By the time Beethoven completed his Ninth Symphony, he hadn’t presented any major new work in a decade. He was by that point almost completely deaf, and many thought him crazy. The Viennese had become obsessed with Italian opera, and the 53-year-old composer feared that he had gone decisively out of fashion. Still, he wanted to show the world that Beethoven was still Beethoven.
He planned a concert that would take place at the prestigious Theater am Kärntnertor, but first had to get the approval of its temperamental manager, Louis Antoine Duport. The violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh warned Beethoven that Duport needed to be handled “very gently and courteously” or he could “make things hellacious.”
But it was Duport who ultimately made the event happen. Without his behind-the-scenes assistance, Beethoven’s final symphony might never have entered history on May 7, 1824.
Duport is usually identified merely as a former dancer, but he was the Nureyev of his day — famous for soaring leaps, dazzling footwork and the ability to pirouette 50 times on one leg. He specialized in the role of Zephyr, the west wind, for which he flew across the stage suspended on wires.
Born in Paris in 1781, he was the son of Joseph Robert Duport, a sculptor, and Maria Desseule. He had a sister, also a celebrated dancer, and at least two brothers. Little else is known about his early life, until his sudden appearance as a soloist at the Paris Opera on March 14, 1797.
But researching early ballet in America, the historian Lillian Moore discovered a child prodigy named Louis Duport who arrived in Philadelphia in 1790. This 9-year-old was accompanied by Pierre Landrin, who was dancing master at the Opera and may have taught music and dance to Marie Antoinette’s children.
Eventually based in Charleston, S.C., Louis gained prominence as one of the best young dancers in America. But after a performance in Savannah, Ga., on Aug. 19, 1796, he vanished without a trace. Was this the same Louis Antoine Duport who made his debut at the Paris Opera seven months later? It’s unclear, though they shared the same name, birth year and tour-de-force performance style.
What is certain is that, in 1804, Duport challenged Auguste Vestris, then the most famous dancer in Europe, to a contest of pirouettes and jetés-battus. (Vestris was 20 years Duport’s elder, and critics generously called it a draw.) Duport then began choreographing ballets with the intention of deposing the esteemed ballet master Pierre Gardel at the Opera.
Napoleon admired Duport but was increasingly outraged by his imperious behavior and salary demands. (Just 26, Duport had enticed the Opera’s management into paying him the same amount as the eminent Vestris.) In 1808, facing possible arrest, Duport, disguised as a woman, slipped out of Paris with a star of the Comédie Française, who was also Napoleon’s former mistress. He ended up in St. Petersburg, where he was so popular that Tolstoy would later mention him in “War and Peace.”
In 1812, he became the ballet master at the Kärntnertor in Vienna, choreographing the first dance adaptation of Charles Perrault’s “Cinderella.” After marrying his favorite ballerina, he went on to dance in Munich, London and Italy, performing in several ballets that allowed him to dance Zephyr, his signature role.
While at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Duport met its flamboyant manager, Domenico Barbaja, who was eager to bring his composer discovery Gioachino Rossini to Vienna. Taking over the Kärntnertor’s lease, Barbaja asked Duport to help run it, and when Rossini and his new bride, the diva Isabella Colbran, arrived in 1822, the city greeted them with enthusiasm bordering on idolatry.
By February 1824, Beethoven was ready with both the Ninth Symphony and his “Missa Solemnis.” He had long wanted to set Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to music and had incorporated its call for peace and unity into the symphony’s rousing choral finale. Given the sweeping popularity of Italian opera in Vienna, however, he toyed with the idea of presenting the work elsewhere. It was only after 30 friends and music lovers signed a petition of support that he began to look for a theater in the city.
The Theater am Kärntnertor was his first choice. One of two imperial theaters in Vienna, it was named for its location next to the Kärntnertor, or Carinthian Gate. (The Sacher Hotel now occupies the site.) In March, Beethoven’s brother Johann met with Duport, who was receptive but warned that the concert would need the permission of the Hofmusikgraf, the official in charge of music for the court theaters.
Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler, also began secretly negotiating with the suburban Theater an der Wien. There was talk of the Burgtheater, which was the other imperial house, and the small Landständischer Saal as alternatives.
At the end of March, Schindler visited Duport to request the Great Hall at the Hofburg, or Imperial Palace, for a repeat Beethoven concert. (This hall was also under Barbaja’s administration.) Since plans hadn’t yet been finalized for the first concert, Duport may have been confused, but he agreed. It was an unsettling time for him. Barbaja was in Naples under house arrest, charged with attempting to burn down the Teatro di San Carlo to conceal accounting irregularities. He was eventually exonerated, but Duport, who had spent the previous year in Karlsbad taking the waters for an unknown ailment, was undoubtedly distracted.
For that planned repeat performance, Duport could only offer Beethoven the Hofburg’s smaller hall, prompting the composer to threaten to call off the concerts. As for the initial event, Schindler was still pushing for the Theater an der Wien, but Beethoven wanted Schuppanzigh as concertmaster. When the musicians balked at using outside workers, the An der Wien was out. The Kärntnertor was back in.
On April 24, Duport received a letter from Schindler with a lengthy list of demands. Beethoven wanted the date of the concert to be either May 3 or 4, and expected an immediate response; the situation was “urgent.” One can only imagine what must have gone through Duport’s mind; he had faced down Napoleon and now had to deal with the self-important Schindler. But Duport had deep respect for Beethoven and agreed to hold the first concert at the Kärntnertor and the second in the Hofburg’s Great Hall.
The Ninth required an 82-member orchestra and 80 singers, stunning for that time and more than twice what Duport could offer. As a result, Beethoven had to supplement with amateurs from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. And since Beethoven wanted the full forces onstage, Duport also had to approve the building of scaffolding and risers. The solo singers complained that the high notes were beyond their reach. Government censors interfered with the planned excerpts from the “Missa Solemnis.” Beethoven wanted to open the concert with his “Consecration of the House” Overture, but couldn’t find the score.
With the concert only a week away, Duport had yet to give Beethoven a formal contract; one of the composer’s friends suggested reporting the manager to the police commissioner. But on the evening of May 7, a large crowd began filing into the thousand-seat theater. Though Beethoven had hand-delivered invitations to members of the court, the imperial box was empty; the nobility had already left town for the summer. With only two full rehearsals and little time to study the score, the conductor, Michael Umlauf — with Beethoven at his side — made the sign of the cross before he gave the downbeat.
The concert was far from perfect and received mixed reviews, but the audience realized it had heard something unique. The response was at times rapturous; people applauded and shouted so loudly that a police agent called for quiet. The box office figures, though, were lower than expected. According to Schindler, when Beethoven saw them, he collapsed to the floor and accused Duport of swindling him.
True to his word, though, Duport went ahead with the second concert on May 23, insisting only that a Rossini aria be substituted for one of the “Missa Solemnis” sections. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and the hall was only half full. Duport lost money, but made sure that Beethoven received his full fee.
Duport eventually assumed the lease of the Kärntnertor, managing it until 1836, when he retired to Paris. He died in 1853 and was buried at Père Lachaise, where his tombstone is decorated with two female nudes, one appearing to sprout wings. Few who pass the monument probably realize that he was among the greatest dancers of his generation. Or that he played a major role in bringing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the world. But whenever voices rise up to sing “Ode to Joy,” we have Zephyr to thank.
Patricia Morrisroe is the author of the novel “The Woman in the Moonlight.”