Dec 222013


On this date in 1808 Ludwig van Beethoven held a mammoth concert at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. The program consisted entirely of pieces by Beethoven, which he conducted, and featured the premieres of his Fifth Symphony, Sixth Symphony, and Choral Fantasy (with Beethoven at the piano). The concert was over four hours long and was quite the event in a number of ways.  Let me take you through the events beginning with the enormous struggle Beethoven had to get the concert organized at all.

The concert was designed as a benefit to provide Beethoven with money to live on. He had been struggling financially for years.  Many musicians found comfortable lives with wealthy patrons, but not all.  Even Mozart, who had many patrons over his life, had financial troubles and did not die a rich man despite his enormous output of work.  This was a mere 17 years before Beethoven’s concert.  Beethoven might have had more patrons were it not for the fact that he refused to ingratiate himself with the rich and famous.  Rather, he quite willfully shunned and embarrassed them even though they sought him out.  He was definitely a celebrity in his day, but a difficult one.


It took Beethoven almost two years to get the necessary permissions to go ahead with the concert.  In order to get them he had to offer his services for free to the producers of other concerts, primarily organized to benefit the poor.  He also had to navigate the treacherous waters of concert hall and orchestra scheduling.  His letters concerning his efforts to book the Theater an der Wien are preserved and reveal the problems he had.  In them Beethoven shifts from polite requests to threats and abusive language, using friends as intermediaries and complaining of his frustrations to them. To some extent his frustrations were understandable; he had given the necessary services for free in order to secure a promise of the hall and orchestra in return.  But in doing so he frequently alienated people with his erratic behavior and irascible personality.   So he would find himself being made an offer one day only to have it withdrawn the next.  One of the most often quoted passages from these letters is this from a letter to court secretary Heinrich Joseph von Collin in March 1808 venting his wrath over continual postponements by theater director Joseph Hartl:

Tomorrow I’ll go see Hartl myself.  I was there once but he wasn’t home – I am so vexed that all I want is to be a bear so that every time I lifted my paw I could knock down one of the so-called great — — asses.

Beethoven continued his correspondence well into autumn 1808 and did not get a firm answer until the beginning of December 1808, leaving him very little time for rehearsal.  Not only that, he was not in good odor with the theater orchestra following a benefit concert of November 15, 1808.  His biographer and friend Ferdinand Ries tells us that the rank and file of the orchestra got so furious at Beethoven’s behavior in rehearsal at that time that they refused to play for him.  Instead he had to listen in an anteroom, and the substitute conductor would go back there to get rehearsal notes from Beethoven every so often.  Furthermore, despite seemingly ingratiating efforts he could not get the theater’s soprano Pauline Anna Milder to sing for him. Beethoven had had an argument with her husband previously.  In a letter to the tenor Joseph August Röckel he writes:

Dear Röckel,  do your job well with Milder – tell her merely that already today, you are asking her in my name that she will not sing elsewhere.  Tomorrow, I will come, myself, to kiss the hem of her garment . . .

This was all to no avail, requiring Beethoven to find an alternate who was not up to the task, as we shall see.


In general, therefore, the setting was not good.  The hall was unheated, hence freezing cold, the orchestra was under-rehearsed and barely on speaking terms with Beethoven, and, in the case of the final piece, the Choral Fantasy, the orchestra members were receiving some of their parts on the morning of the performance (folklore has it that the ink was still wet).  Here is the original program:

The Sixth Symphony

Aria: “Ah, perfido”

The Gloria movement of the Mass in C major

The Fourth Piano Concerto (Beethoven as soloist)


The Fifth Symphony

The Sanctus and Benedictus movements of the Mass in C major

A solo piano improvisation played by Beethoven

The Choral Fantasy (Beethoven as soloist)

On paper it sounds like a musician’s dream come true. Three of the pieces – the two symphonies and the choral fantasy – were premieres, the latter being a piece that evolved into the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But, in reality, it was undoubtedly exhausting.  Not much is noted about the initial reception of these pieces, but eyewitness accounts note some of the failings of the concert.  The chief newspaper review of the time reported:

To judge all these executed pieces is, after the first and only hearing, particularly since these are works by Beethoven, of which so many have been performed in one session and most of which are great and long–nearly impossible. However, all the more, I will refrain from brief, inconsequential remarks that could well be made, since we hope that you soon will be able to hear them yourself and will convey to the readers of the Musical. Zeit. your opinion of them, and since many of them will soon be published.  However, as far as the execution of this academy concert is concerned, it could be considered lacking in all respects.  While Dem. Killitzky [the substitute soprano] has a very pleasant voice, she did not let us hear many secure notes, and often even false ones.  However, this seemed to be more a result of her shyness that, with time, she will lose.  Most noticeable, however, was the error that occurred in the last Fantasy. The wind instruments varied the theme, which before, Beethoven had played on the piano.  Now it was the oboes’ turn.  The clarinets–if I am not mistaken!–miscounted and set in at the same time.  A peculiar mix of tones emerged; B. jumped up and tried to silence the clarinets, however, he did not succeed until he called out quite loudly and rather angrily to the orchestra:  Silence!  This will not do!  Once more–once more! and the praised orchestra had to accommodate him and play the unfortunate Fantasy again, from the beginning–!   The effect of all of these pieces on the mixed audience, and particularly of the pieces of the second section, obviously suffered from the amount and the length of the music.  Moreover, it is known that, with respect to Vienna, it holds even more true than with respect to most other cities, what is written in the scriptures, namely that the prophet does not count for anything in his own country.

After the concert the orchestra refused to play for Beethoven any more, but, as ever, was eventually persuaded to relent.

On the 200th anniversary in 2008 there were some attempts to re-create the concert, usually by radio stations using recordings, but though this seems like an obvious and reverent homage, as an anthropologist it seems to me like a merely mechanical exercise robbed of all relevant context.  What was it like to be huddled in furs for four hours listening to masterpieces for the first time? What in blazes was Beethoven thinking when he conceived of such a monster performance? What was the atmosphere like in the theater (remember that Viennese audiences of the time were not always quiet – Beethoven is on record as stopping performances on several occasions to hush the audience)?  What was it like to see Beethoven in action? Audiences sometimes treated Beethoven as a clown of sorts, amused by his antics, especially when playing the piano. It is an impossible scene to imagine now.

As it turns out, coming up with a recipe for today’s celebration was easier than I thought.  Beethoven had a favorite dish.  But I’ll get to that.  His eating habits were commensurate with his behavior in all other aspects of his life.  He usually ate his main meal of the day at lunch time – quite common in those days – and rarely ate much afterwards because he was preoccupied with his work.  One restaurant incident is recorded by Ries:

One day we were dining at the Swan; the waiter brought him the wrong dish. Beethoven had scarcely said a few choice words about it, which the waiter had answered perhaps not quite so politely as he should, when Beethoven laid hold of the dish (it was so-called “Lugenbratel” {a type of Roast beef} with lots of sauce) and flung it at the waiter’s head. The poor fellow still had on his arms a large number of plates containing various dishes (a dexterity which Viennese waiters possess to a high degree) and could do nothing to help himself; the sauce ran down his face. He and Beethoven shouted and cursed at each other, while all the other guests laughed out loud. Finally Beethoven began laughing at the sight of the waiter, who lapped up with his tongue the sauce that was running down his face, tried to go on hurling insults, but had to go on lapping instead, pulling the most ludicrous faces the while, a picture worthy of Hogarth.

On another occasion:

Once Beethoven dropped in to a restaurant to have dinner, but as he was very absent-minded he forgot what he actually came there for. He was asked by a waiter a few times what he would like to order but he didn’t pay any attention to that. After an hour Beethoven called the waiter and asked him:

– How much do I pay?

– Sir, you haven’t ordered anything yet and I would like to ask you what I can do for you?

– O, just bring whatever you want and leave me alone!

Ries also reports that in general Beethoven favored fish over meat and was partial to pollock and potatoes. But his favorite dish of all time was macaroni and cheese.  At first this may strike you as incongruous, but baked macaroni (or pasta) and cheese has a very long history going back at least to the 14th century.  The famous medieval French cookbook, The Forme of Cury, gives the following:

Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh and kerve it on peces, and cast hem on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. take chese and grate it and butter cast bynethen and above as losyns. and serue forth.

[Take and make a thin layer of dough and cut it in pieces and put them in boiling water and boil it well. Take cheese and grate it and butter placed beneath and above in layers and serve it forth]

This would be rather like a layered pasta, butter, and cheese casserole, and is the basis for most recipes since.  The only main variation is to make a cheese béchamel instead of simply butter and cheese.  Ries specifically notes that Beethoven liked his pasta with Italian cheese, which would mean Parmesan. Beethoven’s dish would have been oven baked.


I am not sure what else to say except make mac and cheese today.  I don’t see one recipe as being much different from another. I would, however, recommend that you do it properly, that is cook the macaroni to almost al dente, mix it with a rich cheese béchamel, and bake it in an earthenware casserole uncovered until the top is crusty and golden.

Perhaps I should also add that Beethoven preferred expensive Hungarian red wines with his meals.