The first Viennese Beethoven-Cycle 1900
by Michael Krebs, Translation: Dean Kustra
The Wiener Symphoniker were founded in 1900 under the name Wiener Concertverein (Vienna Concert Society), in order to fulfil 'the long-cherished wish for a permanent symphony orchestra that would make the enjoyment of serious symphonic music accessible to wider circles'. Its mission, the founding committee declared, was to offer 'good music in the best possible performances, but at the cheapest possible prices'. The public's response makes clear how great the demand for professional symphonic concerts had become: the twelve subscription dates for the first season 1900-01 sold out within the shortest time, with no more single tickets available.
The situation up to then had been what the influential music critic Eduard Hanslick lamented as the 'very late nature of concert life in Vienna'. The conditions for the cultivation of the symphonic repertoire at the end of the 19th century had met neither the changing needs nor the increasing demand of the ever-broader social classes. Although the city had finally gained an acoustically excellent performance venue with the opening of the Vienna Musikverein, the house orchestra was made up predominantly of amateur musicians and, what's more, had no constant roster. By contrast, the Wiener Philharmoniker, though certainly the undisputed masters of their profession, performed comparatively seldom. It was, then, high time for a new orchestra for Vienna. And so, with the turn of the century, the Wiener Symphoniker were born - albeit, as we have seen, with a different name initially. The press reaction was enthusiastic: with the founding of the Wiener Concertverein, 'finally, a system into the public cultivation of music' had been introduced (Das Vaterland, 2nd December 1900), and now, at last, the full range of the symphonic repertoire would be made accessible 'in the most complete renditions possible' (Reichspost, 7th December 1900).
The Vienna concert scene had a lot of catching up to do, not only concerning the music of the present and recent past. There was also still plenty to be done with the works of that adopted son of Vienna, who like no other was the main point of reference for the symphonic output of the 19th century. We're speaking of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose symphonies - which at the beginning of the 20th century were 'only' between 75 years (Ninth Symphony) and 100 years (First Symphony) young - had, of course, been continuously present in concert life since their creation. Their undisputed place in music history had been secured at least since Richard Wagner, in laying down his own thoughts regarding the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, had stylised the Ninth as the summit and final destination of the symphonic genre: Beethoven's music, as Theodor Helm, one of Vienna's most distinguished music critics of the time, put it, 'played the leading role in instrumental music in the 19th century' (Pester Lloyd, 28th December 1900).
Nonetheless, it would take more than three quarters of a century before the first performance of all nine Beethoven symphonies could be presented as a complete cycle in the city of their creation. The initiator was none other than Ferdinand Löwe, Chief Conductor of the newly-founded Wiener Concertverein. The Vienna-born Löwe was not only one of the pre-eminent champions of the music of his teacher, Anton Bruckner; he also set standards in his native city as an 'exemplary conductor of Beethoven' (Deutsches Volksblatt, 20th March 1901). And so, under Löwe's direction, the Wiener Concertverein finally brought the first cyclic performances of all Beethoven's symphonies to Vienna in its first season between November 1900 and March 1901. What has been a long-established practice in modern concert life was an absolute innovation at the time. The enthusiastic response was not long in coming: Max Kalbeck, in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, praised the 'happy idea', which gave the concert programmes their 'unshakeable, firm and resilient centre' (6th December 1900). The rush for tickets was enormous. In the case of the Ninth Symphony, 600 people had to be turned away - even though the orchestra had reacted to the increased demand and had reckoned with two performances. The press was also enthusiastic: 'Everything was so clear, so stylish, so correctly judged in tempo and nuance, and in this glorious interpretation (...) the work sounded like a revelation from on high.' (Die Reichspost, 4th April 1901). Those unable to get tickets would still have a regular opportunity to hear Beethoven's symphonies in their entirety: through his tenure until 1925 as Chief Conductor, Löwe and the orchestra performed complete cycles of Beethoven's nine symphonies a total of four times.