Dear Straight Dope:
A prerequisite of every biography of Ludwig von Beethoven is the story of the premiere performance of his Ninth Symphony, which he conducted in by-then-total deafness. As the story goes, he conducted past the end of the final movement, and was still conducting as the audience behind him went ecstatic with applause. The musicians, seeing their conductor unable to hear the thunderous applause, were dumbstruck with grief for the tragedy of the moment, until one performer (reportedly the alto soloist) stopped the maestro and turned him to face the applause.
The problem with this story is that as not only conductor but composer, Beethoven must have been acutely aware of the pacing of his own symphony, presumably having the score before him. Not even a beginning conductor could be so incompetent as to conduct past the end of his own composition, even if totally deaf. This tale is as implausible as an Indy race driver not realizing the race has ended. Is there any account of what really happened? My presumption is that the individual movements of the Ninth Symphony are each themselves so magnificent that the audience may have spontaneously applauded at the end of the first or third movement, and a musician turned Beethoven to this unexpected applause. If this is an urban legend, how did it arise?
Mr. Mitchell (anyone with "IV" stuck to their name I treat with respect), that’s the story I have heard for many years. It’s a poignant reminder of how great a composer Beethoven was. But as far as I can tell it doesn’t square with the facts.
Initially I came across many sources that told basically the same story you did.
It’s a familiar tale: an aging Beethoven, ill and deaf, conducting the orchestra and chorus in the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, conducting even after they had ceased to perform, after they had reached the end of the stunning new work, after the audience had already begun to applaud, continuing to conduct until a singer turned him around so that he could see the thunderous cheers that were resounding throughout the hall…Whenever the applause occurred, the fact that it passed unheard by Beethoven makes clear that he could never have heard a note of this most magnificent composition. Think about that bitter fact, and then wonder that a man so crossed by fate could still demand a choir to sing rapturously of joy.
But in going a little further I found that Beethoven was probably not conducting but merely standing nearby assisting the conductor. I found at least eight references that corroborated the following:
The Ninth Symphony had its first performance on May 7, 1824, at Vienna’s Karntnertorm Theater. By this time Beethoven was totally deaf, so there could be no question of his conducting the premiere. However, he did stand next to the conductor during the performance to indicate the proper tempi. The music was received with a great deal of emotion, not only by the audience but, more unusually, by the orchestra (some of the players reportedly wept).
Biographer George Grove vividly described the pathos of the scene:
The master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it all and was not even sensible of the applause of the audience at the end of his great work, but continued standing with his back to the audience (and beating that time), till Fräulein Ungher, who had sung the contralto part, turned him, or induced him to turn around and face the people, who were still clapping their hands, and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning around, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had not done so before (because he could not hear what was going on) acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed, which was repeated again and again, and seemed as if it would never end.
Seeing that Grove wrote about Beethoven and his symphonies in the 1890s, I would give great weight to his account, and state that while Beethoven was indeed present, he was probably simply standing by to assist the conductor while keeping time to the symphony he could only hear in his head.
Grove, George, Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies (1896, republished 1940)
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