An Interview with Theodore Albrecht 

Interview with Theodore Albrecht, author of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Ted Albrecht “just couldn’t escape Beethoven”. His family is of German heritage, he spent much of his childhood in a German-orientated culture in Texas, and when he joined the US Army, he found himself stationed in Frankfurt. Albrecht has now studied the German composer’s work for over five decades, including lovingly translating and editing “Beethoven’s Conversation Books” – the booklets Beethoven carried with him, for his acquaintances to jot their sides of conversations, while he answered aloud.  

We spoke with Ted about his love of Beethoven, his research on the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, and what the composer’s notebooks can tell us about his day-to-day life.  

When did your love of Beethoven begin? 

My first personal acquaintance with Beethoven’s music was when I was 10 years old. My mother just happened to buy some old 45 RPM recordings of single movements, and one of the records had the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the one side, and the third movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 on the other. My love of classical music was born and after that it just continued to develop. 

At age 13, my parents bought me for my birthday a season ticket to the San Antonio Symphony. The first of their concerts I attended ended with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which was wonderful. So, I started pretty much on a high there!  

My mother worked in one of the stores downtown and she met the San Antonio Symphony’s head usher, who said I might enjoy going backstage after the performances to meet the artists and maybe get an autograph or two. Over the next few years while in high school, I met Claudio Arrau, Zino Francescatti and Sir John Barbirolli.  

In San Antonio, there was an organization called the Beethoven Männerchor, founded in 1865. Along with it was the Beethoven Damenchor and the Beethoven Concert Band, and so I just couldn’t escape Beethoven! In college, deciding to write my master’s thesis on Beethoven was a hop, skip and a jump!  

Of Beethoven’s symphonies, do you have a favourite? 

Asking somebody which is his favorite symphony is kind of like asking somebody which is your favorite child: even if you had one, you wouldn’t admit it! There is no favorite among them, they’re all just absolutely great. 

In your new book, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you tell us the story of the symphony’s 1824 premiere. What were the main challenges that Beethoven faced in staging that first performance? 

The main one is that Beethoven, for the first time in his symphonic career, did not have any firm noble patronage. He had three main patrons in his middle period. Two of them were dead, though he was still getting a pension from their estates. His third patron was the youngest member of the imperial family and had been made the Cardinal-Archbishop of Olomouc about 150 miles north of Vienna. So, when he writes this symphony, it’s a matter of getting enough money and getting a hall to mount it. 

Another obstacle was that the orchestra’s management had just fired many of the most experienced orchestral players, replacing them with inexperienced players fresh out of the Prague conservatory. Beethoven had known these Viennese musicians for many years and was used to writing for them. He went to great lengths to bring back those players, even paying some of them individually. It was incredible what he did, building a composite orchestra with talented amateurs and fired or retired professionals.  

As if these challenges weren’t enough, the conductor didn’t get the score until three days before the performance. Luckily, he was familiar with Beethoven’s works and he was a quick study. He must have been a marvel!  

What can you tell us about the theatre where the premiere was performed? 

It was performed at the Kärntnertor Theatre which seated around 1800 people. The acoustic was a typical theater acoustic at the time, which was dry with little reverberation. A repeat of the performance was played at the large Imperial Ballroom seating around 1200 people. This second performance was in a more reverberant acoustic and people told him it really sounded better that way.   

Where was Beethoven during the performance? 

He was probably standing there onstage turning his own score and not being able to hear much.  

There’s a wonderful story where Beethoven, at the end of the symphony, was so lost he thought it was still going and he was flipping through the pages of his score unaware that the audience was applauding behind him. The alto soloist had to tug him by his sleeve and turn him around so that he could see the applause!  

I suspect this did not happen at the end of the symphony, first because he wasn’t entirely deaf. Second, he would have known when the symphony ended anyway because the vibrations would have ended.  

It could, however, have happened in the second movement. 

What can you tell us about the second movement? 

The second movement, in 3/4 time, is sort of like a fast, demonic waltz. The music races along, with the timpani interrupting several times, surprising and delighting the audience. 

Beethoven had a timpanist by the name of Anton Hudler who could just bang the heck out of those instruments, which is what he wanted. The audience was so happy with that effect that they started applauding so loudly you could hardly hear the orchestra. That is what Beethoven was listening for, but he couldn’t perceive the white noise behind him was applause from the audience. It was during that applause that the alto soloist unexpectedly turned the composer around so he could see what was going on in the audience.  

How do you think Beethoven felt about such applause? 

He would have loved it. We look back at classical music and think how staid and proper it is, but no, they were looking for applause just as much as musicians look for applause today. 

There were only one or two entries in the Conversation Books after he left for the performance that night. That means that everybody was shouting at him backstage and in the audience, and he could understand them! The notebooks pick up again later that evening. His secretary, Anton Schindler, and a friend of his went home with Beethoven, and they probably sat around and talked about this for another hour before finally calling it an evening. One of the first things that Schindler writes was “I have never heard any applause as enthusiastic as we heard tonight.”  

You are currently translating and editing Beethoven’s Conversation Books from German to English; are there any insights we learn about the premiere from these notebooks?  

There’s one from a rehearsal for the premiere where things aren’t working well for the cellos and contrabasses. Today we can listen to a recording and hear how something goes, but they did not have that in those days. They had to read the music for the first time. The musicians couldn’t always figure out what was going on. Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary, writes in the Conversation Books, “Too bad old Grams isn’t still alive, he could lead a dozen basses and they would know what to do.” Grams was an incredible section leader. Beethoven knew that he could write bass parts that were hard, and Grams would get his section to do what he wanted. Grams’ exceptional ability was one of the reasons Beethoven wrote what he did in the last movement of the Ninth, such as the famous instrumental recitative in the contrabass section. Only Grams had died and there wasn’t anybody who was quite as familiar with Beethoven’s works to fill in as the leader of the bass section.  

The person who probably filled in was a fellow by the name of Melzer – the assistant principal contrabass under Grams. Melzer had been around for a long time, too, and was one of the old hands lost in budget cuts. This isn’t written anywhere but it looks like, with the bass section fumbling around, Beethoven brings Melzer back. It would have been a logical thing to do. 

What else do we learn about Beethoven as a man from the Conversation Books? 

You’re seeing the very mundane Beethoven. You see him ordering at a restaurant. You see the housekeeper arriving, maybe 11 o’clock in the morning wanting to know what he wants to eat for his dinner at two o’clock because he pretty much eats dinner at that time every day. 

They also tell us how he lived during the day. It tells us for instance that he got up at five o’clock in the morning or close to it every day. I can’t imagine doing it in the middle of the winter, but in the summer at 4.30 in Vienna it’s starting to get light, and that affects his working pattern. If there’s light in the morning, he’s going to be able to get up, nobody else is stirring, he makes his coffee and he sits down to work and he works steadily until somebody else gets there and disturbs him.  

And finally, is there any advice you would give to music students? 

I always used to tell my students who were looking for a thesis topic or a dissertation topic. Go to the library, look for a book on something and if it isn’t there, you’ve got a project. Find what we don’t know and invest some time in that. 

THEODORE ALBRECHT, Professor Emeritus of Music at Kent State University, Ohio, is an award-winning Beethoven scholar. He has authored many important articles on the composer and is the editor of Letters to Beethoven and Other Correspondence (1996) as well as translator and editor of Beethoven’s Conversation Books (Boydell Press).

Pay £37.95 / $49.95 for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with code BB245

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