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Rare score ties Beethoven to time travel

On Sunday, the Boston Classical Orchestra opens its all-Beethoven concert with a bit of neglected charm, the “Gratulations-Menuett” (WoO 3), composed for Karl Friedrich Hensler, head of Vienna’s Josefstadt Theater. Beethoven had assisted at the October 1822 opening of the rebuilt Josefstadt, for which occasion Hensler commissioned Carl Meisl, a popular playwright (and high-ranking bureaucrat in the Austrian naval department), to fashion a new script around Beethoven’s incidental music to another play, “The Ruins of Athens.” (Beethoven ended up tweaking much of the score, crowning it with a new overture, “The Consecration of the House,” Op. 124.) The “Gratulations-Menuett” premiered a month later, the night before Hensler’s name-day; following that evening’s production, company and crew surprised Hensler with an onstage ceremony, then accompanied him home, where the impresario was serenaded with music including Beethoven’s drolly stately minuet.

That night’s play had also been by Meisl: his time-traveling farce “1722 1822 1922.” (For its 1823 publication, Meisl appropriately increased the title’s years by one.) In 1722, the main character, Zacharias Rumpler, is granted an audience with his personified final judgment, who offers Rumpler two wishes. Rumpler desires to travel 100, then 200 years into the future, to decide “which is the best of three centuries.”

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Meisl’s vision of the 20th century is ludicrous, but only slightly. Rumpler is astonished by self-propelling farm equipment, intrigued by air travel (balloon-taxis abound), and finds equally “stupid” and “terrible” armies of war machines that automatically fight each other. After inadvertently ruining an “artificial thinking machine” — a clockwork automaton doing its rich owner’s paperwork — Rumpler, fleeing retribution, uses his second wish to return to 1822, in Rumpler’s (and, probably, the audience’s) estimation, “the happiest time.”

But Meisl also obliquely predicted the unstable intersection of culture and the capitalization of everything. Beethoven himself experienced the beginnings of that transition, rocky negotiations between patronage and self-sufficiency, newly democratized celebrity, and increasingly ruthless commerce. (His fame notwithstanding, Beethoven often ended up on the short end of such negotiations.) In Meisl’s play, Rumpler, needing to make money in 1922’s inflated economy, floats the idea of mounting a concert. His modern acquaintances laugh: Virtuosos are a dime a dozen; the only way to fill a theater is to pay the audience to show up, not the other way around. Rumpler’s rueful response echoes in an on-demand, digitally leveled present. “Better off being a servant than an artist,” he grumbles. “The servant gets paid.”

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Matthew Guerrieri

The Boston Classical Orchestra performs Beethoven’s “Gratulations-Menuett,” Violin Concerto (with soloist Mo Yang), and Symphony No. 4 at Faneuil Hall on Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets $20-$74. 866-811-4111, www.boston
classicalorchestra.org.


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.