Unearthing the Links Between Beethoven and the Vienna Philharmonic

By Rebecca Schmid

“Someone in the orchestra studied with someone who studied with someone who has played under Beethoven’s direction.”

A portrait of Beethoven in 1818 by August von Klober. The New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic will include music by Beethoven, with his rarely performed “12 Contredanses.”
A portrait of Beethoven in 1818 by August von Klober. The New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic will include music by Beethoven, with his rarely performed “12 Contredanses.”Credit...Universal History Archive/Getty Images

VIENNA — When the Vienna Philharmonic goes on tour next year with a cycle of Beethoven Symphonies, the musicians will not just commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Recent research is revealing previously undisclosed connections between the composer and the orchestra’s founding members that stretch back over two centuries.

In a tribute to that relationship, the New Year’s Concert on Jan. 1 at the Musikverein will include music by Beethoven for the first time, with his rarely performed “12 Contredanses.” On the podium is Andris Nelsons, who rejoins the orchestra in Germany, France and Luxembourg for all nine symphonies in February and March (he also led the full cycle on a Deutsche Grammophon recording that was released in October).

Accompanying the tour will be lectures by the orchestra’s archivist, Silvia Kargl, and the historian Friedemann Pestel, who — at the request of the Philharmonic’s chairman, Daniel Froschauer, — have investigated the role of Beethoven in the Philharmonic’s history.

No less than 10 performers who took part in the world premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1824 would go on to become founding members. The first official concert of the Philharmonic, on March 28, 1842, also included Beethoven, opening with his Seventh Symphony.

Ms. Kargl said that the research reveals Beethoven as a kind of “spiritual founding father” for the orchestra. “In order to perform his symphonies in a suitable manner, the first professional symphony orchestra in Vienna was founded,” she said. “And that was the Vienna Philharmonic.”

Mr. Froschauer pointed out that Beethoven’s symphonies must have been a technical challenge at the time. “They still are today,” he said. “It pushes the envelope if you play correctly.”

Among the players who premiered the Ninth was the hornist Eduard Lewy, a French native who was likely the first Jewish member of the Philharmonic (he converted to Catholicism in order to become a member of the Hofmusikkapelle, which performed Masses for the imperial family).

Ms. Kargl and Mr. Pestel are looking into whether the solo horn part in the third movement was written for him and what instrument he might have played.

The violinist Joseph Mayseder — the subject of the recently published book “Virtuosität und Wiener Charme” (Virtuosity and Viennese Charm), by the current Philharmonic violinist Raimund Lissy — also sat in the orchestra for the Ninth and many other notable performances such as the premiere of the Third “Eroica” Symphony under Beethoven’s baton in December 1807 and the founding concert of the Philharmonic in 1842 (where he played solo violin in the Mozart concert aria “Non temer, amato bene”). He also performed Beethoven’s string quartets in the presence of the composer and, in 1822, Rossini.

The violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, however, maintained the closest relationship with Beethoven: When the orchestra of the Theater an der Wien refused to include him in the premiere of the Ninth — most likely as concert master — the performance was moved to the Kärtnertor Theater (which was torn down in the late 19th century). He was also founder of one of the first professional string quartets, the Schuppanzigh Quartet, which included Mayseder and premiered works by Beethoven.

The so-called Vienna violin school has a direct lineage in the teachings of Schuppanzigh and Mayseder, continuing with such players as Georg Hellmesberger Sr., Wolfgang Schneiderhan and Mr. Froschauer.

Mr. Nelsons said in a telephone interview that performing the Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic, “you feel this line of tradition, that someone in the orchestra studied with someone who studied with someone who has played under Beethoven’s direction. That gives a particular color.”

He said he set out to emphasize “the emotional rather than technical” aspects with the orchestra. “There is so much protest, love, revolution, despair and joy,” he said. “And we want to express that through the music.”

Mr. Nelsons is the 12th conductor in the history of the orchestra to lead a full cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies. The first to do so, Felix Weingartner, also brought the symphonies on tour to South America as early as 1922. Ms. Kargl’s research has uncovered, however, that it was not possible to perform the final movement of the Ninth, most likely because there were problems finding a chorus.

For Mr. Froschauer, Beethoven’s music represents the sentiments of a new, secular era. Already in the Second Symphony, he said, the wigs of the era of Haydn and Mozart “are torn to pieces. In the ‘Eroica’ he places himself on the same level as God, asking, ‘where are you when it’s going so badly for people?’”

By the Ninth and final symphony, which declares that “all people will become brothers,” Mr. Froschauer said that Beethoven wrote a work embodying the ideal that “we are all the same and one community. Those are very modern thoughts.”

No other composer in the Philharmonic’s history has received so many performances of full cycles. The orchestra’s general manager, Michael Bladerer, explained that Mozart’s output of 41 symphonies is too vast, while the symphonies of Dvorak, for example, do not create a consistent dramaturgical arc.

For Mr. Bladerer, the unbroken historical connection between not just Beethoven but composers such as Richard Strauss — who conducted the Philharmonic for nearly four decades — and Mahler is what distinguishes the orchestra to this day. So close were the early orchestra members to Beethoven that, in the 1870s, they financially supported the widow of the composer’s nephew, Karl.

Ms. Kargl’s research will continue to explore such connections. It has also emerged that the timpanist Anton Hudler — who premiered the third and final version of Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” at the Kärtnertor Theater in 1814 — was most likely present for the Ninth. That is also the case for the clarinetist Josef Dobyhal, whose daughter, it has been established, sang in the chorus of the symphony’s final movement.

Mr. Froschauer called the findings part of the “lived history” of the orchestra.

“I am certain that more details about the founding generation will emerge,” he said.