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On this Sunday let's take a break from Barack, bailouts and Bush to contemplate the universe.  Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of The Greatest Concert Ever.  

Fellow geezers:  Forget the Beatles at Shea Stadium,  Dylan in Manchester,  the Stones at Altamont, Springsteen at the Bottom Line (I was even there) -- and you youngsters pick your fave from the past three decades.  On December 22, 1808, Beethoven himself rented a hall in Vienna and promoted the concert to end all concerts: the debut, over four hours, of three of the greatest works in the history of music: his Fifth Symphony, the Sixth ("Pastoral") Symphony, and the astounding Piano Concerto No. 4, plus the wonderful Choral Fantasia (forerunner to his Ninth Symphony).   And yes, it was a fiasco.  

But imagine: It was as if Orson Welles premiered Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil on the same night -- with The Lady from Shanghai thrown in for good measure.  

This was mid-period Beethoven.  He was 38 at the time and would live another 19 fitful years.

He had been losing his hearing for almost ten years and would soon be completely deaf.  In fact, he would play piano in concert for virtually the last time at this epic 1808 program,  as hearing himself play would eventually cease.  That wouldn't stop him, a few years later, from producing his most astounding writing of all: the late piano sonatas and string quartets, the Ninth Symphony, and much more.  If you know Beethoven only from his symphonies you are truly missing nearly all of his most amazing, moving,  and profound work.

I won't go into all of the details on the 1808 concert here, but in a nutshell:  The hall in Vienna was freezing cold.  Beethoven, as a taskmaster conductor, had alienated the musicians, rehearsals were inadequate, he finished one piece on the morning of the concert with (reportedly) the ink still wet that night.  

Parts of the program went off very well; on the other hand, he stopped the Choral Fantasia after a few minutes and made the orchestra start over.  In any case, the show went on, and on.  In that era, it was hard enough for any audience to appreciate and/or grasp the unprecedented length -- and revolutionary nature -- of Beethoven's compositions, and now they were cold and tired.

The key newspaper review at the time noted the genius of Beethoven's new  compositions but also the demands on the audience ("It is known that, with respect to Vienna, it holds even more true than with respect to most other cities, what is written in the scriptures, namely that the prophet does not count for anything in his own country").

Here are two brief clips of small parts of the concert, each decades ahead of their time: the second movement of Piano Concerto No. 4 and the fourth movement of the Pastoral Symphony:

And the much-underrated Choral Fantasy:

I will leave off here with the invitation for you to comment about all of this but also consider my argument that Beethoven was the greatest composer in the history of Western culture. And in these tough times, you really might find (as I did) that a little Beethoven -- principally the piano sonatas, trios and string quartets -- will help you make it through your week.
Greg Mitchell is editor of Editor & Publisher. His latest book, on Iraq and the media, is "So Wrong for So Long."

Originally posted to GregMitch on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 07:50 AM PST.

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