Now here’s a very unusual work indeed: a single-movement piece, roughly 25 minutes long, that features orchestra, solo piano, vocal soloists, and a chorus. Why would Beethoven have written such an oddly structured piece? Most likely, I figured, he wrote this piece for a very specific musical performance event…and that turns out to have been exactly the case. Beethoven put on a benefit concert for himself in December of 1808, which I mentioned the other day in the post about the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. It was quite the program, involving a full orchestra, a chorus, vocal soloists, and himself as pianist, he wrote a work to specifically serve as the finale to the night’s music festivities.
The Choral Fantasy begins with a passage for solo piano that sounds almost like an improvisation–and upon doing a bit more research, I learned that Beethoven himself actually improvised the opening at that first performance. Then the orchestra joins in, and then the work has almost the feel of being a short concerto, starting with a rather portentous slow section that doesn’t last terribly long before arriving at a theme-and-variations that takes up most of the entire work. The feel at the beginning is of another piano concerto, but as the rest of the orchestra takes over the effect becomes quite charming in spots, including a ‘drum-and-fife’ section there the flute plays a lively dance while the piano provides the “oom-pah” part.
Eventually the voices arrive, and the Choral Fantasy becomes lyrical and thrilling. Listeners familiar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony may note a similarity in the Fantasy‘s main theme and that of the Ninth’s great finale. Some have even suggested that the theme in the Fantasy is actually an earlier idea that Beethoven had considered for the Ninth and either rejected or elected to use here. In any event, the ultimate effect is thrilling in a way that is very similar to that of the Ninth’s final movement, even if the Ninth is a far more profound work than this. I find the Choral Fantasy an absolute delight. Let me know what you think! Here it is: