seismic shift in the musical landscape from 1832 to 1840; symphony replaced Psalmody.

Eliot was an unlikely figure to instigate a musical revolution. As a member of one of the most important families in Boston, he was not expected to disturb the status quo, and he was not expected to be involved in music. At first he did not and was not. Like most wealthy young men from Boston, he graduated from Harvard College, in 1817. He went to Harvard Divinity School but decided not to pursue a ministerial career, although he remained active in his family’s Unitarian church. He spent three years in Europe, from 1820 to 1823, gaining culture, and upon his return he married the daughter of another wealthy merchant, Mary Lyman. Financially he was set for life.

Throughout the 1820s Eliot gave no evidence of any interest in music, other than singing in his church’s choir. During his three-year European sojourn he sent back many letters about the places he visited and the sights he saw, especially the museums and galleries. Eliot was clearly interested in the visual arts, but there is not a single mention of music.

Figure 1.2 The only known image of Samuel Atkins Eliot,
mayor of Boston and president of the Boston Academy of Music,
taken from Mayors of Boston: An Illustrated Epitome
of Who the Mayors Have Been and What They Have Done
(Boston: State Street Trust Company, 1914) 15.
The original of what appears to be a daguerreotype is lost.

What seemed to have changed Eliot’s mind was the sudden death of his brother William in 1829. William was two years older and had displayed as much interest in music as was possible under his class restrictions. It was almost as if the musical mantle had been passed to Samuel, and he felt obliged to take it up. He never became a performer, but he devoted considerable time after that both to musical organizations and to writing about music in various literary journals. As an advocate for music in class-conscious Boston, he was ideally placed; he was not only a member of the socioeconomic elite, but active in politics. He was mayor of Boston from 1837 to 1839 and a member of Congress in 1850 and 1851. Daniel Webster described him as “the impersonification of Boston; ever-intelligent, ever-patriotic, ever-glorious Boston.”

On assuming the presidency of the Boston Academy, Eliot immediately began to make changes, although he had to go slowly. He hired an instrumental professor and made an arrangement with an amateur society to form an orchestra. He also stated in the Third Annual Report (1835) that the academy was not devoted strictly to sacred music “as has been supposed.” By 1837 he hinted at his agenda but felt it was not yet time to reveal it, observing only that “plans of more extensive usefulness, and wider fields of effort have presented themselves to our minds, and these not of a visionary nature; but we have been obliged to content ourselves with merely contemplating them as objects which we should be able to compass at some future time.”

It is not clear whether Lowell Mason’s presence still loomed over the Academy, but by the next year he was for all practical purposes gone, having achieved his long-desired appointment as superintendent of music in the schools of Boston. For whatever reason, in 1838 Eliot brought his agenda into the open. He announced his intention to concentrate on an orchestra and to let the choirs atrophy through calculated neglect. When a member of the choir resigned, no effort was made to replace him. At first Eliot’s efforts met resistance, but not from the sacred music community. Eliot tried to enlist all the instrumental professional musicians in Boston into one orchestra under the Academy’s umbrella, but many were skeptical that it could succeed financially or were concerned about the Academy’s oversight. Lacking was a strong instrumental leader who had the prestige to pull the musicians together. Eliot was also aware that the public itself was familiar only with theater orchestras, which were at best chaotic, haphazard, and undisciplined, whose main function was to bellow out popular tunes, often shouted from the audience, and which performed in an environment so rowdy most men would not bring their wives. The public would need to be persuaded that his orchestra was different.

Eliot proceeded cautiously, at first blending a few lighter orchestral pieces with glees and choruses, but by 1841 he thought they were ready for the final step. Eliot abandoned the chorus completely, used the entire finances of the Academy to secure twenty-five to thirty of the best players in Boston under the direction of Henry Schmidt, whom he had already hired, and announced that from then on the Academy would be devoted to orchestral concerts.

The plan worked. The 1841 season was a success far beyond what Eliot could have imagined. The Musical Cabinet referred to the concerts as “a new era in the history of music in Boston.” John S. Dwight, writing many years later, looked back upon that time: “Many can remember how eagerly these concerts were sought, how frequently the audience was large, and what a theme of enthusiastic comment and congratulation these first fresh hearings of the great masters was.”

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

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

PopMatters