By Rich Lynch: As the Peanuts cartoon in the newspaper reminds us, today is Ludwig von Beethoven’s birthday. His 252nd, to be exact, and the local classical music radio station is celebrating the day by airing many of Beethoven’s best-known compositions. The one I was listening to during the one o’clock hour was my favorite of all – his fourth piano concerto. And in doing so, I indulged in a bit of mental gymnastics that we all probably have done at one time or another in our lives: If we were somehow gifted with a one-time ability to time travel into the past, what single event would we most want to witness?
You can probably guess where this essay is headed. It would be very tempting to go back to July 1939 so that I could take part in the very first Worldcon but I’ve read and listened to enough first-hand accounts of what happened there that I vicariously already feel like I was a participant. Same goes for many other famous events that have occurred throughout the history of science fiction fandom – I am blessed that I’ve had the honor of meeting and befriending some of those First Fandom ‘dinosaurs’ and have helped to preserve their memories of those times. So no, if I’m limited to a single event my time travel aspirations would be a lot different than that. And as an avid admirer of Beethoven and his music, it would actually be an easy choice – I’d go back more than 200 years so that I could attend one of the most famous classical music concerts ever staged.
It happened on December 22, 1808. On a very cold evening in Vienna, in an unheated concert hall, Ludwig von Beethoven gave his final performance as a concert pianist. It was for the public debut of his 4th piano concerto, but the concert also included the first public performances of two of Beethoven’s most prominent orchestral compositions – the 6th “Pastoral” symphony and the glorious 5th symphony which because of its famous opening theme has come to be known as the “Symphony of Fate”. In all there were eight different works performed that evening, including two sections of his Mass in C Major and a concert aria for soprano soloist and orchestra. And, as a whole, it did not go well.
The unheated concert hall was only a small part of the problem, though it must have been arduous for audience as well as the musicians to persevere for the four hours it took to complete the program. A bigger problem was that the event was scheduled on short notice and up against another concert that same evening to which many of the most experienced musicians in the city had been contractually committed. As a result, the orchestra was comprised largely of amateur and semi-professional musicians who turned out to be very much under-rehearsed. Even the soprano soloist was an inexperienced teen-ager who had been recruited at the last minute, and who had apparently suffered from stage fright. It all must have resulted in glorious chaos. Which is one of the reasons the concert is as famous as it is.
And yet, to paraphrase poet and author José Harris, from truth there is beauty. There are written accounts of the evening which were more than a bit critical, as you might expect, but they mostly relate that the event was so long that it became, in effect, too much of a good thing. There are no accounts (that I can find, anyway) of attendees leaving prior to the event’s conclusion. I can almost get the impression that people witnessing it knew they were in the presence of greatness.
And that’s where I’d want to be, if it were only possible. Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto is, in my opinion, the finest piano concerto ever written and also the composition which most deeply reveals his inner self, especially the middle section which seems reflective of turmoil he experienced at various times of his life. He is not described as a happy man. But he was, apparently an avid beer drinker, so If I’d been there I would have bought him a stein of Vienna’s finest at his favorite hangout. And, assuming I’d been gifted with fluency in German as well as the ability to time travel, I’d have listened avidly to any stories he might have told as he was enjoying his brew. I am sure he had his own fandom. I wonder what he’d think of ours.