The “slow start” of Beethoven’s Ninth at La Scala

The “slow start” of Beethoven’s Ninth at La Scala

Beethoven's Ninth, whose bicentennial is being celebrated this year, has only been performed at La Scala since 1897 (the first Italian performance was in 1878). Today it is the second most performed symphonic-choral piece at La Scala after Verdi's Messa da Requiem

Riccardo Chailly Orchestra e Coro Scala 649824BADG ph Brescia e Amisano

“April 18, 1878 is a date that artists will remember for a long time. It is a date that restores all the prestige held in the cult of musical art to Milan. […] The concert was announced for half past eight, but well before eight o'clock lavish crews, modest carriages, broughams, and pedestrians could barely keep from bumping into each other in the wide courtyard of the Conservatorio. The capacity of the hall was known [...]: it was known that a good half of them would be obliged to return home upset by virtue of the principle that a full glass can’t take another drop.” This is how the critic (who signed their name Hans.) in Corriere della Sera began their account of what happened the previous evening in Milan: the first Italian performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 Op. 125, which arrived with an incredible delay of almost 54 years following its premiere in Vienna. The bicentennial will be celebrated on May 7, 2024. The choir has 160 members from the Choral Singing Society and the Choral Quartet Society, while the solo parts are entrusted to Ms. Invernizzi and Ms. Vaneri and Mrs. Aresi, Bertocchi and Taveggia.

On the podium was Veronese Franco Faccio, a conductor who was dear to Giuseppe Verdi for his operatic interpretations at La Scala but who did not win the great composer's full favour for his efforts to promote symphonic music, so much so that when La Scala did its first tour abroad, which Fraccio strongly desired to do with a series of symphonic concerts at the Trocadéro in Paris in 1878, he asked Verdi for advice on the scheduled program and received no response. An eloquent silence. In fact, the composer was very sceptical about the operation promoted by Faccio. He believed that instrumental music was "a fish out of water" in Italy, an art to be left to the Germans who had different means and "something different inside as well." Verdi would later pleasantly reconsider following the enthusiastic artistic results of the Paris performances, but he would still not change his thinking on symphonic music, so much so that when in 1879 Faccio offered him the honorary presidency of the nascent Società Orchestrale della Scala (made up of the members of the Orchestra della Scala, enlarged to 120 parts, a sort of Philharmonic ante litteram), he cordially declined the proposal in a letter written from Genoa on April 4, 1879, in which he argued that "it is all right to educate the public in the great Art, but it seems to me that the art of Palestrina and Marcello is also a great Art [...] and it is ours."

Returning to the April 18, 1878, concert, the organization was overseen by the Società del Quartetto, of which Faccio had been a promoter, and the – entirely Beethovenian – program included the King Stephen Overture op. 117, the Coriolanus Overture op. 62, as well as Symphony No. 9. The performance was given again at the Conservatorio on April 22 and then, by popular demand, on April 26 at the Teatro Carcano, in a larger hall better suited to the masterpiece. After the final performance, the same critic writes in the Corriere: "Hearing it, it seems that Beethoven before he died revealed to the world the mystery of his genius; it seems that after enjoying the astonishment of men he said to them: do not marvel at what was produced in art and what will be produced; here is the source of every beauty that I had I do not know how, nor from whom."

A little more than seven years later the Symphony No. 9 returned to Milan, again in the Sala del Conservatorio and again with Franco Faccio conducting, and in the Corriere della Sera, in analogy with the previous occasion, we read, "December 6, 1885 is a date that all those in Milan who understand and love the art of music will not soon forget, just as they did not forget April 18, 1878, another fortunate day on which we were given the chance to hear, relish, and admire in the Symphony No. 9 the greatest manifestation of Beethoven's genius.”

Finally, on May 19, 1897, 73 years after the first performance in Vienna, Beethoven's Ninth resounds between the walls of La Scala! Conducting it is Charles Lamoureux, a French conductor of the highest order, already involved in the 1894 symphonic season, who, like Faccio, strongly committed to the diffusion of European symphonic music in his nation, particularly German symphonic music, who was also forced to face strong resistance.

In introducing the concert on the day of the first performance, the Corriere critic explained that "it was not tolerable that Beethoven’s great masterpiece should continue to remain nearly unknown to a great majority of the public. Between 1824 and today, the number of performances of the Symphony No. 9 can be counted on one's fingers. In Milan there were two performances (1878 and 1885) in the concerts of the Società del Quartetto; in Bologna it was also heard twice; and only once – if I am not mistaken – in Turin and Rome. In all other European states for the past 80 years, the Ninth has been continually performed. [...] Here, the difficulties were once summed up primarily by the exclusive dominance of our music. Today they are found rather in the lack of performers. [...] The Ninth is quite different from all other symphonies. Apart from the introduction of the vocal element (soloists and choirs) in his last tempo, his whole orchestral structure is so complex and difficult that it cannot tolerate mediocre execution. In our country, there are no stable orchestras: therein lies the flaw. And so the possibility of performing the Symphony No. 9 can only arise in extraordinary circumstances and as a result of vigorous efforts, such as those to which the Orchestral Society of the Teatro alla Scala has now dedicated itself. [...] Given this, it is a truly serious problem to conduct a colossus of the size of this admirable symphony. How much effort today's concertation has cost Maestro Lamoureux and the instructors of the choirs is not to be said, and with how much zeal the professors of the Orchestra and the performers of the vocal parts have paid it, will be seen tonight." The performance left a great impression and generated enthusiasm in the La Scala audience and was repeated on three occasions, the last of which, on May 26, 1897, on an evening dedicated to the memory of Franco Faccio, who died prematurely at 51 in 1891.

We enter the 20th century and, having overcome the late 19th-century qualms about symphonic music and with more structured artistic ensembles, the Ninth finds its way and gradually becomes part of the fabric of La Scala. On April 20, 1902, it was Arturo Toscanini who performed it for three evenings with an absolutely triumphant response. Toscanini would conduct it again after La Scala's transformation into an autonomous institution, in 1922, and then in 1926, on the latter occasion with the performance of the complete works of Beethoven’s Symphonies, which was also offered on a trip to Turin. In 1935, the Ninth returned, again with a performance of the complete works, under Otto Klemperer, while in 1940 and 1941 it was Victor de Sabata who tried his hand at the Ninth. In 1944, with La Scala bombed and inaccessible, Hans Weisbach conducted it at the Teatro Lirico and Teatro Sociale in Como.

In the post-war period, soon after the theatre reopened on June 24, 1946, it was Toscanini again who offered it to the public. Other greats followed: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1949), De Sabata again (full cycle in 1952), Sergiu Celibidache (1959), Zubin Mehta (in 1971 and then in 2017 on tour in Kazakhstan), Karl Böhm (1975), Thomas Schippers (1976), Carlo Maria Giulini (1977 and 1986), John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir in 1994, Riccardo Muti (full cycle in 1998 and 1999), Daniel Barenboim (in 2005, in 2007 in Ghana and again at La Scala in 2012), Kurt Masur (2007), Xian Zhang with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano ensembles (then Orchestra Verdi, in 2010), Gustavo Dudamel with the Simón Bolívar Sinfónica e Juvenil (2015), Myung-Whun Chung (in 2016 at the Open Air Theatre in Milan and on tour in Korea and China), Christoph von Dohnányi (2016) and Riccardo Chailly (2020).

To date there have been 64 performances, making the Symphony No. 9 the most performed symphonic-choral composition by the La Scala ensembles after Verdi's Requiem, thus bridging the initial "gap," so much so that it has been offered on several occasions, as was also the case with the Requiem, on tours abroad. Of particular note among these is the concert performed in Accra on April 23, 2007, on the occasion of Ghana's 50th anniversary of independence. Originating from an idea that emerged during a meeting on the occasion of the La Scala premiere on December 7, 2006, between the former UN Secretary General, Ghanaian Kofi Annan, the then Mayor of Milan Letizia Moratti and Superintendent Lissner, the concert was conducted by Daniel Barenboim despite the very tight schedule, arousing considerable buzz and proving instrumental in Milan's hosting of Expo 2015.

Andrea Vitalini
Responsabile dell’Archivio Storico Artistico del Teatro alla Scala
Translation by Alexa Ahern