In this week’s program notes, we read that the earliest PSO performance of Beethoven Op 125 was in March, 1939 and that Fritz Reiner was the conductor.
Though it depends on how you define “PSO” and “performance” what you just read is not exactly true, though in order to explain what I mean, I’ll have to whip a little history on ya.
In 1896, Oxford-trained and organist at the Church of the Ascension in Oakland/Shadyside, the English composer Frederick Archer was the first conductor of what was then known as the Pittsburgh Orchestra. He was also director of the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, where the orchestra played. This orchestra, over it’s decade and a half run had, in fact, two other conductors; Victor Herbert from 1898 to 1904, and Emil Paur from 1904 to 1910. The band disbanded in 1910 due to (now how shocking is this?) financial difficulties.
It would be another decade and a half (or so) before the city would have its own orchestra again – the PSO.
So while it’s true that the PSO’s first performance of Op 125 was in 1939, that would not be the first time a Pittsburgh orchestra would also tackle Beethoven’s final symphony. Though you’ll be surprised at the details.
29 years earlier on March 9, 1900, Victor Herbertand the Pittsburgh Orchestra opened the final concert of the season with just the first three movements of the Ninth. That means no chorus, no soloists, no Goethe poem about universal brotherhood. At today’s performance, when the third movement was done, I turned to my lovely wife and whispered, “That’s how it ended in 1900.”
“Wow,” she whispered back – surprised.
That concert’s program notes reflect a surprising ambiguity to the importance of the work, in fact. At one point the audience read that:
This is the last and certainly in some respects the greatest of Beethoven’s symphonies. [emphasis added.]
Some respects? I’ll ignore that and move on quickly – elsewhere the audience read:
Space is lacking for a consideration of the innovation which the Ninth Symphony marks. Particularly the introduction of a “choral ending.” It is as much an epoch-making work as the “Freischutz” of Weber or Wagner’s Nibelungen. It is hoped that the entire symphony may be heard next season. The Ninth Symphony even in its entirety with the choral ending is rarely heard owing to its difficulty.
So there it is. They didn’t do the “choral ending” (however innovative it may have been) because it was just too difficult. Surprising because of what the rest of the concert in 1900 looked like.
While this weekend the PSO performed only the Ninth (and all four movements, of course), then the PO followed their (partial) performance of the Ninth (and closing out the first half of the concert) with the finale of Act III of Gotterdammerung. Famed English soprano Marie Brema singing the part of Brunhilde. After intermission, the Orchestra played the Liszt tone poem Mazzepa, then Ms Brema sang three songs (with piano accompaniment) and then the whole concert was concluded with some more Wagner, this time the overture to Tannhauser.
So much Wagner, so little Beethoven.
The Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette (a forerunner of the current Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) reported a day before the concert that Herbert had been re-elected conductor of the orchestra and that part of the deal was to be an expansion of the orchestral forces – to 77. His current player roster only numbered 69 musicians total.
By comparison, the current PSO roster shows 63 musicians in the just the various string sections.
Andrew Druckenbrod of the P-G didn’t like the performance owing to Manfred Honneck’s fast tempi while Mark Kanny of the Trib liked the performance – inspite of some “extremely fast” sections of the Finale.
The coverage in 1900? Lots of talk about Brema, about the Liszt, about how Herbert received a laurel wreath commemorating his re-election as conductor in the Commercial Gazette and the Pittsburgh Press.
And not a peep about the Beethoven.
Amazing what a difference 110 years makes.