The Beethoven Society, part 2
UPDATED, December 27, 2020: I managed to mix together my notes on the two works by Haydn—adapted by William Gardiner as “his” pasticcio oratorio “Judah”—that appeared on this first concert of the Milwaukie Beethoven Society. I have updated this post to correct the information and links about piece no. 2, from “Part First” of the performance, “Now elevate the sign of Judah.” The information about the chorus “Lo he cometh”—the 8th item on “Part Second”—has been moved to its correct place in our upcoming post about the second part of the concert, scheduled for Monday, December 28, 2020. Sorry for the confusion. —R.P.
In Friday’s post we introduced what is commonly believed to be Milwaukee’s first concert society, the Milwaukie Beethoven Society. If you missed it, please take a moment to read that post for background on the group and its place in early Milwaukee’s cultural life. They gave their first performance on Thursday, March 23rd, 1843, at the Milwaukee Court House. The advertised program was:
Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel March 15 1843, page 2. Click to open larger image in new window.
The program for the evening was typical for the era, featuring solo songs (“song,” “air,” “ballad”), vocal duets, trios and quartets, and choruses for the full ensemble. (It’s also possible that the duets, trios and quartets may have been sung one-on-a-part, or with the full chorus divided into two, three or four parts to cover the “solo” lines.) On this initial performance, the Beethoven Society did not play any strictly orchestral works. This suggests that the the newly-formed ensemble may have understood itself to be more of an “oratorio society”—focused on vocal and choral repertoire with instrumental accompaniment—rather than a “symphony orchestra” with an affiliated chorus.
Even as early as 1843, it’s not surprising that the citizens of Milwaukee could form a performing ensemble of some 35 singers and instrumentalists. Oratorio societies were very popular throughout 19th- and early-20th century America for aesthetic and practical reasons. From a practical point of view—and my own more recent experience—it was probably much easier to assemble a reasonably capable group of men and women to form a decent mixed-voice, SATB, chorus. As we discussed last week, many 19th-century Americans were taught the rudiments of music and singing in school, in church, and at home. In the 19th-century, singing in harmony was a common part of worship, education, and home life. And you don’t need to invest in expensive instruments and years of regular lessons to become a contributing member of a good amateur chorus. Then as now, the talent pool for a good community chorus is usually deeper than for a full amateur orchestra.
Artistically, choral repertoire fulfilled a need for individual and community music-making and aesthetic and spiritual uplift. In today’s post you’ll see that many of the works on the concert—whether originally sacred or secular—were adapted from their original texts and purposes and fitted out with new, English language, Bible-based or liturgical texts. And if not sacred, the texts of the other pieces—with one or two exceptions—tended to be either somewhat sentimental or deeply maudlin. (It was the Victorian era, after all.)