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America's Beethoven

Historical Performances

The concert situation in early Federal America was radically different from later times. The high-low divide that has characterized American musical culture for over 150 years was non-existent, simply because there was no “high.” Most Americans would have considered the idea that music was an art preposterous. Although music existed from the most unpretentious folk songs heard on the street to formal concert presentations, the difference between what was heard on the street and in the concert hall was not great. A formal concert was as likely to include a popular ballad, a catch, or a hymn as a concerto or symphony.

Music was pleasure, generally unselfconscious, unexamined, and lacking any moral imperative beyond providing entertainment. Some immigrant musicians had other ideas, but when they attempted to implement them, such as the Boston musician Louis Ostinelli did in 1828, they were thoroughly rebuffed.

In this milieu Beethoven first appeared on concert programs. The earliest record of a Beethoven public performance occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1805. Jacob Eckhardt arranged a special concert for the St. Cecilia Society that opened with a Beethoven piece. That concert was a typical potpourri, mixing Beethoven symphonies with solos, popular songs, and various instrumental offerings. Also common, as in the 1847 concert of the Boston Philharmonic Society shown here, was to scatter individual pieces, such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, throughout the program. Here it is divided into two halves, and popular ballads and dramatic operatic scenes are interspersed between the halves. Even operatic scenes were considered as much popular entertainment as the ballads.

In the second half of the 19th century, musical thought and concert practice began to change dramatically: music was acknowledged to be an art as important as painting, sculpture, and literature. Pieces by certain composers were considered more than entertainment and possessed a moral and artistic value that placed them above pieces meant merely to please. Certain types of music were sacralized, and a pyramid or hierarchy of aesthetic values emerged. Beethoven stood at the very apex of the musical hierarchy, a bequest from the nineteenth century that to a large extent remains in effect among the general public today. —Michael Broyles

Concert program, Boston Phil-harmonic Society, Third Musical Festival, Tremont Temple, January 30, 1847

This concert featured Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony but presented in a very unusual order by today’s standards. In between the first and second movements, the audience heard the ballads “Love’s Young Dream” and “The Gipsy Girl’s Dream” (by request, according to the program), followed by a dramatic scene from Auber’s Fra Diavolo and a piano concerto by J.N. Hummel. The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth concluded the first half of the program, and only after intermission did the orchestra perform the rest of the symphony.

Boston Philharmonic Society program

Concert program, Philharmonic Society of New York, Academy of Music, December 17, 1870

This “Grand concert to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the birth of the illustrious Ludwig van Beethoven” featured the Seventh Symphony, a scene and aria from Fidelio, selections from Egmont, and the Fifth Piano Concerto with Mary Krebs as soloist. According to the program, the Egmont music was presented for the “first time.” Note the large number of German names among the musicians of the orchestra.

New York Philharmonic Society program
Beethoven Centennial Grand Musical Jubilee

Broadside poster, Beethoven Centennial Grand Musical Jubilee, New York, June 16, 1870

On the fourth day of the jubilee, the sixth concert of the series featured performances of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the Fidelio Overture.

Concert program, Theodore Thomas’ Series of Six Symphony Concerts, season 1872-1873

This program was distributed for the sixth concert of the series on April 26, 1873, at Steinway Hall, New York. For the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Thomas’s orchestra was joined by the chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society and four soloists.

Theodore Thomas program

Theodore Thomas concert program

Concert program, Apollo Club, Boston Music Hall, January 3 and 6, 1873

The Apollo Club, established in Boston in 1871, was the second oldest men’s chorus in the United States. This concert featured two Beethoven works: the Coriolan Overture (performed by an unidentified orchestra) and the “Chorus of the Dervishes” from The Ruins of Athens.

Apollo Club program

Autographed concert program by the Kneisel Quartet, The Berkeley Musical Association, Fifth Concert, Sixth Season, 1915-1916, Harmon Gymnasium, University of California, Berkeley

All the members of the Kneisel Quartet signed the program for this concert, which concluded with a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in G Major, Opus 18, no. 2.

Autographed concert program by Pablo Casals and Harold Bauer, The Berkeley Musical Association, Fourth Concert, Fourteenth Season, 1923-1924, Harmon Gymnasium, University of California, Berkeley

Both Pablo Casals and Harold Bauer signed the program for this concert, which opened with Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Opus 69.

Berkeley Musical Association program Berkeley Musical Association program
Berkeley Musical Association program Berkeley Musical Association program

Concert program, Beethoven Centennial Memorial Concert, March 26, 1927, Municipal Auditorium, San Antonio, Texas

Sponsored by the Tuesday Musical Club, this event included a film with “scenes from the life of Beethoven”; an address by an actor portraying Beethoven; performances of the “Gellert” Lieder by the Beethoven Maennerchor; the Fifth Symphony performed by an ensemble of 26 female pianists; the aria “Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?” from Fidelio; the “Appassionata” Sonata; the Egmont Overture and the Minuet in G. The audience was asked to stand during the concluding work, the funeral march from the Sonata in A-flat Major, Opus 26.

Beethoven Centennial Memorial Concert program

Concert program, Federal Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven Series concert, October 9, 1938

A project of the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), the Federal Music Project of New York City inaugurated a Beethoven series that ran on alternative Sundays from October 9–December 18. In addition to the familiar symphonies, overtures, and concertos, the series presented some “rarely heard” works, including the Triple Concerto, Opus 56, and a “Violin Concerto Fragment in C Major,” WoO 5, with Dorothy Minty as soloist.

Federal Symphony Orchestra program Federal Symphony Orchestra program


Dorothy Minty (1908-1986)
Ad from Musical America, February 1946

As a concert violinist, Dorothy Minty is best known for having premiered the Violin Concerto by Charles Ives in 1928. A frequent recitalist in New York, she also taught at the Juilliard School in New York.

Dorothy Minty