Dr. James Parsons, internationally known Beethoven scholar and MSU music history professor, presented his scholarly paper “Once more Beethoven and Schiller: the Choral Fantasy’s Philosophical Program” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 6, 2013, at the Third New Beethoven Conference held in conjunction with the American Musicological Society.
Parsons pursued an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on his knowledge of German, late-eighteenth-century philosophy, literature, the history of weather reporting, Beethoven’s musical sketches, and music history to shed new light on one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most unusual musical works, his Choral Fantasy for solo piano, orchestra, and chorus, Opus 80, first performed 22 December 1808 in Vienna.
Arguably the first ever monster concert, the performance that night began at 6:30 PM and concluded four hours later. The theater’s heat was not working, so the audience surely huddled closely together as the temperature was 17 degrees Fahrenheit, a fact Parsons uncovered by combing weather reports in the Vienna 1808 newspapers. The concert included the world premieres of Beethoven’s 6th and 5th symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, two movements of his C-Major Mass, a concert aria, a solo piano fantasy, and the Choral Fantasy as grand finale. Beethoven served as pianist in all of the works calling for piano that night, the last time he would do so publically given his increasing deafness.
Beginning with the text of the Choral Fantasy, Parsons traced its debts to Friedrich Schiller, the same poet Beethoven turned to in the last movement of his epic 1824 Ninth Symphony, the first symphony to join voices and the instrumental orchestra. Interestingly, the Choral Fantasy and the Ninth’s last movement use the same tune, something unheard of in Beethoven’s music.
Parsons contends that Beethoven composed not only the Choral Fantasy’s music but had a large hand in writing its text, and that the text is a summary of an enormously long 1789 Schiller poem, his “Die Kuenster,” “The Artists.” As distilled by Beethoven, the idea is that those who create art ought to serve as cultural prophets to inspire in the public at large what philosophers of the day most valued: enlightenment. During Beethoven’s lifetime enlightenment meant joining the extremes of head and heart or the worldly here and now and the heavenly above. Many creative individuals from the time had similar ideas. As Percy Bysshe Shelley famously wrote in 1821, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Parsons moreover believes the musical forces of Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” intentionally draw on all of the performing forces the composer previously had used in the works heard earlier that 1808 evening. Doing so allowed Beethoven to musically satisfy the demands of Schiller’s poem and its call that art unite humankind and lead to enlightenment. In contrast to what music scholars previously have thought, Parsons’s study proves that Beethoven avidly read and came to terms with the leading thinkers of his day.