The 75th anniversary of the first televised broadcast of the complete Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Symphony No. 9 (1824)
Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.
In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.
It’s an important but obscure anniversary for the work that has to be in the top two of most famous symphonies of all time, the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. Probably his Fifth Symphony has the No. 1 spot, but it’s certainly between the two of them. As I’m recording this podcast, it’s the 75th anniversary of the first televised broadcast of the complete Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. It took place on April 3rd, 1948, the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The soloists were soprano Anne McKnight, mezzo-soprano Jane Hobson, tenor Erwin Dillon, and bass Norman Scott, and the chorus was Robert Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale.
There are a few reasons to have the Beethoven Ninth on a show called “Discoveries,” the first being this 75th anniversary. It gives us a chance not only to appreciate this gargantuan composer and work but also—and this is the second reason—to reflect in wonderment, on what TV was up to in its early years. It’s almost incredible that a major network not only broadcast classical music, but created an entire orchestra and gave it a regular show with which to do it. Now, granted, they were experimenting. No one knew for sure what programming would work in this fairly new technology to attract enough of an audience to pay for it. This particular experiment lasted only until 1954. But it is still amazing that they did it at all.
The third reason is Beethoven himself. It is easy to take for granted how great a composer Beethoven was, and how great a force on music he became. Sometimes—for those of us in music—it’s the easiest for us to take him for granted. If you live at the shore I suppose it’s easy to take the ocean for granted, too. But we must never forget that power that Beethoven has. It isn’t because it’s written down somewhere that “Beethoven is great.” No, it’s because his music does have that raw power, generation after generation, over all audiences, millions upon millions of all people around the world, the power to move us, the power to show how deep an impact this art of music can have, and does have.
Beethoven had such an impact even on the American musical scene that when the New York Philharmonic, the oldest orchestra in the United States, was founded in 1842, it was stated expressly by the founders that they wanted to create an orchestra capable of playing Beethoven symphonies. That’s what they wanted. The composer was already dead for 15 years, but there he was, at the very foundation of the American symphonic world.
At the Fleisher Collection, the Beethoven Ninth represents a bit of an anomaly, or at least a side-issue, that I thought I’d explain. You see, the Fleisher Collection, as we often say, is the world’s largest lending library of orchestral performance materials. It was created by Edwin Fleisher, in fact, as a library for the youth orchestra he founded, the Symphony Club in Philadelphia. It was a training orchestra for school-age students at a time when the Philadelphia public schools had no instrumental music programs. They had choral music, but no orchestral music. So Mr. Fleisher created this library of orchestral music to answer a specific need.
Years later he gave his collection, already the largest of its kind in the world, to the Free Library of Philadelphia. And while it had all kinds of orchestral music—symphonies, concertos, suites, dances—there was one kind it didn’t have: music for orchestra with chorus. Why? Because the Symphony Club had no chorus.
So, no choral music, except, that is, for the Beethoven Ninth. After all, how could you have an orchestral music collection and not have all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies? So there it was, in the very first batch of works to be cataloged and shelved in the Fleisher Collection; walk in the front door, look to your left and there on the shelf is catalog number 164, the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven. Decades later the Collection decided to fill that hole in the repertoire, so now we have hundreds of chorus and orchestra works—Handel’s Messiah, Brahms’s Requiem, the Vivaldi Gloria and so on—but Beethoven’s Ninth was there from the beginning.
So I thought that the 75th anniversary of its first complete broadcast on television was enough of an invitation to me to give over a podcast to this work. We already knew it was groundbreaking, but its surprises keep coming.
And what about this performance? The conductor, Arturo Toscanini, was 81 years old, and let me tell you, if you see the video of this, which is available, he looks pretty amazing for 81. He conducts without a score, but what surprises me most about seeing him work, is that for all the stories I’ve heard of his aristocratic, even haughty bearing, what I see on that video is his great humility. He is kind to the musicians, gentle even, inviting them to come along with him. Overall, what is obvious is his deep devotion to the music. Still, he is dynamic, and you can see why, in this last stage of his career—he would die nine years later—he bloomed. He looks great on TV.
The bass soloist, Norman Scott, would become a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera, singing comprimario and also larger roles such as Colline in La Bohème. Tenor Erwin Dillon I could find next to nothing about, but I have a soft spot for mezzo Jane Hobson, listed as contralto for this program. She was also known by her married name of Jane Shepherd, and after marrying she settled in the hometown of her husband, Huntington, West Virginia, where she not only taught voice but had her own classical music radio show, so I have a collegial respect for her as well. The soprano, Anne McKnight, had a career in the States, later in Italy, and later still back in America, but I loved the professional name she chose while singing in Italy. Think of what a knight, the soldier on the horse, might be in Italian, and you’ll come around to it. Anne McKnight in Italy sang as Anna di Cavalieri.
The choir in this performance is the Collegiate Chorale, founded in 1941 in New York City by Robert Shaw. They got their name from where they were headquartered, at the Marble Collegiate Church on West 29th Street. They still exist, changing their name to the MasterVoices a few years ago.
The Ninth Symphony is in four movements, the singers not entering until the last movement. That final movement, a symphony unto itself, is also in four sections, and it’s a glorious setting of words from and based on the “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller, culminating in the praise of the brotherhood of all of us under Heaven.
So on Fleisher Discoveries let’s now hear this historic performance of the Symphony No. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven on this, the 75th anniversary of the first complete televised performance of one of the most remarkable works in the symphonic repertoire. The soloists are Anne McKnight, soprano, Jane Hobson, mezzo-soprano, Erwin Dillon, tenor, and Norman Scott, bass. The Collegiate Chorale was prepared by Robert Shaw, and Arturo Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra in this performance of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven.
[Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Symphony No. 9 (1824)]
The Symphony No. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the soloists were soprano Anne McKnight, mezzo-soprano Jane Hobson, tenor Erwin Dillon, and bass Norman Scott, and the Collegiate Chorale, which was prepared by Robert Shaw. This is the 75th anniversary of this historic performance on April 3rd, 1948, the first complete televised performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. This is Fleisher Discoveries, and I’m Kile Smith.
Not only because of the greatness of the work and its musical impact, but especially for its theme of joy in the unity of all people, Beethoven’s Ninth has been performed at auspicious occasions the world over. Wagner conducted it at the first concert in his new opera house in Bayreuth, and it’s performed there to this day. That New York Philharmonic—whose founding we referred to earlier, where they wanted to build an orchestra that was good enough to perform Beethoven—well, they gave the American premiere just four years after their founding, in 1846, to help raise funds for a concert hall. Seiji Ozawa conducted it for the 1998 Winter Olympics. And most famously, Leonard Bernstein led the Ninth in East Berlin in 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Beethoven completed this, his last symphony, in 1824, so that means that next year will be its 200th anniversary. I imagine that preparations have already been well underway for many grand celebrations of what many consider the greatest piece of classical music ever written.
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And thanks again for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.