The Society and Beethoven

‘I am now writing a new symphony for the Philharmonic Society, and hope to have it finished within two weeks.’ (Beethoven to Archduke Rudolf, 1 July 1823)

Beethoven’s music was regularly performed at the concerts of the Philharmonic Society right from its foundation in 1813. First performances in Britain given by the Society include the Fifth Symphony (1816), Seventh Symphony (1817) and Piano Concertos 1 (1822), 3 (1824) and 4 (1825).

The Ninth Symphony

In 1815, Charles Neate, one of the Philharmonic Society’s Directors, travelled to Vienna and made direct contact with the composer bringing back with him to London three overtures: The Ruins of Athens op 113, King Stephen op 117 and Namensfeier op 115. Enthusiasm for Beethoven’s music was so strong that in 1817 the Directors invited him to come to London to direct not one, but two symphonies to be composed by him for the Society. Negotiations were protracted and sadly the project was never realised. However in 1824, in response to a commission for 50 pounds, a manuscript score of his Ninth Symphony (The Choral) was sent to the Society bearing on its front page, in Beethoven’s hand the dedication ‘written for the Philharmonic Society in London’. This score can now be seen in the British Library. The first British performance of the work was given in a Philharmonic Society concert on 21 March 1825 in the Harmonic Institution on Regent Street.

Last Years

Two years later, when the Society learnt that Beethoven was both ill and much in need of money, the Directors decided that a sum of £100 should be sent to him “to be applied to his comforts and necessities”. The money, held up en route, reached him only a few days before he died, but time enough for him to express his heartfelt appreciation to the Society. Schindler, his amanuensis, reported that ‘the Society had comforted his last days, and that event on the brink of the grave he thanked the Society and the whole English nation for the great gift, God bless them.’

Beethoven Bust

Yet a further link with Beethoven can still be seen at Royal Philharmonic Society events. A bust of Beethoven by Johann Nepomuk Schaller (1777-1842) of Vienna is traditionally placed on the platform at each concert as a symbol of musical excellence, creativity and support for the living composer. The bust was presented to the Society in 1870 by Madame Fanny Linzbauer of Budapest, wife of a University professor and a lady of artistic tastes, in recognition of the Society’s kindness to Beethoven during the last years of his life. In Madame Linzbauer’s words, “England will ever be considered the highest and best friend of that man, who was so much distinguished by nature.”

Gold Medal

The Society commemorated the centenary of Beethoven’s birth by the creation of a Gold Medal for presentation to “artists of eminence”. The medal bears the image of Beethoven, and has become one of the most privileged honours in the world of music.

Further Reading

Arthur Searle
RPS Honorary Librarian (1983-2019)

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