Ludwig van Beethoven

Fantasia in C minor

Op. 80 • “Choral Fantasy”

Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Beethoven composed this work in the autumn of 1808 and played as well as conducted the first performance on December 22 of that year in Vienna. In addition to pairs of winds and brass plus timpani and strings, it calls for solo voices and mixed chorus.

Although a hybrid work without precedent, emulated only twice since (by Ferruccio Busoni and Ralph Vaughan Williams), the "Choral Fantasy," as it has come to be called, was composed hurriedly as a crowd-pleasing endpiece for a pre-Christmas Akademie concert. A great deal went wrong during that four-hour marathon in the Theater an der Wien, yet it was destined to become one of the most famous evenings in all of musical history.

A soprano soloist had been engaged to sing the concert aria Ah! Perfido, but quarreled with Beethoven during rehearsal and withdrew in a rage; her replacement was a teenager, not only intimidated but uncontrollably tremulous. The orchestra, which had had trouble previously with their famously irascible composer, who had badmouthed them in the bargain, refused to rehearse until he left the room. Choral parts for the Fantasie came from the copyists still wet. The old theater's primitive heating system, taxed by a cold wave that year, broke down before the concert. To cap the litany of misadventures, Beethoven forgot to tell the orchestra to ignore a repeat in the A major Adagio section of the Fantasie; thus, while he went forward on the keyboard, they went backward until the performance broke down, and had to resume in medias res. Beethoven, to his credit, accepted the blame.

Before that debacle, an intrepid audience had shivered through the world premieres of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the first public performance of Piano Concerto No. 4, and half of the recent Mass in C (Op. 86, for Haydn's patron, Esterházy), as well as the works already mentioned. As for the bedeviled "Choral Fantasy," it proved to be a prototype, in effect, of the choral finale to come 15 years later in the Ninth Symphony. Even the theme of its mainly amiable variations in C-related keys resembles the more celebrated one he would compose for Schiller's Ode to Joy in 1823. Its original form, however, goes all the way back to 1795 (a year before Ah! Perfido) -- to a song, with verses by Gottfried August Bürger, entitled Gegenliebe (Mutual Love).

Despite the rapid composition (for Beethoven) of his "Choral Fantasy," sketches in the storied Notebooks reveal that he had first thoughts about the substance and treatment in 1800. Remarkably, he published it in 1811 exactly as written three years before -- except for the solo introduction in C minor, which he had improvised at the premiere. It has never been determined definitively if the author of the text was Beethoven's friend, Christoph Kuffner. In the event, it is sung first by six solo voices -- two sopranos and alto, then two tenors and baritone -- after that by the chorus. Surely only a curmudgeon could fail to be charmed by the work's overall insouciance, just as only someone stone-deaf would fail to recognize it as stylistically authoritative, middle-period Beethoven.