The nation was still in shock, grief, and mourning by the end of April 1865. Tens of thousands of the country’s citizens had positioned themselves at various locations along the funeral train route to pay their final respects. Activities across the country had been canceled or modified to reflect the national mood. Despite the loss of their President, many sought relief from the horrifying realities that four years of conflict had produced. As the funeral train arrived in Columbus, Ohio during the morning hours of April 29, 1865, in Manhattan, New York, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra prepared for their next subscription concert to take place later that evening.
Under the able direction of German-born Theodore Eisfeld, the orchestra over the course of the previous two weeks had been under constant pressure to master an added piece to their scheduled performance to honor the fallen Lincoln. Already on the program that evening was the recitative from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Following that work, the orchestra had programmed Ludwig van Beethoven’s massive Ninth Symphony, a work that required the largest instrumentation of any of Beethoven’s symphonies. Following a brief intermission, the orchestra still had Felix Mendelssohn’s Die Lorelei, Op. 98 finale from Act I and Robert Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo, and Finale in E major, Op. 52 to perform. This program would challenge even the world’s best orchestras during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, let alone an orchestra of the nineteenth century with all of the challenges inherent to the instruments and performance venues of the period. With the death of President Abraham Lincoln on the morning of April 15 and the country’s plunge into despair and mourning, orchestra director and conductor Eisfeld had added the last-minute piece of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3.
Beethoven’s third symphony was yet another challenging composition for the orchestra to tackle with less than two weeks to bring the second movement, Marcia Funebre – Adagio assai, to performance standards. Granted, the piece had premiered over four decades earlier and may have been a piece that the orchestra was familiar with, but even returning to a work by Beethoven years after a performance still required incredibly well-trained and seasoned musicians. Additionally, the Funeral March was not a short movement. Performance times ranged from fifteen to eighteen minutes in length. Adding this piece to the beginning of an already challenging concert could strain the limits of the orchestra.
There were various aspects of the second movement that challenged the instrumentation of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Written in the key of C minor with a trio in the parallel major, the march has multiple fugatos. A fugato is defined as section of a piece that contains all of the compositional elements and style of a fugue but does not constitute a real fugue itself. Dr. Martha Best Lewis described the challenges musicians face when attempting to play any form of a fugue. “Fugues are one of the most challenging of musical forms. Perhaps even the most challenging….the structure is incredibly dense, entwined, and alarmingly cerebral! A [musician] needs to have understanding of harmonic structure (I, V) and intervals, articulation (lifts), ability to hear melodic lines buried in the texture, finger dexterity to bring these voices to the fore one after another, a good work ethic, and perseverance.”
The New York Philharmonic rose to the occasion that evening. Placed into the program concert-goers received was the following, “The entire community of this city shares with the nation the deep grief into which our land has been plunged by the sudden and awful death of our late Chief Magistrate, the President of the United States. While thus
sorrowing, it has been though a fitting tribute to our departed head, to prefix to the programme of the concert, the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which was expressly composed for the occasion of the death of a great hero.” As patrons that evening found their seats and read of the addition to the evening’s performance, they were alerted to a retraction from the concert lineup. “From the same motive the closing portion of the Ninth Symphony—‘The Hymn to Joy’—will be omitted.” Although there were those that wanted to escape the current realities the country faced by attending a concert performance, there was no joy to be found in the deaths of 750,000 and the assassination of a president.
Now take a moment and click below to listen to this powerful piece of music that was performed in honor of the late President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago.