Happy 246th birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven!
Theodore Thomas, our founder and first music director, favored the music of Beethoven above all others. Of the five composers’ names inscribed on the façade of Orchestra Hall, Beethoven’s is the one featured prominently in the center.
Shortly after the turn of the last century, Thomas began writing a series of essays—complete with accompanying diagrams—analyzing Beethoven’s symphonies. These were intended “simply to serve as an aid to students and concertgoers in understanding and listening intelligently to these masterworks,” according to his wife, Rose Fay Thomas. Thomas only was able to complete articles on the first five symphonies before his unexpected death in January 1905, and Rose later invited his successor, Frederick Stock, to complete the series. Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies was published in Chicago by Oliver Ditson Company in 1930.
Rose edited the volume, and in the preface she wrote that, “these little essays, simple and unpretentious though they seem, will be at once recognized as the product of a musician who combined profound learning with wide practical experience, and in no other work of similar character which has come to my notice can there be found such clear and authoritative analyses of the themes and structure of these symphonies, so lucid an exposition of their relation to each other, or so logical an account of Beethoven’s own artistic development as revealed in them.”
Thomas’s favorite work was the Fifth Symphony, and he programmed it for the Chicago Orchestra‘s first concert as well as the dedication of Orchestra Hall. Composed in the “zenith of his career,” according to Thomas in the book’s fifth chapter, during this time Beethoven “produces works which are as nearly perfect as anything human can be, breathing the spirit of the nineteenth century, and endowing music with a meaning deeper and more fruitful than it ever had before. . . . Beethoven was able, through his art, to represent the psychological side of human nature in a manner so strong and full of meaning that he has only been equaled in this respect by one other creative mind—Shakespeare.”
The final chapter, penned by Stock, describes the Ninth Symphony as, “dedicated to all Mankind. . . . Embracing all phases of human emotion, monumental in scope and outline, colossal in its intellectual grasp and emotional eloquence, the Ninth stands today as the greatest of all symphonies.” Stock continued, “Beethoven must have felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of instrumental expression and that nothing save the human voice could convey with sufficient eloquence the great thoughts he desired to set forth. . . . The Ninth is unquestionably the greatest of all symphonies not only because it is the final résumé of all of Beethoven’s achievements, colossal as they are even without the Ninth, but also because it voices the message of one who had risen beyond himself, beyond the world and the time in which he lived. The Ninth is Beethoven, the psychic and spiritual significance of his life.”
A postscript. The dedication is to the “patrons of the old Theodore Thomas Orchestra.” Before he founded the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, Thomas established his own eponymous ensemble in 1864 and led them on tour across the United States until the orchestra disbanded in 1889.
Portions of this article previously appeared here.