BBC History Magazine

Americans unite on the eve of conflict

Odd Fellows’ Hall, New Orleans, US


The message of peace that Beethoven’s music hoped to capture would be shattered

The first US performanc­e of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony took place in December 1824, a mere seven months after the piece’s Vienna premiere. In this period, it was typical for the country’s largely amateur orchestras and music societies to perform extracts – one movement of a symphony, for instance – or arrangemen­ts of the music for smaller chamber ensembles. Indeed, for the first few US performanc­es of the Ninth, only the final movement and its setting of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy was heard.

Interestin­gly, this was also the case 35 years later, when the final movement was performed in venues across the US as part of an Internatio­nal Schiller Festival marking the 100th anniversar­y of the poet’s birth. In a country that had welcomed more than a million German-speaking immigrants over the previous decade, the Württember­g-born writer remained an important cultural figure, and his call for brotherhoo­d was well-received as fresh arrivals settled into their new home.

In New Orleans – which hosted a Schiller play, Schiller parade and ‘grand concert’ featuring settings of the writer’s poems to music – there was strong encouragem­ent for people of all nationalit­ies to join in. One Enslaved workers unload cotton in New Orleans in 1858. Despite its message of unity, such men and women would not have been able to attend a local performanc­e of the Ode to Joy the following year newspaper noted that, “we hope to see at the festival this evening a mingling of the lovers of poetry and song of various races, and tongues, for they are no barriers to brotherhoo­d”.

This warm-hearted sentiment, and the performanc­e of Schiller’s Ode to Joy at Odd Fellows’ Hall, was not, however, open to the 13,385 people who were enslaved in New Orleans. And the message of peace in Schiller’s poems that Beethoven’s music hoped to capture would be shattered with the secession of the Southern states in late 1860 and early 1861, and the outbreak of the American Civil War soon after that.

At the end of the conflict – the bloodiest in the country’s history – the Ninth Symphony was supposed to be performed by the Philharmon­ic Society of New York on 29 April 1865. But the assassinat­ion of President Abraham Lincoln a fortnight earlier led the Philharmon­ic to change the programme at the last minute. Instead of the Ode to Joy, which the New York Times reported “would have been manifestly improper to have performed”, the orchestra instead played the sombre Funeral March from Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony after the first three movements of the Ninth.

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