In 1808, Beethoven needed money so he decided to put on a benefit concert for himself. Included on this grand concert were the premieres of his wonderful piano concerto, #4 in G Major, and his fifth and sixth symphonies, along with selections from his Mass in C Major. He decided to write a piece that would include all the participants in a glorious finale to the concert, thus, the birth of the Choral Fantasy Opus 80 in C minor. The fantasy is scored for solo piano, vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. A truly monumental piece. Can you imagine a concert of that length in the present day? Theirs was a time with no TV, internet, or even radio. I imagine people then welcomed such events.
A fantasy in music is typically a sectionalized composition and this piece is very much that way. Do you remember that Beethoven came to Vienna renowned as a great virtuoso and improviser on the keyboard? Well that’s just how this piece begins, an extended improvisatory section with Beethoven himself at the piano for the premiere. It’s said that he did improvise at that concert and only later did he write the opening down. Next, we have a sequence of variations, some involving the piano and some not. We travel through some different keys – A Major, F Major, C Minor again, and finally C Major when the voices enter. I’m inserting the text below for you to follow. Scholars aren’t in agreement as to the authorship of the text.
Flatteringly sweet and lovely ring out
our lives’ harmonies,
and from our sense of beauty arise
flowers that eternally bloom.
Peace and joy move together,
like the alternating play of waves;
that which seemed harsh and hostile,
transforms itself into inspiration.
When music’s magic holds sway,
and poetry’s sacredness speaks out,
magnificent things must take form,
night and storms turn into light.
Outer calm, inner joy,
prevail for the happy person;
indeed, the arts’ spring sunshine
lets, from sorrow, light come into being.
Greatness, that was deep in the heart,
blooms anew then, reaching up beautifully;
if a spirit rises up,
it is always echoed by a chorus of spirits.
Therefore accept, you lovely souls,
happily, the gifts of beautiful art.
If love and power join together,
humanity is rewarded by the gods’ favor.
The shape of the melody of the vocal soloists and choir is very similar to the “Ode to Joy”, the famous tune in the finale of his ninth symphony. This has led many musicologists to claim that this was kind of a trial piece, an experiment for working things out for later on. Who knows for sure but I think it’s just a wonderful piece! I found it thrilling every time I played it or listened to it. I hope you will enjoy it too. I’m including two performances for you. One with the great Seiji Ozawa conducting with the equally great Martha Argerich playing piano. The other performance has the score presented as the piece is played. Have fun listening!