History of the “Wielhorsky” Sketchbook
Beethoven’s sketchbook used during the years 1802 and 1803 was published for the first time in 1962 as Kniga èskizov Betxovena za 1802-1803 gody, 3 vols., edited by Nathan L. Fishman (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoj Muzykal’noj Izdatel’stvo [State Musical Press]). The volumes are not numbered, and in this monograph, “Vol. I” is the facsimile, “Vol. II” is the transcription, and “Vol. III” is the commentary; the work itself is cited as: “Fishman”. It set the standard for future editions of the Beethoven sketchbooks, by making available both an editorial transcription and a photographic facsimile for ready comparison. Prior editions had consisted only of transcriptions (e.g., Gustav Nottebohm, Ein Skizzenbuch von Beethoven [Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1865] [the “Kessler” sketchbook, or “N 1865”], and Ein Skizzenbuch von Beethoven aus dem Jahre 1803 [Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1880] [the “Eroica” sketchbook (Landsberg 6), or “N 1880”]; Karl Mikulicz, Ein Notierungsbuch von Beethoven [Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1927] [Landsberg 7]), or of facsimiles (e.g., Ludwig van Beethoven Skizzenbuch [Leipzig: Verlag Wilhelm Engelmann, 1913]), but not both together. (The early sketchbook editions from the Beethovenhaus had provided a transcription in the form of a “printed facsimile”, which tried to reproduce all of Beethoven’s markings in print just as he had written them on the page.) See generally Johnson 1978 for a history of Beethoven sketch and sketchbook publications.
How the sketchbook got to Moscow after Beethoven’s death is unknown. It was first described by Wilhelm von Lenz as part of his discussion of Christus am Oelberge (op. 85) in an updated catalog of Beethoven’s works appended to the third volume of his Beethoven: Eine Kunststudie (Lenz 1855/1860), where he stated (pp. 221-23) that the sketchbook was in the library of Count Wielhorsky in St. Petersburg. Since von Lenz had published an earlier version of his catalog as part of his Beethoven et ses trois stiles (Lenz 1852) in which he did not refer to the sketchbook, and since von Lenz was a friend of the Count who had done research in the latter’s library since the 1830’s, Nathan Fishman surmises that Wielhorsky must have acquired the sketchbook sometime between 1852 and 1856, the year of the Count’s death, or if it was acquired by his estate, then between 1856 and 1859. The book was subsequently inspected and described by Ludwig Nohl (Nohl 1874, 95-101). Last mentioned as being in a private library in Moscow in 1900, the book dropped out of sight just before the Russian Revolution, and it was reported abroad as having been lost (Hess 1939). It was in fact inventoried in a government archive in 1917, but its full significance was not appreciated until its existence came to the attention of the Moscow Conservatory of Music in 1939. (See Fishman, vol. III, pp. 21-22.) A translation of the history of the sketchbook given by Fishman in his 1962 edition appears in the Appendix to Haley 1966, and may be viewed here.
A Contemporary Account of Madame Viganò
A lady prominent in 18th-century Viennese society, Caroline Pichler, wrote of Madam Viganò (Pichler 1844, vol. 1, 205f.): “Nature was imitated to the truest degree. Flesh-colored tricots covered arms and legs, but the dancers were scarcely clothed: in the so-called pas de deux en rose Madam Vigano wore over the tricot that covered her entire body nothing but three or four fluttering skirts of crèpe, each one shorter than the other and bound all together with a sash of dark brown ribbon around the middle of her body. This sash was actually, therefore, the only piece of clothing that covered her, because the crèpe hid nothing, and during her dance these skirts—or actually, furbelows—flew all the way up and treated the public to the sight of the dancer’s entire body in flesh-colored tricot, which looked like skin, thus seemingly naked. This struck me as outrageously impudent, but I must admit that the movements of this artist were enchantingly graceful, the play of her features was full of expression (she was moreover very pretty), and her pantomimes were masterly.The sensation made here by this woman, and by the ballets which her husband presented, was enormous.”
(In the original: “Die Natur wurde auf treueste nachgeahmt. Fleischfarbene Trikots umhüllten Arme und Beine, die Tänzer und Tänzerinnen waren kaum bekleidet, ja in dem sogenannten rosenfarben Pas de deux hatte Mad. Vigano über den Trikot, der ihren ganzen Leib umgab, nichts an als drei bis vier flatternde Röckchen von Krepp, immer eins kürzer wie das andere und alle zusammen mit einem Gürtel von dunkelbraunem Band um die mitte des Leibes festgebunden.Eigentlich war also dieses Band das einzige Kleidungstück, das sie bedeckte, denn der Krepp verhüllte nichts, im Tanze flogen oft noch diese Röckchen oder eigentlich Falbulas hoch empor und ließen dem Publikum den ganzen Körper der Tänzerin in fleischfarbenem Trikot, der die Haut nachahmte, also scheinbar ganz entblößt sehen.Mir kam das empörend frech vor, dennoch mußte ich gestehen, daß die Bewegungen dieser Künstlerin hinreißend anmutig, ihr Mienenspiel voll Ausdruck (sie war noch überdies sehr hübsch), ihre Pantominen meisterhaft waren. Die Sensation, welche diese Frau und die Ballette, welche ihr Mann aufführte, hier machten, war ungeheuer.”)
Pursued by the thundering wrath of heaven, which is depicted in a stormy musical prelude, Prometheus runs from the woods to his clay statues, and quickly touches the celestial torch to their hearts. As he sinks back on a stone, exhausted and breathless from fulfilling his task, the figures gain life and movement and become in fact what they appeared to be, a man and a woman (Salvatore himself and the splendid Casentini). Prometheus, rousing himself, looks at them with jubilation, and with paternal love bids them approach, but he cannot awaken in them any feeling that would show the use of reason: the humans rather, instead of turning to him, let themselves fall lazily to the ground near a tall tree. (Would [Salvatore], by chance, want this to signify the [oak] tree whose acorns were essential food for the first humans?) He turns to them again, with caresses and coaxing, but they, who lack man’s better part—reason—do not understand his words, become annoyed, and wander about awkwardly, trying to go farther away. Afflicted, the Titan tries again with threats, which are of no use, and becoming incensed, he thinks he may even have to destroy his work; but a voice from on high internally pulls him back, so that his first affection [for them] returns, and having grabbed them both, showing a new plan has formed in his mind, he drags them offstage.
The second act is on Parnassus: [we see] Apollo, the Muses, the Graces, Bacchus and Pan with his train, Orpheus, and Amphion and Arion, [the latter] introduced anachronistically as men still to be born. The opening of the scene at Apollo’s court shows a tableau vivant of these poetic figures. Notice that the choreographer especially desires neither music nor dancing at this point, so that when these particular media come to be used later, one does not notice that their presence is new: a word to the wise in all such cases! Prometheus enters and presents his children to the deity, that it might please him to make them skilled in the arts and sciences. On a gesture from Phoebus, Euterpe, followed by Amphion, start to play their instruments, and through their modulations the two young people begin to show signs of reason and reflection, to see the beauties of nature, and to feel human affections. Arion and Orpheus reinforce the harmony with their lyres, and at the end the god himself joins in. The two pupils shake this way and that, and joined in front of Prometheus, they recognize in him the object of their gratitude and love, prostrate themselves, and embarrass him with affectionate embraces. Then Terpsichore comes forward with the Graces, and Bacchus and his Bacchantes, who lead a heroic dance (more fitting for the retinue of Mars), in which Prometheus’ children, who by this time are unable to withstand the spurs to glory, and have taken up arms, willingly take part. But then Melpomene intervenes and stages a tragic scene for the astounded young ones, in which she makes them see with her dagger how death cuts short the days of man. While they stand horrified, she turns on their perplexed father, whom she rebukes for giving birth to wretches who face such a calamity, and considers it not out of line that he be punished by death himself. In vain the miserable children [try to] hold her back as she kills Prometheus with her dagger. Thalia interrupts the mourning with a merry scene, putting her mask in front of the faces of the two weeping ones. Next Pan, at the head of the fauns, and dancing comically, restores the dead Titan to life, and thus the tale ends amid festive dancing. This ending does not match the gravity of the subject. Murder does not become an allegorical goddess, nor is it for Melpomene to be the agent of actual death, but only to act out catastrophes filled with blood. Why not rather depict, after the tragic end of man, the immortal life of the soul, the mercy of the deification of Prometheus, whom it suited Apollo, the god of action, to raise to immortal life? The present [work], however, appears to have been a scenic divertimento, in which one does not want to employ a broad range of scenery, mechanical devices and spectacle.
The idea for this little composition, conceived in honor of that most splendid love for music borne by the empress Maria Theresa (second wife of Emperor Francis II), is sublime, and one sees clearly that this, which is still called ‘The Little Prometheus’, has in it the germ which developed later into the ‘Big Prometheus’, with which Salvatore began the series of his principal masterpieces. But the seriously defective second act is, it would seem, driven by little art, and by no better a sense of good taste.
Partial Text and Translation of Goethe’s Prometheus (1773)
Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres
Unter der Sonn als euch, Götter!
Ihr nähret kümmerlich
Und darbtet, wären
Nicht Kinder und Bettler
Ich dich ehren? Wofür?
Hast du die Schmerzen gelindert
Je des Beladenen?
Hast du die Tränen gestillet
Je des Geängsteten?
Hat nicht mich zum Manne geschmiedet
Die allmächtige Zeit
Und das ewige Schicksal,
Meine Herrn und deine?
Hier sitz ich, forme Menschen
Nach meinem Bilde,
Ein Geschlecht, das mir gleich sei,
Zu leiden, zu weinen,
Zu genießen und zu freuen sich,
Und dein nicht zu achten,
I know of nothing more wretched
Under the sun than you, Gods!
Beggarlike, you nourish—
From the sacrifices you impose,
And the wafting of prayers—
And would starve, if
Children and beggars
Were not sanguine fools.
I honor you? For what?
Have you alleviated the pains --
Ever -- of the burdened?
Have you stopped the tears --
Ever -- of the anguished?
Did not omnipotent Time
Forge me into manhood,
And that eternal Fate,
My master and yours?
Here I sit, making humans
In my image,
A race made to resemble me:
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy and to be happy,
And to scorn you,
As do I!
A Contemporary Review of Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus
Den Schluß der Vorstellungen auf unserem Hoftheater vor Ostern machte ein neues heroisch-allegorisches Ballet, in 2 Aufzügen: Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, von der Erfindung und Ausführung des Herrn Salvatore Vigano, und in Musik gesetzt von Herrn van Beethoven. Das erste mal ward es zum Benefiz der berühmten Tänzerin, Demoiselle Casentini, gegeben. Der Inhalt davon ward in einem sehr sonderbaren Programme, vermutlich von einem der deutschen Sprache nicht so ganz kundigen Italiener, angekündigt.
Prometheus entreißt die Menschen seiner Zeit der Unwissenheit, verfeinert sie durch Wissenschaft und Kunst und erhebt sie zur Sittlichkeit. Dies ist kürzlich das Sujet. So viel Würde und artistische Anlage es auch hatte, und so meisterhaft sich einige Tänzer, vorzüglich Herr Vigano selber auszeichneten, so gefiel es doch im Allgemein nicht. Am allerwenigsten Behagen konnte unser sinnliches Publikum daran finden, daß die Bühne von dem zweiten Auftritte des ersten Aufzuges an bis ganz ans Ende immer unverändert blieb. Die Handlung begann mit einem Donnerwetter. Das Theater stellte ein Wäldchen vor, in welchem sich zwei Kinder von Prometheus befanden. Plötzlich kam ihr Vater mit einem brennenden Fackel daher. (Wo, und mit welchem Feuer er sie angezündet, bekam der Zuschauer nicht zu sehen.) Nachdem er jedem Kinde das Feuer in die Brust gelegt, fingen diese sogleich an, steif und ohne Gestikulazion umherzutrippeln. (Dieser Auftritt dauerte etwas sehr lange und ennuyirte.) Nun führte Prometheus sie zum Apoll. Der Parnaß machten mit allen seinen Bewohnern eben nicht den angenehmsten Anblick. Die neun Musen blieben wie leblose Statuen so lange auf ihrem angewiesenen Platz, bis die Reihe zu tanzen auch an sie kam, und Apollo selbst saß auf der höchsten Spitze des Berges, stets unbeweglich. Vielleicht machte eben dieser Anblick zu wenig Eindruck auf den Künstlergeist unserer beliebten Casentini, indem sie, von ihrem Vater dem Musen-Gott vorgestellt, so gar keine Theilnahme äußerte, und ihren Blick mit auffallender Gleichgültigkeit sogleich auf andere Gegenstände abschweifen ließ. Denn daß sie die einem solchen Publicum schuldige Hochachtung, besonders in einem Ballete, das ihr über baare 4000 Gulden eintrug, blos aus übler Laune sollte hintangesetzt haben, kann man sich doch nicht bereden. Gewiß aber würde sie, blos mit etwas mehr Anstrengung – wiewohl eine Casentini nie schlecht tanzen kann – das Ballet weit mehr anziehend gemacht haben.
Auch die Musik entsprach der Erwartung nicht ganz, ohneractet sie nicht gemeine Vorzüge besitzt. Ob Herr van Beethoven bei der Einheit – um nicht Einförmigkeit der Handlung zu sagen, das leisten konnte, was ein Publicum, wie das hieige, fordert, will ich unentschieden lassen. Daß er aber für ein Ballet zu gelehrt und mit zu wenig Rücksicht auf den Tanz schrieb, ist wohl keinem Zweifel unterworfen. Alles ist für ein Divertissement, was denn doch das Ballet eigentlich seyn soll, zu groß angelegt, und bey dem Mangel an dazu passenden Situazionen, hat es mehr Bruchstück als Ganzes bleiben müssen. Dies fängt schon mit der Ouvertüre an. Bei jeder größern Oper würde sie an ihrer Stelle seyn, und einer bedeutenden Wirkung nicht verfehlen; hier aber steht sie an ihrer unrechten Stelle. Die kriegerischen Tänze und das Solo der Demoiselle Casentini mögten übrigens wohl dem Compositeur am besten gelungen seyn. Bei dem Tanz des Panswill man einige Reminiszenzen aus anderen Ballets gefunden haben. Allein, mich dünkt, es geschieht Herrn van B. hierin zuviel, zumal da nur seine Neider ihm eine ganz vorzügliche Originalität absprechen können, durch welche freylich er öfter seinen Zuschauern den Reiz sanfter gefälliger Harmonien entzieht.
Straightening out Thayer’s Chronology
Alexander Thayer, in the original (German) edition of his life of Beethoven, wrote, à propos of the observations of Wilhelm von Lenz about the sketchbook the latter saw in Count Wielhorsky’s library in Moscow:
Kann Hofrath Lenz Studien zu den Claviervariationen op. 35 mit denen zum Finale der Eroica verwechselt haben? Wenn nicht, dann bietet uns dieses Skizzenbuch die sehr interessante Aufklärung: daß im Frühling  Beethoven das Thema aus Prometheus für Orchestervariationen ausarbeitete; daß er im Herbst seine Absicht änderte und dasselbe zu Claviervariationen benutzte; daß er es im Winter in einem Contretanze verwendte (vielleicht um es bekannter zu machen?) und endlich im Jahre 1803 zu der ursprünglichen Idee der Sinfonia Eroica zurückkehrte und die Orchestervariationen als Finale ausarbeitete, den Trauermarsch hingegen, um die Stelle des langsamen Satzes einzunehmen.
(“Is it possible that Court Councilor Lenz confused studies for the piano variations Op. 35 with those for the finale of the Eroica? If not, then this sketchbook offers us a very interesting clarification: that in the spring [of 1801] Beethoven worked the Prometheus-theme into a set of variations for orchestra; that in autumn he changed his mind and used the same sketches in the piano variations; that in the winter he transformed the theme into a contredanse (perhaps to make it more well-known?), and finally in 1803 he returned to his original idea of the Sinfonia Eroica and elaborated the orchestral variations as the finale, while the funeral march [also described by von Lenz as among the sketches], took the place of the slow movement.” Thayer, vol. 2, 392-93.)
Here Thayer has been misled by a number of earlier errors. In describing the sketchbook, von Lenz placed it in his catalog under op. 85 (Christus am Oelberge), as mentioned earlier, because it contained a large number of sketches for the oratorio. Von Lenz, however, took it from Schindler that Beethoven had sketched the oratorio while staying in the summer of 1800 at Hetzendorf, because, as Schindler assured his readers, Beethoven himself had pointed out to Schindler (in 1823!) the very spot under a branching oak tree where he sat while working—allegedly in that year—on his oratorio. (Schindler 1845, 46-47.) This erroneous date was unfortunately corroborated by Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, who wrote in his own biography of Beethoven that when he arrived in Vienna in 1800, he found Beethoven hard at work on the music for the oratorio. (Wegeler/Ries, 75; Eng. tr. (Noonan 1988), at 65.)
Thayer’s own independent research, however, had convinced him that Beethoven spent the summer of 1800 at Unterdöbling, a suburb of Vienna, and that he had stayed at Hetzendorf in the summer of 1801. (Thayer, vol. 2, 103-04, and 131-32.) From other evidence, it appeared to Thayer that Ries was also mistaken in his memory, and that he had not arrived in Vienna until 1801. (Thayer, vol. 2, 161-63. On possible revisions to Ries’s chronology, see Zanden 2005.)
By the time he wrote the passage above, Schindler (in his third edition) had also changed the date of the stay in Hetzendorf from 1800 to 1801. (Schindler 1860, at 90; Eng. tr. [MacArdle (ed.) 1996] at 99.) So Thayer now read von Lenz’s description of what was in the sketchbook to relate to the summer and fall of 1801. He noted that von Lenz had reported that there was a reference to a funeral march, and what he thought were sketches for the Eroica finale, which preceded those for the oratorio (see text at n. 136-38 infra). Thayer tied this observation in with what he knew about the dates when the ballet was first performed and when the contredanses were performed to arrive at the following ordering:
March 1801 – First performance of Prometheus, so the work was complete by then
Spring 1801 – Sketches for the Eroica finale in the Wielhorsky sketchbook, plus an indication of the funeral march, which precede the sketches for the oratorio (mistakenly thought to be written in summer 1801)
Fall 1801 – Based on Gustav Nottebohm’s description published in 1865 of the op. 35 sketches that appear in the Kessler sketchbook (N 1865, 32), Thayer asserts that Beethoven “changed his mind” at this time and used his previous work on the finale as the basis for the piano variations, op. 35.
Winter 1801 – As Thayer is aware, Beethoven scored the collection of contredanses at this time for the forthcoming ball season in Vienna, and so he surmises that Beethoven decided to use the dances as a vehicle to make better known the theme which he was planning for further works. (Thayer, vol. 2, at 393.)
This chronology is possible only because Thayer has accepted spring 1801 as the date for the Wielhorsky sketchbook, and thus has it precede the Kessler sketchbook, which Beethoven began in approximately October 1801. In point of fact, however, the Wielhorsky sketchbook followed immediately after Kessler, as Ludwig Nohl concluded in his 1874 report (Nohl 1874, at 95-101), when he saw that what von Lenz had described as Eroica finale sketches were in fact the finishing sketches for op. 35, which Beethoven offered to his publisher in October 1802. (BGA No. 107, dated October 18, 1802.)
A Chronicle of Errors in the Dating of the Contredanse
Given the straightforward evidence supplied by the sketchbooks, how did it happen that the view that the Contredanse must have been composed before the Ballet became so securely lodged in academic orthodoxy? A little more history supplies a probable explanation for the adherence to an improbable theory. As noted in the text, Herman Deiters took it upon himself to revise Thayer’s hypothetical chronology (see Appendix F), based solely on internal evidence, and not on any examination of the autographs or the sketches. When Deiters’ successor, Hugo Riemann, took over Thayer’s biography, he elaborated on Deiters’ thesis: based on a thorough analytic study of the ballet score and the Symphony, he came to view all of the music for Prometheus as a “Variationenwerk” (set of variations) that, in effect, was a precursor of the Eroica finale. (Riemann 1909-10.) In doing so, he agreed with Deiters’ view that the contredanse had to come first, because otherwise the increasingly elaborate use which Beethoven made of such a simple theme could not be viewed in a linear fashion. (Id. at 19; TDR II, pp. 422-24. Fishman mistakenly asserts that Riemann parted ways with Deiters on this point. Fishman, vol. III, at 54, n 2.) The position staked out by Deiters and Riemann was adopted uncritically by Paul Mies in his influential study of Beethoven’s progressive development of the theme, which signaled his viewpoint in its title: “Beethovens Werke über seinen Kontretanz in Es-Dur”. (Mies 1953-54). Mies, however, ignores Riemann’s indication, through the editorially inserted initials as shown earlier, that the argument for placing the contredanse first originated with Deiters, and attributes the idea solely to Riemann.)
One year later came the publication of the definitive catalog of Beethoven’s works (KH), authored by Georg Kinsky and completed after his death by Hans Halm. Coincidentally, it appeared to corroborate the Deiters-Riemann-Mies position when it cited the Entstehungszeit (time of composition) for the twelve contredanses (WoO 14) as “1800-01” (KH 450), and for the ballet, “1800 und Anfang [and the beginning of] 1801” (KH 102). Kinsky-Halm make clear in their following notes that the date “1800” is a compromise to allow for those earlier-composed contredanses (Nos. 3, 4, 8 and 12) which Nottebohm indicated were written “at the latest” by 1800. (Nottebohm 1868, at 198.) Nevertheless, it permitted the inference that they agreed with the Deiters-Riemann hypothesis when they asserted that Beethoven “transferred” (“übernahm”) Nos. 7 and 11 into his “simultaneously” (“gleichzeitig”) composed ballet. To “transfer” the dances means that they must have been composed previously; asserting that the composition of the ballet was “gleichzeitig” with their composition creates needless ambiguity and confusion, which has misled scholars ever since.
Subsequent Beethoven scholars, such as Elliot Forbes, Harry Goldschmidt, Lewis Lockwood, Christopher Reynolds, William Kinderman, Carl Dahlhaus, and others, have uncritically adopted the position that the contredanse preceded the ballet, based on a citation (when they give one) to TDR and the ambiguous confirmation supplied by Kinsky-Halm. Thus, Elliot Forbes repeats the ambiguous dating of KH and states that “Beethoven also used two of these dances . . . in his ballet . . .” (Thayer-Forbes, 297-98); Harry Goldschmidt, while pointing out that Prometheus was the “hero” of the Eroica before Napoleon was, states that the Finale had its origin “in a lowly contredanse” (Goldschmidt 1975, 30); Lewis Lockwood (Lockwood 2003, at 141) asserts (misreading KH’s dates of composition for the date when the contredanses were performed) that “Beethoven also used the same material in two other works: (1) the finale [sic] of the Twelve Contradances (WoO 14) that he wrote for ballroom use in Vienna during the winter of 1800-1801” (emphasis added), and in Lockwood 1981, in the text at 459 (repr. Lockwood 1992, p. 135), and again in n. 5, he lists the contredanse as the first of four compositions making use of the theme. Keisuke Maruyama states outright that the theme was first used in the contredanse, citing KH (Maruyama 1987, at 52); Christopher Reynolds implies without directly stating it that the “simple” contredanse came before the ballet finale (Reynolds 1982, at 49); William Kinderman thinks that Beethoven “recycled the contradance three times” (Kinderman 1995, at 80 and 89), and Carl Dahlhaus asserts likewise (Dahlhaus 1987, Eng. tr. 1991, at xviii).
Willy Hess finds it a wonder that any composer should discover so many riches in a piece of dance music (Hess 1962, at 30). Alexander Ringer takes TDR and Mies at their word, and assumes throughout that Beethoven composed the contredanse first, by borrowing the G-minor theme quoted in Fig. 2 above and improving it (along with its bass) (Ringer 1961). Walter Reizler assumes the “simple” contredanse came first (Reizler 1990, at 140), as does Ernst Pichler (Pichler 1994, at 197), and Frank Schneider begins his analysis with the contredanse, before taking up the ballet (Schneider 1988, at 67). Just as Stefan Kunze relies on Deiters’ argument (which he attributes to Riemann) in viewing the ballet as a subsequent improvement of the contredanse (Kunze 1972, at 132), so does Michael Heineman rely on Mies (Heineman 1992, at n. 3). Peter Schleuning and Martin Geck, while crediting the influence of the Prometheus-myth on the Symphony, nevertheless think Beethoven wrote the contredanse first, and note that its social background fit his revolutionary agenda (Schleuning and Geck 1989, at 70 and 152), as does Thomas Sipe (Sipe 1998, at 11-15), who is followed by Stephen Rumph (Rumph 2004, at 65) (referring to the ballet finale as “a recycled ballroom dance”) and Katherine Seyer (Seyer 2006, at 179 n. 43). Not the last to join the chorus is Edmund Morris: “At first it sounded so trivial, so tum-tee-tum, that he published it in a set of party pieces for Viennese youth to dance to. No doubt he expected to forget it. But something about its rhythmic vigor stuck in his mind when he received a commission to write a ballet . . .” (Morris 2005, at 86).
On Beethoven and the Contredanse Tradition
There has been a good deal of speculation as to why Beethoven would be so fascinated with the tune for a simple contredanse that he would employ it in four different works. (A variation on this question would ask why, if Beethoven attached so much significance to the theme in his use of it in Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, would he then turn around and use it in a folk dance?) Consider, for example, the explanation advanced by Thomas Sipe in his work on the Eroica Symphony (Sipe 1998). He delves briefly into the history of the contredanse as a folk form, and finds that it was uniquely popular among all social classes, so much so that when commoners were at the balls along with the nobility, and a contredanse was played, all the ranks would join in dancing it, and could freely mingle in executing its steps (id. at 12 and 19). As a dance in which all classes took part together, therefore, it was the appropriate vehicle for Beethoven to use in the finale, in which the human creatures joined with their creator and the other gods to celebrate their “graduation” from the academy of Parnassus.
This argument, however, begs the question: why should Beethoven import into his ballet, out of twelve such contredanses, just Nos. 7 and 11, and no others? The evidence, as we have seen, demonstrates the reverse: both melodies were composed first for the ballet, and used afterwards for contredanses. In what I am calling the Prometheus-melody, through its use as a rondo theme, Beethoven had conceived the musical culmination of the humans’ cultural evolution in the ballet. It expresses Prometheus’ and his creatures’ supreme joy at their having attained the ability to participate with the gods in celebrating their skill in the arts of music and dance. With the assumptions reversed in this fashion, notice how appropriate it becomes for Sipe’s thesis, therefore, for Beethoven to adapt this sublime melody, along with another one used in the same finale, to a popular dance in which it was accepted that the bourgeois could consort with the nobility, and to include them in a set of twelve published for the very next ball season.
As an aside, it is not entirely clear that people freely mixed and changed partners in the contredanse. Sipe bases his description on a Ph.D. dissertation by Sarah Bennett Reichart of the City University of New York (Reichart 1984). A somewhat different perspective on the dance is given by Elizabeth Aldrich (Aldrich 1997). In contrast to Sipe and Reichart, Aldrich distinguishes the contredanse from the anglaise, or “englische”, in which it was possible for people of different social levels to mix (much as early Americans would in dancing the Virginia reel, or a square-dance). According to Aldrich, the contredanse in Vienna referred to a group dance for four to sixteen couples who executed complex steps, but who did not exchange partners (id. at 130-31). During the recent Mozart 250th anniversary festivities in Salzburg, the author watched a group of professional dancers perform a contredanse in 18th-century costumes. They executed the pattern of steps described by Aldrich, but one step did include—however briefly—a swap of partners. To add to the colorful mix of opinion on this point, John Rice (Rice 2003, at 125-27, 251) notes that the contredanse was one of the Empress Marie Therese’s favorite dances, and that she even specified one in a ballet that she commissioned (whose description sounds like the dance described by Aldrich, and not by Reichart). Based on this fact, as well as on her previously undocumented role in getting Beethoven’s Fidelio past the censors (id. at 252-58), Rice suspects that Marie Therese may have exercised some influence on Viganò’s ballet scenario as well (id. at 248-51).
The Viennese React to the Eroica Symphony
(From Der Freymüthige 3 [April 17, 1805])
[The reviewer notes that the audience for the premiere divided into three camps:] “The first group, Beethoven’s very special friends, maintains that exactly this Symphony is a masterpiece, which is in the true style of higher music, and if it does not please for the present, that is because the public is not sufficiently educated in art to grasp all its finer points; but after a couple of thousand years it would not fail to have its effect. The second group denies the work any artistic merit whatsoever, and believes there to be visible in it an unrestrained striving for notice and strangeness, which has nowhere led to beauty, or to true grandeur or power. By means of unusual modulations and forceful transitions, by juxtaposing the most heterogeneous things, as when—for example—a Pastorale is performed in the heaviest style, with a lot of scratchings in the bass, with three horns and so forth, a certain if not exactly desirable originality can, to be sure, be achieved without much difficulty. Genius, however, authenticates itself not by the bringing forth of that which is merely unusual and fantastic, but rather that which is beautiful and sublime: Beethoven himself proved the truth of this statement in his earlier works. The third—very small—group is in the middle. It allows that the Symphony has many beautiful points, but recognizes that its coherence often appears to be rent asunder, that the unending duration of this longest and perhaps most difficult of symphonies will exhaust even connoisseurs, and prove unbearable to mere amateurs. It wishes that Mr. v. B. would use his admittedly great talents to present us with works that were like his first two symphonies in C and D, his charming Septet in E-Flat, his witty Quintet in D [C?], and others among his earlier compositions, which will put Beethoven forever in the first rank of instrumental composers. This group fears, however, that if Beethoven strides further down this path, both he and the public will thereby fare badly. Music could quickly reach the point that everyone who is not well versed in the rules and difficulties of art will find no kind of enjoyment in it whatsoever, but instead, pressed to the floor by a crowd of unconnected and superfluous ideas, and by a perpetual tumult of all the instruments, will leave the concert hall with only unpleasant feelings of fatigue. The public and Mr. v. Beethoven, who conducted the work himself, were not satisfied with each other. For the public the symphony was too difficult and too long, and Beethoven himself was too impolite, because he bestowed no nod of his head even on those who were applauding. For his part, Beethoven found the applause insufficient.”
(“Die einen, Beethoven’s ganz besondere Freunde, behaupten, gerade diese Sinfonie sei ein Meisterstück, das sei eben der wahre Styl für die höhere Musik, und wenn sie jetzt nicht gefällt, so komme das nur daher, weil das Publicum nicht kunstgebildet genug sei alle diese hohen Schönheiten zu fassen; nach ein paar tausend Jahren aber würde sie ihre Wirkung nicht verfehlen. – Der andere Theil spricht dieser Arbeit schlechterdings allen Kunstwerth ab und meint, darin sei ein ganz ungebändigtes Streben nach Auszeichnung und Sonderbarkeit sichtbar, das aber nirgends Schönheit oder wahre Erhabenheit und Kraft bewirkt hätte. Durch seltsame Modulationen und gewaltsame Uebergänge, durch das Zusammenstellen der heterogensten Dinge, wenn z. B. ein Pastorale im größten Style durchgeführt wurde, durch eine Menge Risse in den Bässen, durch drei Hörner u. a. d. könne zwar eine gewisse eben nicht wünschenswerthe Originalität ohne viele Mühe gewonnen werden; aber nicht die Hervorbringung des blos Ungewöhnlichen und Phantastischen, sondern des Schönen und Erhabenen sei es, wodurch sich das Genie beurkunde: Beethoven hatte selbst durch seine früheren Werke die Wahrheit dieses Satzes erwiesen. – Die dritte sehr kleine Partie steht in der Mitte; sie gesteht der Sinfonie manche Schönheiten zu, bekennt aber, daß der Zusammenhang oft ganz zerrissen scheint, und daß die unendliche Dauer dieser längsten, vielleicht auch schwierigsten aller Symphonieen selbst Kenner ermüde, dem bloßen Liebhaber aber unerträglich werde. Sie wünscht, daß H. v. B. seine anerkannten großen Talente verwenden möge, uns Werke zu schenken, die seinen beiden ersten Symphonieen aus C und D gleichen, seinem anmuthigen Septett aus Es, dem geistreichen Quintett aus D dur [C-dur?] und anderen seiner früheren Compositionen, die B. immer in die Reihe der ersten Instrumentalcomponisten stellen werden. Sie fürchtet aber, wenn Beethoven auf diesem Wege fort wandelt, so werde er und das Publicum übel dabei fahren. Die Musik könne so bald dahin kommen, daß jeder, der nicht genau mit den Regeln und Schwierigkeiten der Kunst vertraut ist, schlechterdings gar kein Genuß bei ihr finde, sondern durch eine Menge unzusammenhängender und überhäufter Ideen und einen fortwährenden Tumult aller Instrumente zu Boden gedrückt, nur mit einem unangenehmen Gefühle der Ermattung den Conzertsaal verlasse. Das Publicum und H. v. Beethoven, der selbst dirigirte, waren an diesem Abende nicht mit einander zufrieden. Dem Publicum war die Symphonie zu schwer, zu lang, und B. selbst zu unhöflich, weil er auch den beifallklatschenden Theil keines Kopfnickens würdigte. Beethoven im Gegentheile fand den Beifall nicht auszeichnend genug.”)
The incident of Beethoven’s failure to acknowledge his public at this concert was picked up and gently satirized by Joseph Richter in his Eipeldauerbriefe (Richter 1785-1813, reprinted Paunel and Gugitz, ed. 1917-1918, vol. II, at 203), in which he reported: “On Palm Sunday a wonderful concert took place at the Theater an der Wien, and afterward they gave special applause to a gentleman who wrote some of the music, but because he acknowledged their huge applause only with a slight nod of his head, some of them have discussed the matter with each other, and put the thing down to an artist’s hauteur; but the gentlemen will scarcely have known that the good Herr composer had just on that day a bit of rheumatism in his neck, and so couldn’t bow any deeper.” (“An Palmsonntag ist aufn Theater an der Wien ein wunderschöne Akademi gebn worden, und da habn s’ bsonders einen Herrn zuklascht, der einen Theil der Musik gmacht hat, weil er aber für den großen Beyfall nur mit ein klein Kopfducker dankt hat, so habn sich einige drüber aufghalten, und habn das Ding für ein Künstlerstolz ausglegt; aber die Herrn werden’s halt nicht gwußt habn, das der brave Herr Kompositor grad denselben Tag ein Rematismi in Gnack ghabt hat, und da hat er sich ja nicht tiefer bucken können.”)