Choral Fantasy in C Minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, op. 80

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            The signal crisis of Beethoven’s life, in 1802, was the deep depression wrought by the stark reality of his increasing deafness.   In his famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” from that year he articulated his resolve to live, work, and overcome this crushing development.  There ensued the remarkable production of his artistic maturity—but it did not ease his lifelong quest for financial security.  In a city where Mozart had almost starved to death only a decade before, Beethoven cobbled together a livelihood comprised of constant wheeling and dealing with music publishers in several countries, the occasional subvention from the wealthy to whom compositions were dedicated, and personal performance fees.  None of these were certain, and the constant need for income loomed ever present.  One favored source of income was “benefit concerts,” wherein a composer would wangle from the authorities the use of one of the municipal theatres during a rare off night in their busy schedules.  Public concerts were not the usual affairs then that they are now, and official productions dominated the public theatres, so opportunities for alternate use were not common.  Exceptions, however, were made for public charity concerts, which were somewhat frequent.  And, in that regard, Beethoven was generous in donating his time and talent to these concerts, and that willingness finally brought him the use of the Theater an der Wien for a personal benefit concert on the fateful night of 22 December 1808.

            The events of that evening were sufficiently vivid that they are famously chronicled in the recollections and memoires of Beethoven’s acquaintances who attended.  Zealous in his determination to make the best possible impression with the audience, Beethoven programmed an impossibly long concert—almost four hours!  The chief works on the program included the Vienna premières of both his fifth and sixth symphonies, his fourth piano concerto—with him as soloist, of course, parts of the C major Mass, solo vocal works, and the composer, featured in his signature solo piano improvisations.   Then there was the complication of a heating system that malfunctioned—it was bitter cold in the hall.  The orchestra was under rehearsed, and in a surly and foul mood, owing to some bitter experiences with Beethoven in a recent concert.

            Thinking that all of these important compositions were still not enough, Beethoven, at the last minute, decided that what was needed as a grand finale was some sort of work that would bring all of the musical forces together at the end.  The Choral Fantasy was the result.  His idea was simple enough, begin the piece with a solo piano improvisation, joined by the orchestra for some variations on a previously-composed song, and at the end bring in the chorus for a dynamic conclusion with all participating together.  And so it was.  Of course, the composer’s improvisations were not written down, and the orchestra was not only spectacularly under rehearsed, but actually sight-read some of the work.   Moreover, not untypical of Beethoven, as one wag put it, the chorus was given parts with the ink still wet.  One could have predicted the unfortunate travesty that ensued.   Some in the orchestra repeated a section while others went on—shouted instructions kept it going.  The clarinets started their variation before waiting for the oboes to finish theirs.  At one point, the performance halted for regrouping before resuming.  It really couldn’t have gone worse.  Withal, posterity has deemed the Choral Fantasy an important work, elements of which clearly presage the finale of the composer’s Symphony No. 9, more than fifteen years later.

            Beethoven finally got around the next year to actually writing out the solo piano part that opens the Fantasy.   It is somewhat instructive to observe that the original notice in the newspaper referred to the work not as the Choral Fantasy, but as a “Fantasia for the Pianoforte which ends with the gradual entrance of the entire orchestra and the introduction of the choruses [sic] as a finale.”  Just how reflective of his improvisations from the opening night is the published, notated version, is of course subject to speculation.  But, it is safe to say it certainly is in the pianistic style of the Beethoven that we know so well from his sonatas and concertos.  The opening “fantasia” by the solo piano is a technically challenging adagio, rather like a cadenza, but without the usual working through of important thematic ideas. Dazzling arpeggios and chromatic scales carry the primarily harmonic focus along—Beethoven’s familiar scurrying, almost frenetic, chromatic bass lines will be familiar to many.  After suitably dramatic trills and roulades, the stage is set for the entrance of the orchestra with the main theme of the next section.

            That theme—from his solo song, Gegenliebe--had been composed over a decade before, and now makes its appearance after a soft introduction in the ‘cellos and basses, answered by the piano.  Gradually, the theme is picked up by the rest of the orchestra, alternating with the soloist.  A pause brings on the horns and oboes, which herald the entrance of the piano with the theme that will carry us through to the end.  If it seems vaguely familiar then it should—for in various melodic and harmonic ways, it clearly is the antecedent of the famous “Ode to Joy” theme of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony.  Clever variations ensue that feature a solo flute, pairs of oboes, and then a pair of clarinets with a bassoon.  A solo string quartet then takes it up, followed by the full orchestra.  A “fantasy” on the theme with the soloist and orchestra ensues, in various tempos and keys, ending in a brave little march.  Beethoven was quite adept at the style, having written more than a few marches for the small wind marching bands used by the military at the time.  It doesn’t last very long before a few measures of reminiscence intrude, with the soft, marching basses from way back at the entrance of the orchestra leading right into the entrance of the chorus.

            Beethoven is known to have worried about how to bring such a new element into the work, and toyed with the idea later used in the Ninth Symphony:  a few words in the poem, justifying the entrance of the voices.  But not here, and the women’s voices enter straightaway with the quasi-familiar theme.  The men then follow, all the while with arabesques in the piano.  There’s no solo vocal quartet out front here, but from time to time, in the chorus some get the call.  If some dramatic harmonic moves out of the key sound familiar, they should, for they parallel the same stentorian utterances in the Ninth Symphony.  Authorship of the text in the Choral Fantasy is still a bit ambiguous—the words of the original song had to do with speculative joy found in requited love.  But here, as in the text of the Ninth Symphony, the words idealistically aspire to a higher joy and bliss, as humankind, united, luxuriates in nature’s blessings.

            Beethoven may have ground out the Choral Fantasy in haste at the last minute, to serve the dubious function as a concert-ending flag waver, but the audience that night got much more than it expected. Not only is the Choral Fantasy an invaluable document of the gestation of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, but it’s also a diverting and satisfying work on its own terms.  And it’s yet another window into the mind of a man who aspired to humanity’s highest ideals, but whose own persona famously failed in social intercourse.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan