On May 7th, 1824, the Imperial and Royal Court Theater of Vienna was a tinderbox ready to explode. The air was both stifling and deafening but those fortunate enough to be in the audience were on the edge of their seats holding their breath. Their hearts were racing, pounding in their throats. White hankies and black hats danced and spouted into the air like foam from waves breaking hard on a rocky shore.
On stage amidst the frenzy were two of the most promising and well-known operatic voices of their time, contralto Caroline Unger and soprano Henriette Sontag. But they were not the reason for all the excitement in the air. Directing the orchestra was the Kapellmeister, Michael Umlauf, also celebrated in Vienna as a genius composer. But he wasn’t the focus of the mania either. As a matter of fact, even the orchestra was ignoring him.
The object drawing the attention of the audience, not to mention the orchestra, was an aging white-haired man standing in the front row. He was completely deaf and dying the slow death of lead. But he certainly was not dead yet. His eyes were closed tight and sweat shot from his hair as he flung his head to and fro in accompaniment to the music. His arms were like snakes, coiling and stretching this way and that as if he himself was playing every instrument in his mind. He was in another world.
When the orchestra reached their final note, the anxious crowd sprang to it’s feet in a stupendous roar. But Ludwig van Beethoven was still in the throes of conducting his Ninth Symphony, several measures behind the exhausted musicians. Caroline Unger gently took Beethoven in her arms and turned him around to see the adoring mass. He cried tears of joy.