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First Beethoven Symphony in America?

Posted at 9:27 AM on July 9, 2008 by Fred Child (1 Comments)

In the assembly room of Postlethwait's Tavern in Lexington Kentucky in 1817, a Bohemian emigre named Anthony Philip Heinrich led a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 1.

For decades, books and essays, program notes and websites (and radio hosts!) have cited that concert as the first American performance of a Beethoven symphony.

Last week, we broadcast a rustic piece by Heinrich ("A Sylvan Scene in Kentucky, or the Barbeque Divertimento") and I credited him as the first conductor of a Beethoven symphony in the states. Later that same day, I got a fascinating email from Dr. Nicholas Butler, Special Collections Manager for the Charleston County Public Library, in Charleston, South Carolina. Dr. Butler wrote about a newspaper item that appeared in Charleston April 10, 1805...which mentions a local concert with an "Overture" by Beethoven. Butler thinks that may have been a Beethoven symphony that was played in Charleston, that "Overture" may have been shorthand for a longer work. Keep in mind, this is April 1805 we're talking about, when only the first two of Beethoven's symphonies had ever been played anywhere. (Beethoven's Third was premiered later that same month in Vienna.)


Dr. Butler was kind enough to forward an image of the 1805 newspaper clipping, which you can see here. For more check out Butler's blog about Charleston history. Or his book, "Votaries of Apollo," a history of the concert scene in Charleston between the 1760s and 1820s.

If Dr. Butler is correct, and it was Beethoven's First or Second Symphony that was played at that Charleston gathering in 1805...then the first conductor of a Beethoven symphony in the states was Jacob Eckhard.

And with Dr. Butler's permission, below is a copy of an email he sent me, answering some of my questions about the 1805 concert in Charleston.



In researching the performers and repertoire of concert life in early Charleston for my dissertation (Ph.D., Indiana University, 2004), I concluded that Charleston could assemble between 20 and 30 musicians at just about any time between 1773 and 1820, which would have been an "average" sized band in Europe. All of the instruments and the music would have been imported from Europe, as were the professional musicians. And yes, there was at least one retail music shop in Charleston in 1805. Wealthy gentlemen amateurs, many educated in Europe, always formed a portion of the orchestra, and lady amateurs and professionals frequently sang and performed on keyboard or harp at these concerts. In fact, the earliest mention of a piano concerto by Mozart in Charleston was performed by a woman. Eliza Poe (mother of the famous author) sang in Charleston, too. The audience consisted of the wealthy planters (of rice and later cotton) and merchants of the city and surrounding area known as the "lowcountry," as well as their wives and marriageable daughters (boys were specifically excluded). Wealthy visitors from the northeast, wintering in Charleston, were frequently invited to partake of the festivities. Between 1766 and 1820, more than 500 concerts were performed in Charleston. Approximately 400 of those were performed by the St. Cecilia Society, which should be remembered as the first real orchestra in the U.S., and the most significant concert phenomenon in the U.S. before the advent of the New York Philharmonic in 1842.

The non-St. Cecilia Society concerts in early Charleston, such as Eckhard's "Oratorios," were performed by essentially the same band and attended by the same audiences as the St. Cecilia events. In 1805, the band (as they called the orchestra) would have been composed largely of refugees from the French island colony of St. Domingue, which, after a slave revolt, became Haiti. Hundreds of that island's wealthy, cultured planters became penniless refugees in Charleston, and many turned to music as a means of survival. They worked side-by-side with European professionals and Charleston amateurs to create a vibrant musical scene unrivalled in New York or Philadelphia at that time.

The major theme of my book, Votaries of Apollo, is Charleston's vigorous patronage of concert music. This city's musical heritage has been omitted from the canon of American music history, unfortunately, primarily because no northern historians (except Oscar Sonneck) bothered to come here and dig for evidence. I found a huge amount of fragmentary evidence, however, which I attempted to weave together in Votaries of Apollo. The leftovers from that project are now the seeds for other, equally interesting projects.

Comments ( 1 )

I loved today's program and the three C# minor works by Beethoven, Chopin and Barber.
I have been working on the Bach Prelude and Fugue in the same key (W.C. Book 1) and agree with the various commentators. What a wonderful unifying theme. Must find some more works in that key.
Mieke Smit

Posted by Mieke Smit | July 11, 2008 10:21 AM

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