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Symphonic birth of the trombone Trombone - Avishai

Symphonic birth-pangs of the trombone, by Anthony Parsons
Many thanks to the British Trombone Society for the authorization to publish this article

A TromboneAs any book about instruments of the orchestra tells us, trombones made their first symphonic utterance in the Finale of the Fifth Symphony in C minor by Ludwig van Beethoven; a masterstroke of orchestration usually described by writers as glorious, joyous, exulting, and other epithets of that type. But the story behind the composition of this work is complicated, and the circumstances of the first performance indicate that the full effect was certainly less magnificent than the composer intended.

Beethoven spent the summer and autumn of 1806 at Gratz Castle near Troppau, Czechoslovakia, as the guest of Prince Carl Lichnowski. With three symphonies behind him, and work well advanced on another in C minor, a commission for a symphony came from one of the prince's neighbours, Count Oppersdorf, who offered a fee of 500 florins. Ready money was not to be sneezed at, as he already had a symphony nearing completion. But Prince Lichnowksi had followed the progress of the work very closely, and Beethoven was conscious that he should in all decency dedicate it to his host. Count Oppersdorf, in any case, was prompted to make the commission after hearing a performance of the Second Symphony, and probably expected a similar work, which effectively ruled out the C minor.

So work on it was suspended while a Symphony in B flat took shape and was performed for the first time in March 1807. Naturally enough, this was called the Fourth Symphony, and Beethoven returned to the job of finishing what had become Symphony No.5.

To make the story even more involved, during this period his head was also full of ideas for his next major orchestral work, Symphony No.6 in F major, the Pastoral, and he composed this digression into programme music while putting the finishing touches to Symphony No.5. It was not rare for him to be engaged on more than one work at a time. Scholars will happily point out that sketches for the Fifth Symphony appear among the 1804 notes for the Eroica Symphony (No.3), and ideas for the Pastoral are to be found in material intended for the Fourth Symphony; even so, the overlapping of three symphonies, all of them masterpieces, is an astounding intellectual feat. But we will leave compositional matters there and turn our attention to the fortunes of the completed works.

Beethoven never missed an opportunity to complain about his treatment at the hands of the Viennese, but there is no doubt that they held this extraordinary and difficult man in the greatest esteem. He often appeared before the public, and in return for performing and conducting at charity concerts in the Theater an der Wien, he was granted use of the theatre to mount an Akademie (concert) of his own works.

The Akademie began at 6.30 on the evening of 22nd December 1808, and the programme was advertised in the Wiener Zeitung thus:

"...All the pieces are ... entirely new, and not yet heard in public.
First Part:
1. A Symphony, entitled 'A Recollection of Country Life', in F major (No.6).
2. Aria.
3. Hymn with Latin text, composed in the church style with chorus and solos.
4. Piano concerto played by himself.

Second Part:
1. Grand Symphony in C minor (No.5)
2. Sanctus, with Latin text in the church style with chorus and solos.
3. Fantasia for pianoforte alone.
4. Fantasia for the pianoforte which ends with the gradual entrance of the entire orchestra and the introduction of choruses as a finale.

By 10.30 it was all over.

To put the record straight then, although the books correctly record the advent of the symphonic trombone section in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and leave you thinking "What a fantastic moment! If only I could have been there", the sound was actually first heard (well, the alto and tenor, anyway) in the Sixth Symphony.

There are several contemporary accounts of that concert, and they all agree that it was a disastrous evening. Johann Friedrich Reichart, Kappellmeister of Hesse-Kassel and a front-ranking composer and writer on music, watched it from Prince Lobkowski's box near the stage: "We held out in the bitterest cold ... and experienced the fact that one can easily have too much of a good - and even more of a loud - thing. Many a failure in the performance vexed our patience to the highest degree."

Beethoven met with opposition over the organisation and performance, and there had not been a full rehearsal of all the pieces; the orchestra and chorus were assembled from "very heterogeneous elements", i.e. scratch, and Heaven knows what that signified in those days. There was another concert on the same day in the Burgtheater in aid of the Society of Musicians' Widows, which probably took away players that Beethoven wanted to use.

Another commentator, Ferdinand Ries, described the calamity of the Choral Fantasia, when a clarinettist made an eight-bar repeat by mistake. "Beethoven leapt up in a fury, turned around and abused the orchestra players in the coarsest terms and so loudly that he could be heard throughout the auditorium. Finally he shouted 'From the beginning!'. When the concert was over, the artists ... fell into a great rage. They swore they would never play again if Beethoven were in the orchestra".

If you haven't passed your misery tolerance level yet, read on. These were the days when conductors lead from the piano, and according to Ignaz von Seyfried, in the Piano Concerto, "forgetting that he was soloist, he jumped up and down and began to conduct in his own peculiar fashion. At the first sforzando, he threw his arms so wide that he knocked over both lamps from the music stand of piano. The audience laughed and Beethoven was so beside himself that he stopped the orchestra and made them start again." Two choirboys held the lamps this time. "When the fatal sforzando burst forth, one poor boy received from Beethoven's right hand such a sharp slap on the face that, terrified, he dropped the lamp to the floor. The other boy succeeded in avoiding the blow by ducking in time. If the audience laughed the first time, they now indulged in a truly bacchanalian riot. Beethoven broke out in such a fury that when he struck the first chord of the solo, he broke six strings."

Small wonder then, that the press concentrated on the mishaps. All that marvellous music, including, I suppose, the momentous trombone writing, when largely unnoticed. Poor Ludwig - and just imagine the post mortem in the nearest Heurige afterwards.

When the dust had settled a bit, and performances followed in other cities, reactions to the Fifth Symphony were mixed, to say the least. Berlioz was ecstatic, and another French musician, Lesueur, said, "I was so moved and disturbed that when I attempted to put on my hat, I could not find my head." The link between the Scherzo and Finale - a quiet drum beat introducing the 32-bar rising violin figure - always caused excitement, and caused a child sitting beside Schumann to whisper, "I'm frightened". (Some trombone players have probably muttered the same thing!) Spohr found the Finale "unmeaning babble", and Berlioz noted that the aforementioned link was so stunning that it would be impossible to surpass it in what follows. The London Philharmonic, reading it through for the first time in 1814, broke down in hysterics after the very opening.

Time has a way of sorting these things out.

© British Trombone Society, 1990
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