Christmas in Vienna (1934) With the First Nine Beethovens
By Hans Fantel
Dec. 24, 1989
THE MOST DEARLY REMEMBERED Christmas present I ever received was given to me by my father when I was 12. It was a complete set of Beethoven’s symphonies, the first ever to be recorded in its entirety.
That was long before LP records made such comprehensive recordings commonplace. Even the complete recording of a single symphony was relatively new at the time, as was electrical recording itself. Before then, in the days of the tin-horn phonograph, it had been impossible to capture the full range and sonority of orchestral sound on disks, and, with rare exceptions, recording had been confined to short pieces for voice or solo instruments.
Even after the microphone replaced the horn and electrical amplification enhanced the sound of home phonographs, the prevailing practice persisted. Separate movements from a symphony or isolated arias from an opera, rather than complete works, predominated in the catalogues. Not until the early 30’s did entire symphonies gradually enter the repertory of the phonograph. So those nine Beethoven albums on 78-rpm disks, each weighing several pounds and looking like a large leather-bound volume from some ponderous enyclopedia, appeared very impressive under the Christmas tree at our house on the edge of the Vienna Woods. Aside from wanting me to gain a thorough acquaintance with the music, my father had a particular reason for giving me this bountiful present. In his own youth, he told me later, it had been one of his great ambitions to hear every one of Beethoven’s symphonies. He knew the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth, the ‘‘Eroica’’ and the ‘‘Pastoral,’’ for these were played often. This merely heightened his eagerness for the others and sharpened his frustration that even in Vienna - then at its cultural zenith - one couldn’t hear Beethoven’s entire symphonic legacy within a reasonable span of time. To hear Beethoven’s Second, my father had to persuade his boss to give him two days off to attend a concert in Prague, and it took another overnight journey to Budapest to catch up with Beethoven’s Eighth.
Later, as a manufacturer of electrical equipment, my father was closely involved with the development of electrical music reproduction. Under license from Siemens, a leading German firm, his small company built the first commercial home radio in Austria and one of the first electric phonographs.
The new field of electroacoustics had a special appeal to my father because it led to a fruitful joining of his business interests with his passion for music. At a time when the phonograph was derided as ‘‘canned music’’ and many serious musicians considered it beneath their professional dignity to set foot in a recording studio, my father saw in the new technology something miraculous: a machine to transcend the limits of time and space that had constrained music since its beginning. Music had always vanished with its own sound. It was always lost forever as soon as it was sung or played. Now, for the first time, a performance could live on.
It must have been difficult for him to talk about this to a small boy, and I don’t remember exactly what he said. But I know he had thought about these things and that the appearance of that first complete set of Beethoven symphonies on records (conducted by Felix von Weingartner) must have meant a great deal to him. A gift of nine albums, after all, is truly a grand and extraordinary present, even for Christmas. It also seems to me that, by giving me those records, he marked an important difference in the musical experience of his generation and mine. Unlike him, I benefited from the electric phonograph at an early age. My musical horizons would therefore be wider than his. Even as a teen-ager, I would have the classics on the shelf - ready to sound forth at the drop of a needle. And, as the recorded repertory expanded, I was able to make exciting forays into musical esoterica, which in those days meant perhaps a Ravel suite or something Baroque.
Now, as I look back on that long-ago Christmas, it seems as if it took place in another world - in a city not yet irrevocably altered by war. I don’t know if my father had any inkling of what lay ahead for us in the years of the great cataclysm. I was too young to read the signs. But he may have sensed the impending end of Austria as we knew it. Perhaps he hoped that the music I was learning under his guidance would provide me with nourishment in dark times when he could no longer take care of me.
In later years, after finally reaching this country and learning to read English, I came across a remark by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Of all the recent attainments of science, the famous historian said, there are only two he would not wish to do without: modern medicine and the phonograph. I think I know why he said that - particularly when I remember that Christmas, and how the phonograph has remained my constant companion ever since.
Happy New Year to you all. Stay close to the music.
Apologies for the two text sizes. I don’t know why it happened or how to fix it.