Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy and I

Beth Levin

[September 2003.]

In December of 1808, Beethoven led an amateur group in the premiere of his Choral Fantasy for piano, chorus, and orchestra, Op. 80. They say he improvised the Introduction in performance and only later wrote it down.

In April of this year, James Jacobs asked me to perform the piano part with the community orchestra and choir he was busy conducting. The work would be given in late June at the Old First Reformed Church in Park Slope. At the time he said nothing more. Later he told me that he knew I would take it and make it my own. I understand that Woody Allen gives his actors little to go on. James not only left me without a clue as to his own convictions and desires, but now and then would mutter, “Don’t practice.”

I tested James’ faith by showing up at the first rehearsal with half a score. After ordering what I thought was a complete edition from Patelson’s, I received the choral section, Part II of the work. Thus were missing 37 pages I finally saw the night of our first rehearsal. Another conductor might have been peeved. James appeared delighted to see me sight-reading the cadenzas, slipping and sliding, missing my entrances and cursing Beethoven’s clever sixteenth-note configurations. How James envisioned a noble outcome from that inauspicious beginning is a tribute to his imagination.

His mettle was to be further tried. We fell short of Beethoven’s orchestration. We needed timpani as well as French horns. Strong first-chair players were scarce. Often James had to sing a musical line for an oboe, viola or bassoon. The evening of the second rehearsal saw heavy rains and half of the orchestra staying at home. I remember our star trumpeter announcing that a family wedding would take precedence over our concert date. A marriage may crumble, but art is eternal.

The initial rehearsal with chorus and orchestra might have been a scene out of A Day at the Races. People expressed their excitement by fabulous bouts of talking. You would have thought the sopranos had never before met the altos and that assembling everyone in a single room was cause for a party. Players seemed lost. Even our prize tenor faltered. He had a pungent and powerful voice. What he didn’t have was the ability to count or read notes.

My own performance in the early stages of rehearsal could not have inspired confidence. The introduction to the Choral Fantasy is a feat of pianism, an unruly cadenza requiring ample chutzpah, technique, élan and poetry. As I was learning the part, I never deigned to perform it in rehearsal, choosing instead to talk the orchestra through it, with gauzy hints of what I was up to. I would offer a few miserly measures before their entrance. Not until dress rehearsal did I unveil my interpretation, assuring James that there would be a beginning to the great work.

I have seen the video. WNYE television will air it later this month (9:30 p.m., Tuesday, September 23, 2003). People called it a labor of love and I believe it to be true. The performance arose from a desire to create beauty. Perhaps like Beethoven’s players and vocalists, we simply couldn’t let an inspiring leader down.

 

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