Prague Concert Life, 1850-1881

Event title:

Benefit concert in aid of the Society for the Welfare of Prague Servants [Jednota k podporování služebných Pražských]

Venue: New Town Theatre [Novoměstské divadlo]

Event type: Art music culture

Date: 15/04/1860 12 noon

Beneficiary: Society for the Welfare of Prague Servants

Programme comprising, part 1:

General participants:
  • Estates Theatre orchestra: participating orchestra, orch
  • ŠKROUP, František Jan: director of ensemble, conductor
VEIT, Wenzel Heinrich : Symphony, orch, E minor, op.49

Part 2:

WEBER, Carl Maria von : aria of Agatha Leise, leise, fromme Weise from act 2 of opera Der Freischütz, v, orch, J277
     • Bělská, Louisa : v
arr. Liszt, Franz: Polonaise brillante , pf, orch , Cat No:S367
     • Fischer, Karl : pf
SPOHR, Louis : aria Rose wie bist du from opera Zemire und Azor, v, orch, WoO52
     • Bělská, Louisa : v

Part 3:

BEETHOVEN, Ludwig van : orchestral work Wellingtons Sieg, oder Die Schlacht bei Vittoria, orch, op.91
     • unspecified military music ensemble: orch


The first newspaper reports of this event appeared on 8/4/1860. Bohemia reported that ‘in eight days time a great concert will be given for the benefit of the Society for the Welfare of Prague Servants in the New Town Theatre, and which will open with Veit’s Symphony in E minor.’ The works to be performed by Mrs Bělská and ‘Prince Lobkowitz’s pianist’ Fischer were clearly identified, with the text also reporting that Mrs Burgraff was to give a declamation entitled ‘Gute Nacht’. Specific mention was made of the performance of the ‘great Tone-painting [großes Tongemälde]’ by Beethoven, and that participating would be the two [unspecified] military music bands currently stationed in Prague. Der Tagesbote 8/4/1860 published similarly detailed information about the concert, only noting in addition that the president of the Servant’s Society was Prince Lobkowic. This may be linked with the specific appearance of the pianist Fischer in this event. Prager Zeitung 8/4/1860 reported the date, time and charitable purpose of the event, and the connection with Prince Johann Lobkowitz [Lobkovic]. Of the programme this text specified the performance of Veit’s Symphony and of ‘Wellington’s Sieg’, and identified the soloists but did not identify the works they were to give. The programme was noted to be in three parts but the suggested position of Beethoven’s composition in the second part of the concert was not that which was eventually given. Participating too in that work were to be two military music ensembles then stationed in the city.

Prager Morgenpost 10/4/1860 published news of this benefit concert for the Society for the Welfare of Prague Servants, reporting its date, time, venue and details of the programme and participating soloists. An enthusiastic review, signed ‘**’, followed in the newspaper on 16/4/1860. This noted that the concert was equally enjoyable in the solo as well as the orchestral items, and that in the choice of the latter works, ‘performed in an accomplished manner by the Theatre orchestra’, great thanks were due from all friends of music to the esteemed Director [Škroup]. The performance of Veit’s symphony, already given in the previous year by Škroup, was ‘very welcome’. The public had apparently ‘longed for’ a repeat of this ‘beautiful’ work, ‘powerful in the freshness, charm and poetry of its language, through the ingenious thematic development and orchestration.’ Of the other orchestral composition given in the concert, the critic remarked that ‘Also interesting was the long-unheard Symphony of Beethoven, op.91: “Die Schlacht bei Vittoria”, a work that irrespective of its musical value remains striking in its genre.’ Participating in the performance were also unspecified military musicians, who played ‘very meritoriously.’ The remainder of this review largely concerned the soloists appearing in the concert. The accomplished dilettante Mrs Louisa Bělská was noted to have recently appeared for the first time in a local benefit production and had ‘gained honourable recognition.’ Concerning the two arias that she sang on this occasion (that by Spohr in Czech), the review noted that in both her ‘noble sonorous soprano, notable vocal-technique’ was of ‘beautiful effect’. She recieved considerable applause and was repeatedly [curtain-]called. In Liszt’s arrangement of the Polonaise brillante the ‘excellent pianist Carl Fischer ... played with exquisite delicacy and bravura. This solo item also met with tumultuous approbation and general [curtain-]calls.’ Participating too in the event was the actress Auguste Burgraff who recited a declamation, ‘Gute Nacht’, following the piano composition. The review concluded with the note that the audience was large considering the ‘vast space of the venue’.

The unsigned Dalibor 20/4/1860 review noted that the concert was a ‘magnificent success’. Each movement of the ‘beautiful and charming’ symphony by Veit was reported to have been received with ‘great applause’, the critic commenting that ‘It is unnecessary to expound upon this really poetic and ingenious composition, the last movement of which is distinguished by the highest inspiration [nejvyšším vzletem vyniká]’. The closing item of the concert programme, Beethoven’s Die Schlacht bei Vittoria was described simply as that composer’s ‘weakest instrumental work’. Of the participating soloists, Fischer’s performance of Weber’s Polonaise brillante was considered by the review to have been ‘very tasteful and elegant’, and Mrs Bělská was praised for her expressive and refined singing. The Dalibor 10/4/1860 report stated that Bělská was to sing the aria by Spohr in Czech [‘Růže jak ty jsi vnaná něžná’]. This was confirmed by the subsequent Dalibor review and by other specified sources. Weber’s aria was evidently not performed in Czech; a Czech translation of the whole of Der Freischütz was first announced by Dalibor only on 20/11/1860. Although it is possible that this favourite aria may well have already been translated by the time of this April concert, such a Czech performance would surely have been noted by Dalibor.

The most critically pointed review of the concert appeared in Der Tagesbote 16/4/1860. This began by noting, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm given that the New Town Theatre was a cavernous wooden edifice, that ‘The friendly space [Die freundlichen Räume] of the ... Theatre was yesterday for the first time this year opened to an artistic production.’ After remarking briefly about the programming of the symphony by Veit, ‘a work whose beauties were illuminated in a first performance here [in Prague] not long ago’, the text detailed the performances of the soloists. Mrs Bělská was commended for her ‘beautiful voice and gusto and spirit of performance, no less handsome in effect as [she achieved] recently in [her giving in a previous concert programme] the “Briefarie”. The aria from Spohr’s opera she sang with ‘all her tender feeling’ even though the work was thought by the critic to be ineffective in the concert hall, and despite the difficulty of being given a Czech text which ‘the old German master Spohr might scarcely have dreamed of.’ Mr Fischer played Liszt’s arrangement of Weber’s Polonaise ‘with less pretention in it than one is accustomed.’ The performance of the actress Mrs Burgraff [Burggrafová] of two declamations was noted. Finally the critic commented at some length on what he evidently considered was a misguided performance of Beethoven’s Die Schlacht bei Vittoria. The work was thought to be better suited to a performance out of doors rather than in a concert hall. As a product of Beethoven it was considered by the critic to be of greater interest biographically, from the point of view of the composer and his connection with Mälzel, rather than for its value as a composition, and deemed unworthy of his genius. A military band was reported to have participated in the performance, as well as a mass of percussion. ‘The great space of the theatre happily deadened the excessive rabble of the Bataille.’ The audience was reported to be ‘numerous’.

The Prager Zeitung 17/4/1860 review, signed ‘!!’, opened by recording that this was the first test of the ‘colossal space’ of the New Town Theatre as a venue to stage music productions [Musikprodukzionen, i.e. concerts]. The ordering of the three parts of the concert was then related, correcting the newspaper’s original report in which Beethoven’s work constituted the second part of the event. Specific details of the programme then followed. Veit’s Symphony [spelt ‘Veith’ by the text] inspired perceptive comment; into a ‘national Czech element’ [nazionale böhmische Element] the composer conferred the spirit of the German ‘Tonheroen’ Beethoven, Mendelssohn and their epigone N. Gade, all being absorbed into ‘a splendid whole’. The work was held to stand alone in native music literature by virtue of its elegant texture and powerful harmonic language. Wellington’s Sieg drew a warmer response from the Prager Zeitung critic than was elicited from the correspondent of Tagesbote. It was considered the product of a great tone-poet engaging a whim to create a tone painting of a battle [Schlachtentonmalerei], and only Beethoven could succeed in combining together in such a work the brilliant effects of blaring trumpets, whirling drums, thunderous canons and rifle fire. His use of Rule Britannia, Marlborough and God save the King within such genre-painting served as an example to many occasional composers [Gelegenheitskomponisten]. Performing both orchestral works was ‘a plentiful cast’ but the number of stringed instruments needed to be tripled [the Bohemia review reported that the strings struggled in the accoustic]. The Prager Zeitung correspondent then described the performances by the two soloists and by the actress Mrs Burggraf. The soprano Bělská was praised for her ‘sympathetic timbre and lively artistry’; the playing of the pianist Fischer on a ‘sonorous’ Bösendorfer instrument  was ‘faultless and full of verve.’ Each of the soloists enjoyed being twice [curtain-]called, and Mr Škroup was commended for his typically circumspect conducting. Interestingly, the text reported that ‘the numerous audience would have overcrowded the Žofín Hall’. This was not of course an indication that the Theatre itself was full, since the venue was far larger than that on Žofín Island. The review made no mention of the aria by Spohr having been sung in Czech

The German-language newspaper Bohemia also published its review of the concert, signed ‘V.’, on 17/4/1860. It too opened with comments about the venue, reporting that ‘Despite the gargantuan dimensions of the locality for our concert-going public, the house still gained a very numerous audience.’ The numbers were such that the critic asserted that the large Žofín Hall would scarcely have been able to accomodate them all. The direction of the concert was ‘entrusted to a seasoned hand’, namely Fr. Škraup [Škroup], and so the performances were in essence a complete success. Included in the programme were two orchestral works that both created unusual interest. Veit’s Symphony was the ‘inherently fine’ work of ‘natural talent, a true professional ... created with a masterly hand’. The performance was as ‘well nuanced and vivacious’, as when it was last given, but the accoustic of the venue was thought to have caused the string sound to be weak. Figures and phrases in the tutti sections that the composer intended to be clearly audible were lost or muddy. Beethoven’s Schlacht bei Vittoria, for most listeners said to be a novelty, received more detailed coverage and consideration from the Bohemia correspondent than it received from any other contemporary source. This ‘flawed composition by the great Ludwig undisputedly constitutes a musical curiosity.’ Considering it to be a ‘quasi-anticipation of a symphonic poem ... almost real programme music ... tone painting’, the Bohemia critic expounded his views as to the success of the piece in terms of its aesthetic content. Although the work was thought to be flawed, attention was drawn to positively perceived aspects indicative of Beethoven’s genius, such as the ingenious handling of the instruments, the dying-away in the battle of the Marlborough theme, the ‘singular’ sequential passages and juxtaposition of the two national songs. By far the greater part of the review text was given to the description of this work. Of the second part of the concert, including the solo performances, the correspondent was brief. Mrs Bělská sang the aria from Freischütz ‘with great success’, even though this was said to be a piece that can only exceptionally work on the concert podium away from its dramatic context. The success of Mrs Burggraf declaiming ‘Der Brief an den lieben Gott’ and ‘Gute Nacht’ was noted. ‘Finally the well-known pianist Mr C. Fischer played C.M. Weber’s op.72 in the effective orchestration by Liszt.’ The soloists and Škroup were much acclaimed by the audience. The review made no mention of the aria by Spohr having been sung in Czech.

Summary of sources:

Bohemia, ein Unterhaltungsblatt (08/04/1860)
Tagesbote aus Böhmen (08/04/1860)
Prager Morgenpost (10/04/1860)
Dalibor, hudební časopis s měsíční notovou přílohou (10/04/1860)
Bohemia, ein Unterhaltungsblatt (15/04/1860)
Prager Morgenpost (16/04/1860)
Tagesbote aus Böhmen (16/04/1860)
Bohemia, ein Unterhaltungsblatt (17/04/1860)
Dalibor, hudební časopis s měsíční notovou přílohou (20/04/1860)