The Unique Story of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

“A grand performance of a new work” is how a prominent Viennese musical newspaper announced a concert of music by Beethoven. Another paper wrote that “anyone whose heart beats warmly for greatness and beauty will surely be present.”

It was on May 7, 1824 that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was first performed. The symphony was remarkable for several reasons. It was longer and more complex than any symphony to date and required a larger orchestra. But the most unique feature of “The Ninth” was that Beethoven included chorus and vocal soloists in the final movement. He was the first major composer to do this in a symphony.

Beethoven actually started thinking about setting Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” poem to music as early as 1793 when he was 22 years old. Over the following years, the composer would return to this text occasionally and sketch some possible themes for it, but no music was completed. Of course, the “Ode to Joy” has become one of the most recognized melodies in all of music

A Choral Finale

Laimgrubengasse 22 was one the three places Beethoven lived while composing the Ninth Symphony.

In 1817, the Philharmonic Society of London commissioned Beethoven to write a symphony, but he did not start serious work on the new piece until 1822. The first three movements were for the orchestra alone, but the composer knew he needed to end the work with something special. This is when he recalled Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” poem. A movement based on this famous melody was exactly the ending his new symphony needed.

Although it was commissioned by an organization in London, influential Viennese citizens convinced Beethoven to present the first performance in Vienna. The orchestra of the Kärnnertor Theater had to be supplemented with additional musicians, and a chorus of 90 was needed to balance the strength of the orchestra.

Jumping Around Like a Madman

By 1824, Beethoven was almost entirely deaf, but still wanted to be part of the performance and was on stage while the piece was performed to indicate the tempos. Yet, Beethoven could not resist “helping” the musicians on stage by showing them the style and dynamics that he wanted.

The Kaerntnertor Theater in Vienna was where Beethoven’s Ninth was performed for the first time. The theater no longer exists. Today, on the site of the old theater is the Hotel Sacher, right behind the Vienna State Opera House.

The great composer’s actions were animated to say the least. One musician wrote, “he stood in front of the conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor. He flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.” It was a good thing that the conductor had already instructed the musicians not to pay attention to the composer!

Unable to Hear the Applause

Beethoven’s deafness created one of the most touching stories in music. When the symphony was completed, he remained facing the orchestra and could not hear the thunderous applause of the audience for his new symphony. Caroline Unger, the mezzo-soprano soloist, had to tap the deaf composer’s arm and have him turn around so that he could see how the crowd’s response. Many of those in attendance, including Miss Unger, had tears in their eyes when they realized the extent of Beethoven’s deafness.

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Madonna Visits Vienna’s “Mozarthaus”

Yesterday, Madonna, her daughter Lourdes, and some band members visited Mozarthaus Vienna, the museum which was the composer’s residence from 1784 to 1787. I’m glad she was drawn to see where Mozart, who some considered the equivalent of a great pop star in the late 18th century, lived and worked.

She signed the guest book, “Thank you for inspiring us”.

Madonna’s signature in the Mozarthaus Vienna guest book on July 30, 2102.

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Email from Ondrej Jajcaj, Grave Robber

In my interest in learning more about how the teeth of Johannes Brahms and Johann Strauss, Jr. were stolen, I emailed Mr. Ondrej Jajcaj, who had posted a video claiming to be the robber and who had responded to my blog from July 6.

He sent me an email and two photos that I received today. He went out of his way to respond in Englis, which is not his native tongue. I believe he speaks Slovakian. His letter is printed below twice: the first contains my corrections to his English, the second is exactly what he wrote to me. The two pictures are also printed here.

Ondrej Jajcaj’s email to David Nelson, July 14, 2012, with David Nelson’s language corrections:

Dear Dr. David  Nelson,

Please  Accept  Salutations for You!

I would like to give you some information in a chronological order.

Since my early childhood I have been interested in history of medicine. I was born in 1970.  In 1977, I discovered a 1907 magazine about dental medicine in the cellar of an old building in Bratislava. It was written in Hungarian language, and my mother translated it into Slovakian.

Inhabitants of Bratislava changed after 1918, 1945 and 1948, and there were abandoned tombs in cemeteries, especially of Hungarian and German citizen.

In 1984, I tried to open and discover some of these graves with my friend.  (As a matter of course, this was ILLEGAL.) In the first one we found a skeleton with gold teeth.

At the time I decided to describe [sic] a history of prosthetic dental medicine. So my illegal research of old tombs began…  It wasn´t possible to do it legally, and gravediggers didn´t sleep…

A quick decision was needed. They take teeth but don´t document it. To think that my statement is an alibi is naïve. [To think that this my statement is alibismis naive.]

In 1990, I got to know the Central Cemetery in Vienna, and worked systematically until 1994.  I found out that 90% of tombs in Jewish Section had been robbed, while only 50-60% in other older parts had been robbed. This is empirically true! Not my alibist [sic] confabulation! This is based on my practical experience.

In 2002, I decided to highlight my vast collection and at the same time show the fact that tombs in the Central Cemetery are very quickly robbed as a racket – therefore Brahms and Strauss …

Naivety is not wisdom!!! Austria clerical atmosphere is naïve. [Naivitat is  nicht Weisenheit !!!    Osterreichisch klerikal athmosfere is naivitet.]

click on image for a larger view

I am sorry that work of old dentists in Vienna are disappearing in hands of people who aren´t interested in history of this field at all. [I am sorry that works of old dentist…]

My Vision is an interesting museum that about dental medicine and also thanatofobii [sic] and religions interpretation.  [My Vision is interesant museum miror dental medicine …]Science wants courage and dedication and NOT NAIVETY! [NO NAIVE!]

Under my management is also a jewel from J. Strauss’s coffin – an ideal exhibition [exposition] for the Theater Museum in Vienna.

Ondrej Jajcaj’s email to David Nelson, July 14, 2012, as written:

Dear  Dr. David  Nelson

Please  Accept  Salutatio for You !

I would like to give You some information in a chronologicaly order.

Since my early chilhood I have been interested in history of medicine. I was born in 1970.  In 1977 I discovered in a cellar of an old building in Bratislava a magazine of 1907 about dental medicine. It was written in Hungarian language. My mother translating  of Hungarian to Slowak language.

Inhabitans of Bratislava changed after 1918, 1945 and 1948 and thre were abandoned tombs in cemeteries.  They were especially of Hungarian and German citizen.

In 1984 I tried to open and discover some of them with my friend.  ( as a mater of course ILEGAL)  In the first one we found a skeleton with gold teeth. – At the time I decided to describe a history of protetic dental medicine. So my illegal research of old tombs began…  It wasn´t possible to do it legally and gravediggers didn´t sleep…

A quick decision was needed. They take teeth but don´t documentate it. To think that this my statement is alibismis naive.

In 1990  I got to know Zentral friedhof Wien.  Until 1994 I worked systematically.  I found out that 90 % of tomb in Judish abteilung were robbed. While in other older parts it is aproximativ 50-60% !!!   This is empric True !   Not my alibist confabulation ! – This is based on my practical experience.

In 2002 I decided to highlighten my vast collection and at the same time show the fact that tombs in zentral cemetries are robbed very quickly as a racket – therefore Brahms and Strauss …

Naivitat is  nicht Weisenheit !!!    Osterreichisch klerikal athmosfere is naivitet .

I am sorry that works of old dentist in Wien are disappering in hands of people that aren´t interested in history of this field at all.

My Vision is interesant museum miror dental medicine and also thanatofobii and religions interpretation.  Science wants courage and dedication and NO NAIVE !

Under my management is also jewel of  J.Strauss coffin – ideal expozition for Theater Museum Wien.


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Strauss’s and Brahms’s Stolen Teeth – July 13 update

A colleague of mine who works for the Vienna City Government just verified that the graves of Johann Strauss, Jr. and Johannes Brahms were opened in both 2008 and 2012. The teeth of these composers were missing in both instances.

The governmental department that oversees the cemeteries made a report to the Vienna District Attorney’s office in 2008, but the robbery was not pursued further because the Statute of Limitations had expired. The department contacted the DA’s office again this year, and the DA is considering the matter at this time.

There has been lots of press coverage saying that the Cemeteries have been inactive, but the Cemeteries stress that they have been active with this situation.

I emailed the self-reported grave robber, Mr. Ondrej Jajcaj, on Tuesday to ask him some simple questions, but he has not responded to my email. Here are my emailed questions to him:

  • Ich habe einige Frangen. Wann haben Sie die Zahne Brahms und Strauss gestehlen? Welche Jahr? (When did you steal the teeth of Brahms and Strauss? What year?)
  •  Die Sterne oben die Grufte sind sehr schwer. Wie offnen Sie die Grufte? (The stones on top of the graves are very heavy. How did you open the graves?)
  •  Wer war ihr Vater? War er im Anschluss? War er im Konzentrationslager? (Who was your father? Was he in the Anschluss? Was he in a concentration camp?)
  •  Wo wohnen sie jetzt? Czech, Slovakian? (Where do you live now? Czech Republic, Slovakia?)

I will continue to post updates as I know them.

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Brahms’s and Johann Strauss’s Teeth Stolen!

Johannes Brahms’s grave

A bizarre event in the musical world occurred in the last few days. Authorities in Austria have reported that someone broke into the graves of Brahms and Johann Strauss, Jr. in Vienna’s Central Cemetery and stole their teeth.

The self-confessed thief is Ondrej Jajcaj. In a video on YouTube, he says, “And now, we come to the major pedestal. On the top are the teeth of Johann Strauss Jr. To the left there are dentures of his wife Adele Strauss. To the right, we have rubber prosthesis of Johannes Brahms.”

I have been to these graves dozens of times and have taken hundreds of travelers there, and I find it remarkable that someone could get to the remains of these great composers. Each grave is covered with a heavy stone cover.

Johann Strauss, Jr.’s grave

As a colleague of mine at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro said, “What is this world coming to?” I agree wholeheartedly!

BUT… this was not the first time the remains of a dead composer were taken. Click HERE to see the story I wrote about how Haydn’s skull was stolen.

Truth IS stranger than fiction.

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The Strange Story of Haydn’s Missing Skull

In 1820, Prince Esterhazy ordered that Haydn’s remains be transferred from Vienna to Eisenstadt.  One of the biggest surprises in all of music must have been when the coffin was opened and Haydn’s skull was missing.  The story of the missing skull proves that truth is stranger than fiction.

Haydn’s Death Mask in the Haydn Museum in Eisenstadt

Franz Joseph Gall was a scientist who believed that a person’s intellectual characteristics were defined by the size, shape and proportions of their skull.  Two of Gall’s followers were Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, a close friend of Haydn, and Johann Nepomuk Peter.  They bribed the gravedigger, and, just four days after Haydn’s death, opened the grave at night and stole the composer’s head.  Later they justified their action by saying that they could not see such a magnificent spirit lay in the ground being eaten by maggots and worms.

In the examination that followed, Peter claimed to have found “the seal of hearing, just as it is given in the preface to Gall’s book.” Following that, Rosenbaum kept the skull “on a cushion covered with while silk and draped with black satin inside a black wooden cabinet that was modeled after a Roman sarcophagus and decorated with a golden lyre.” And this was kept in a mausoleum in his yard for visitors to see.  One of the ironies is that Joseph Rosenbaum’s wife, Therese, sang at the memorial for Haydn on June 2, 1809.

The original grave of Haydn in what is now Haydn Park in Vienna

The story gets stranger.  After the skull was discovered missing, the authorities unsuccessfully searched Rosenbaum’s home.  Mrs. Rosenbaum had hid the skull under her mattress, and then lay down on it.  She claimed that it was “that time of the month.” Then after Prince Esterhazy paid Rosenbaum for the skull, one skull and then another—neither belonging to Haydn—were presented.  This meant that on December 4, 1820, a stranger’s skull was placed on Haydn’s remains.

Just before he died in 1829, Rosenbaum gave the skull to Peter, and when Peter died in 1839, his widow gave it to their physician, Dr. Karl Haller.  Dr.  Haller gave the skull to a Dr.  Rokitansky, a Viennese Pathologist who stored it is the Pathological-Anatomical Institute of the University of Vienna.  Rodakitansky’s successor was Professor Kundrat, who gave the skull back to Rokitansky’s sons, who finally presented it to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.

This bizarre story was finally resolved in 1954. In a ceremony at the Musikverein, the skull “was placed in an urn decorated with a golden laurel wreath surrounded by red and white peonies.” Then a large procession (100 cars!) drove past Haydn’s birth house in Rohrau and to the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, where the skull was finally returned to its body.

Haydn’s crypt in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt.

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Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”: Perfection in Musical Characterization

When asked which of his own operas he liked best, Gioachino Rossini wishfully said “Don Giovanni”. When Tchaikovsky looked at Mozart’s manuscript for the opera, he commented that he as “in the presence of divinity”. Charles Gounod claimed that “Don Giovanni” was “a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.”  Gustave Flaubert, author of “Madame Bovary”, believed that “Don Giovanni, Hamlet and the sea were the three finest things God ever made.”

Estates Theater, Prague, Mozart, Don Giovanni

The Estates Theater in Prague, where "Don Giovanni" was first performed on October 29, 1787.

There are many reasons for such admiration of the “Don Giovanni”. Certainly, Mozart was at the peak of his creative ability when he fulfilled this commission for the Nostitz (now Estates) Theater in Prague, and his three collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (“Marriage of Figaro”, “Don Giovanni”, “Cosi fan tutte”) are among opera’s finest creations. Of course, the

Plaque inside the Estates Theater saying that "Don Giovanni" and "La Clemenza di Tito" were first performed there.

“Don Juan” story—the downfall of a serial womanizer and the inability of a person to change for the better—is a tale that has had universal appeal and numerous settings. (Incidentally, Da Ponte may have had some extra insight into the lead character as he was friends with Casanova in Venice.) Finally, the opera mixes serious and comic elements to perfection.

What gives Don Giovanni its timeless value and makes it a superior musical work is not only the subject matter or the balance between the comic and the serious; it is Mozart’s absolutely brilliant portrayal of the inner emotional states of each character through his music. It is as if Mozart could look directly into the soul and psyche of each person on stage and then create the melodies and harmonies to give the audience an uncanny view into this character’s most intimate feelings.

mozart, don giovanni, prague

A haunting memorial to the Commentadore outside the theater.

This is most readily apparent in the music sung by Don Giovanni himself, which mirrors the twists and turns of his complex personality as the story unfolds. When Giovanni is confronted by the Commentadore in the opening scene, Mozart’s music depicts the lead character as somewhat reluctant to engage the distinguished older gentleman, but then the music morphs to expose the a more aggressive side of Giovanni as he is unwilling to walk away from the conflict. The most important conflict of the opera is enhanced by Mozart’s music.

A contrasting side of the same character is shown as he attempts to show his trustworthiness and gentle nature in his romantic pursuits of Zerlina in Act 1 and Donna Elvira’s maid in Act 2. In the duet with Zerlina (“La ci darem la mano”), Giovanni invites his “prey” to overcome her resistance until the two sing together before leaving the stage.  In “Deh, vieni”, the cloaked leading man shows his mandolin-playing prowess in another attempted seduction.  His excitement for an upcoming party comes out in spades in the fast and exuberant “Champagne Aria” in which he claims his list of female conquests will be enhanced by at least ten “by tomorrow morning.”

estates theater prague mozart don giovanni

The auditorium of the Estates Theater is unusual because it is in blue. A administrator told David Nelson that they chose that because Prague "had seen too much red" referring to the communist era.

The absolute core of Don Giovanni’s character does not come out until the end of the opera when the Commentadore comes back to life as the Stone Guest and challenges Giovanni to repent and give up his philandering ways. Mozart gives us the most dramatic music of the evening, bringing back the solemn introduction and angst-filled scales from the beginning of the overture. Against the insistency of the Stone Guest with his ominous, unchanging melody and Leoporello’s humorous, fast interjections, is the main character’s steadfast resolve not to change. When the music reaches a fever pitch, Mozart increases the tempo and adds chorus. Still, Giovanni refuses to relent, and his emphatic “No’s” become even more insistent until he is finally dragged down—physically and musically—to the gates of Hell. If one thinks this is powerful music today, imagine how it must have affected audiences in 1787.

Mozart’s portrayal of the other characters is just as rich. Don Ottavio’s overly accommodating personality, as he continues to wait for his beloved Donna Anna to finish her seemingly never-ending grieving,  comes out in his two solo arias.

prague, don giovanni, cherubs, mozart

Two cherubs as part of the interior of the auditorium.

Leporello’s clumsy yet humorous attempt to pacify the angry Donna Elvira by telling her of all 2,065 of Giovanni’s romantic conquests (so far) is presented in the intentionally over-the-top “Catalogue Aria”. (Listen to how the “male” low strings chase the “female” upper strings as the music begins.) The peasant character of Zerlina is beautifully reflected in the simple “Batti, batti”, and her “Vendrai Carino” is one of the most moving depictions of pure love ever written.

“Don Giovanni” is an opera that works on many levels. It has a timeless story, beautifully developed characters, and a wonderful text. But the words coming from the stage can only tell us so much about each personality. It is Mozart’s inspired music that highlights the inner nature of each character in ways that no libretto ever could.

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Joe Muranyi, clarinettist with Louis Armstrong, dies aged 84

Joe Muranyi, who played clarinet with Louis Armstrong for many years, died earlier this week at age 84. I was fortunate to meet Joe in 2006 when we were both participants in the “Satchmo Meets Amadeus” Conference in Salzburg.

Joe Muranyi and me, with a cutout figure of Satchmo in the middle

I remember entering the breakfast room in the hotel. Reinhold Wagnletiner, the organizer of the conference, asked me if I knew “Joe”, and when I said I did not, he introduced us and we had breakfast together.

Joe was one of the most down-to-earth men I have ever met. He had great stories and loved to share his experiences, but he never played the role of a celebrity. He was just as interested in my work at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as he was in telling what it was like to perform with Louis Armstrong.

One of the stories Joe told was about when Armstrong recorded “What a Wonderful World”, one of the most beloved recordings in music. Armstrong and Muranyi were sitting together when they heard the song for the first time, preparing to record it. Apparently Satchmo was not immediately taken with the tune because he leaned over to Joe and said, “what is this shit”. Quite a start for such a well-known recording.

Those of us in Salzburg also had the great treat of hearing Joe perform. He was a consummate entertainer, and he played and sang with great aplomb. Hearing such a master of an earlier jazz style transported us back in time. It was a special concert.

Joe Muranyi performing in Salzburg in 2006

Click here to read a heartfelt reflection on Joe’s life.


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Day 14 – Travel Day

All trips must come to an end. On Sunday, the group’s ninth day in Europe and my fourteenth, we flew home.

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Day 13 – St. Vitus Cathedral and Dvorak’s “Jakobin”

St. Vitus Cathedral

Overlooking Prague is the Prague Castle, and the center of the castle is St. Vitus Cathedral. We started our last full day of the trip with a guided tour of the Cathedral and several other historic building of the castle.

The cathedral had beautiful vaulted ceiling. What looked like stained-glass windows were actually painted windows and were extremely colorful.

In addition to the cathedral, we saw another chapel and one one of the oldest government rooms in the castle. Our walking tour ended on the picturesque Golden Lane. These colorful little homes were the residences of various workers in the castle. One of them was the home of Franz Kafka.

The curtain call at "Jakobin". You can see the set that looks like an over-sized school house.

Our last night in Prague was at the National Theater where we heard a little-known Dvorak opera, “Jakobin”. Actually, it is well known in the Czech Republic but virtually unknown in the United States. The story is of a powerful father and his estranged son. When the elder learns that his offspring has not become a French radical (a Jakobin) and has always loved his home country, the two are reunited.

The auditorium of Prague's National Theater

Part of the story takes place in a school house, and the stage designer decided to emphasize this in the sets. He did this by having over-sized school chairs on stage at all times. It was certainly not a traditional staging of the opera, but man people, included our students, thought it was quite effective.

The National Theater was beautiful. It was also where “Jakobin” was first performed.

UNCG students having to the camera during intermission


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