17 Nov 2015

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 — 1827): Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral”

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, two clarinets, 3 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones; timpani, crash cymbals, triangle, bass drum; strings; solo chorus

Performance time: 1 hour, 7 minutes


The claim is often made that Beethoven’s ninth symphony is the most popular piece of classical music in the world. The truth of this assertion is probably debatable — after all, it’s difficult to assemble all the musical forces needed to present it in concert, so performances aren’t all that common. As for recordings…well, it’s hardly the kind of music we’d keep playing in the background as we do household chores. “Revered” may be a better word choice. The Ninth occupies a unique place in global culture and in the popular imagination. In a world in which we strive to appreciate diversity, the Ninth symbolizes something universal: the human aspiration to be free.

This widespread acceptance has kept the Ninth fresh. Other 19th-century European symphonies can find themselves in a ghetto of artistic refinement — an “imaginary museum of musical works,” in the telling phrase of esthetic philosopher Lydia Goehr. But Beethoven’s Ninth has continuing relevance for all Americans, not just classical music fans. Why? Because it has bridged the divide between pop culture and the highbrow stuff like no other single work of art.

In America, where the divide between mass culture and high art is extreme, the Ninth lies on the far side of the divide. On the other hand, the celebration of human freedom is so basic to our national ideals that we value Beethoven as one of our own. And he was the most prominent classical composer to “go rogue,” reinventing a familiar form in a heroic new way with the Symphony No. 9. We appreciate that kind of daring and inventiveness, and we see a Promethean sacrifice in the way Beethoven suffered and pushed himself to transmute the symphony’s formally abstract structure into a philosophical statement. Beethoven may have been dark, brooding and Germanic, but he appeals to us with bold directness in this symphony.

The mythic status of Beethoven’s Ninth encompasses some misconceptions, but correcting them does nothing to diminish its greatness. Perhaps the most dramatic of these is the notion that Beethoven’s deafness tragically prevented him from understanding the extent of his triumph. The symphony’s premiere on May 7, 1824, was one of those rare musical events that seems to have been fully appreciated by its audience. Reports of listeners’ enthusiasm for the bold new work suggest that on that historic Friday evening, with nearly a thousand in attendance, there was a collective understanding of their profound, shared experience, with Beethoven fully acknowledged by the cheering crowd. While music-class accounts of the premiere sometimes depict an oblivious Beethoven conducting the orchestra in his head after the real instrumentalists had stopped playing, it is far more likely he was indicating his preferred tempos and gesturing expressively in a manner that did not depend upon precise cues. Here is how the revered English writer George Grove, author of Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies, describes the premiere’s dramatic final moments:

His turning around and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had not so before because he could not hear what was going on, acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration.

Grove drew this vivid picture only after consulting with a member of the orchestra, and other period accounts support his description. According to another player, “Beethoven directed the piece himself; that is, he stood before the lectern and gesticulated furiously. At times he rose, at other times he shrank to the ground; he moved as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus. All the musicians minded his rhythm alone while playing.” The composer’s place in the score may have been several measures off, or he may simply have been giving a general indication of rhythm and expression; in any case, his intentions seem to have been clear to the ensemble.

According to another account, the contralto soloist, Caroline Unger, approached the unhearing Beethoven at the end of the symphony while he was still beating time. But this gesture was far from pathetic, as Unger showed him the cheering crowd of listeners, “The public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them,” according to a violinist in the orchestra. (So much for the modern practice of not interrupting classical music with applause!) According to this account, these interruptions included repeated standing ovations, perhaps as many as five, and the waving of handkerchiefs and hats, all intended to make clear to Beethoven that his monumental symphony was enthusiastically received.

Still another widely accepted misconception about the Ninth depicts it as a lone, valedictory statement, the culmination of Beethoven’s career as a composer. Enthusiasts know that Beethoven’s development is generally divided into three periods — early, middle and late — with the works of his late period being the most complex in their combination of philosophy and melody, and the most formally challenging. This view nicely supports the notion of a “curse of the Ninth,” which holds that neither Beethoven nor any symphonist who came after him could write anything to carry the symphonic tradition beyond so monumental a work; indeed, while writing dozens or even hundreds of symphonies was the norm for great composers who preceded him (Haydn wrote 104), those who came after Beethoven seemed to hit a wall with their ninth symphony, and some — for example, Brahms — wondered how they could even dare to bring a single new symphony into a world where Beethoven’s Ninth already existed.

Such a view would suggest that the Ninth was a product of Beethoven’s late period, but the reality is far more complex. Beethoven read the great philosophers of his era from the time he was young, and he was preoccupied with Enlightenment ideals and the problem of human freedom throughout his life. He made freedom and political oppression it the focus of his sole opera, Fidelio, and of his earlier Symphony No. 3, the Eroica. He famously dedicated this symphony to Napoleon, whom he first saw as a liberator, and then “undedicated” it after coming to regard him as just another oppressor. All of these works took rise in the composer’s middle period, when he combined maturity and mastery of classical forms with the flowering of his melodic ideas. His greatest chamber works and piano sonatas would follow this one.

One popular notion confirmed by the Ninth’s development is Beethoven’s reputation for long, agonized periods of creative germination and revision. He was influenced by the poetry of Schiller from a young age, and as early as 1793, when he was only 22, he began to consider the idea of basing a major composition on the poet’s Ode to Joy; it also seems likely that some piano sonatas of his early period, including the beloved Pathètique (dating from 1799), were inspired by Schiller essays.

Beethoven’s idea of including the voice in a symphony also dates from this period, but may not originally have attached to the Ninth. In a sketchbook dated 1811 he envisions a cantata combining choral and instrumental movements based on the Ode. The Beethoven biographer Alexander Thayer describes how, in 1822, while visiting a music critic in Leipzig, the composer described plans for a tenth symphony that would include vocal elements that would “enter gradually — in the text of the Adagio Greek Myth, Cantique Ecclesiastique — in Allegro, the feast of Bacchus.”

The symphony’s breakthrough fourth movement takes a form that no composer had ever before imagined: a symphonic chorale with full chorus and soloists joining forces to sing Friedrich Schiller’s ecstatic Ode to Joy. This movement is the culmination of a meditation on brotherhood that spans the entire symphony, and it is the whole world’s hymn to freedom.

What to Listen For

In 1823 Beethoven finally integrated the three critical elements of the Ninth Symphony: a primarily instrumental symphony, the introduction of vocal elements, and a fourth movement incorporating Schiller’s Ode to Joy. But how could a fourth movement with chorus and vocal soloists fit naturally into a symphony whose first three movements were purely instrumental? The simple words “Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller” became the basis for Beethoven’s introduction to the Symphony’s fourth movement, solving monumental task of integrating the choral elements into the rest of the work. He later revised this line and added a phrase, “not with these tones,” a dramatically effective interruption of the movement’s furiously chaotic opening bars, which seem to depict humankind’s pointless conflict and striving; these resolve into clarity and light. The Beethoven scholar Leon Plantinga describes the dramatic moment in October of 1823 when Beethoven solved this problem, recounted by the composer’s friend Anton Schindler:

On day he burst into the room and shouted at me: “I got it! I have it!” He held his sketchbook out to me so that I could read: “Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller”; then a solo voice began the hymn of joy.

The breakthrough fourth movement takes a form that no composer had ever before imagined, a symphonic chorale with full chorus and soloists, that sets Friedrich Schiller’s ecstatic Ode to Joy; but this movement is the culmination of a meditation on human freedom that spans the entire symphony. Small wonder that in the most populist and all-American of art forms, Charles Schultz’s Schroeder idolizes Beethoven above all other composers in the comic strip Peanuts. And why Lucy van Pelt, the supremely American pragmatist, gets it. It’s the melding of two great myths.

With some revisions, the simple words “Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller” became the basis for Beethoven’s introduction to the Symphony’s fourth movement, solving monumental task of integrating the choral elements into the rest of the work. He later revised this line and added a phrase, “not with these tones,” a dramatically effective interruption of the movement’s furiously chaotic opening bars, which seem to depict humankind’s pointless conflict and striving; these resolve into clarity and light.

After many years with Schiller’s Ode occupying his thoughts, it may have seemed natural for Beethoven to place his own words on the same pedestal alongside it. But did his solution create a precedent for later composers who would write their own texts, including Wagner, Menotti and Bernstein? If so, it is simply another example of the astounding influence of this symphony, with its philosophically transcendent message:

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen,
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,

Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein,
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf der Erden rund!
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund.
Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur,
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod,
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder — überm Sternenzelt
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer,Welt?
Such ihn überm Sternenzelt,
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.

O friends, not these sounds! Let us sing more pleasant and more joy-
ful ones instead!

Joy, beautiful divine spark,
daughter from Paradise,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly One, into your sanctuary.
Your magic reunites what daily life
Has rigorously kept apart,
All men become brothers
Wherever your gentle wings abide.

Anyone who has been greatly fortunate
To be a true friend to a friend,
Each man who has found a gracious wife,
Should rejoice with us!
Yes, anyone who can claim but a single soul
As his or her own in all the world!
But anyone who has known none of this, must steal away,
Weeping, from our company.

All beings drink of Joy
At Nature’s breasts,
All good creatures, all evil creatures
Follow her rosy path.
She has given us kisses and vines,
A friend loyal unto death,
Pleasure has been given to the worm,
And the angel stands before God.

Happily, as his suns fly
Across the sky’s magnificent expanse,
Hurry, brothers, along your path,
Joyfully, like a hero to the conquest.

Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the entire world!
Brothers — beyond the starry canopy
A loving Father must dwell.

Do you fall on your knees, you millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek Him above the starry canopy,
Beyond the stars must He dwell.

Beethoven’s Ninth is big in its dimensions as well as its ideas, and the experience of listening to it typically takes more than an hour. But in that time we are transported from a place of esthetic contemplation to a more elevated realm where the abstract beauty of music amplifies the beauty of philosophical ideas. The symphony’s opening movement, marked allegro ma non troppo, creates an unsettled feeling. Like human endeavor, the movement’s melodic phrases could develop in any direction, major or minor — as if they were natural expressions of nature and evolution. Beethoven follows this opening by inverting the traditional movement order, placing a scherzo of almost electric energy in second position, where a slower tempo would ordinarily hold sway. The dithering, bouncing pace of this movement gives the impression of the random, jagged disorder of human activity — providing an earthly context for the transcendence of the final, choral movement. The third movement, a sublime adagio, provides the contemplative introduction for the momentous choral movement to follow. By the time it ends, we have been transported to some of the noblest heights music has ever reached.