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Reports are numerous regarding the fiasco of the Choral Fantasy, introduced to the world at Vienna's Theater an der Wien (capacity 1,230) on December 22, 1808 as "Improvisation for piano with gradual entrance of the orchestra and finally a choral section and finale." On the same program were the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, the Fourth Piano Concerto, an aria, two excerpts from his in-progress Mass in C, and a solo improvisation. Nearly all of the music, including some of the most challenging ever devised by the mind of man, was sight-read at the concert, which lasted from 6:30 to 10:30. According to the composer's piano pupil Ferdinand Ries: "We experienced the fact that one could easily have too much of a good – and even more, a powerful – thing. I, no more than the extremely kind and gentle Prince [Prince Lobkowitz, one of the composer’s chief patrons, who had invited Ries to sit with him], whose box was in the first tier very near the stage, on which the orchestra with Beethoven conducting were quite close to us, would not have thought of leaving the box before the end of the concert, although several faulty performances tried our patience to the utmost."

There are several accounts of Beethoven's verbal abuse of the clarinetist who in rehearsal had played a few notes too many when the choral theme was introduced. (Interestingly, the Fantasy seems to have been given the most rehearsal time.) After the concert, a deputation of orchestral musicians informed Beethoven that they would never play for him again. But they did. He was a star, and there can be no doubt that both audiences and musicians recognized, if not the extent of his genius, then certainly his uniqueness.

It should be kept in mind that both the Choral Fantasy and the G-major Piano Concerto as published were no doubt more polished scores than what was heard on that cold December evening. This explains the high opus number, 80, of the Fantasy, which must virtually have been rewritten after the quasi-improvised premiere. Beethoven was notorious for performing scores before they were completed.

The Choral Fantasy is a combination of free-wheeling fantasy for solo piano, a perky set of variations on a song (Beethoven's own "Gegenliebe" – Mutual Love, 1795), and a piano concerto. It is closely related to the "Emperor" Concerto in its combination of heroic grandeur and expansive lyricism, but unique to the Fantasy amid the composer's music for piano and orchestra is its enthusiastic desire to excite the senses: this is show-off music, a virtuoso lark.

Perhaps the most arresting feature of Beethoven's Op. 80, aside from its fanciful construction, which in its free-variations style suggests Beethoven's legendary skills at keyboard improvisation, is its foreshadowing of the Ninth Symphony's "Ode to Joy" theme, whose entry here is unmistakable. Beethoven himself described the choral finale of the Ninth, in a letter written in 1824, as "a setting of the words of Schiller's immortal 'Lied an die Freude' in the same manner as my pianoforte fantasia, but on a far grander scale."

Beethoven did not notate the solo in its entirety until 1809. The score appeared in print in London in 1810, and when published in Vienna the following year bore a dedication to King Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria, made without Beethoven’s permission or knowledge. The publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, would as a consequence suffer the full force of Beethoven’s sarcastic censure.

Interestingly, while there is ample record of the Choral Fantasy disaster – Schindler, in a moment of rare candor, tells us that it "simply fell apart" – we have barely a word on how the two symphonies went down with audience and critics. Does this suggest a journalistic preoccupation with failure? How unfortunate that the great critic-composers of the Romantic era – Schumann and Berlioz – were not yet around to chronicle the event. And while these great Romantics would later write memorably of the Fifth Symphony, neither noted the irony of having Beethoven's most diffuse large-scale composition, the Choral Fantasy, introduced cheek by jowl with his most centered and tautly constructed, the Fifth Symphony.

– H. G.

After serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, Herbert Glass was for many years a columnist / critic for the Los Angeles Times and a contributor to many periodicals, including Gramophone and The Strad. He has been associated with the Salzburg Festival since 1996.