BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125

Ludwig van Beethoven was born on December 16, 1770 (probably, since he was baptized on the 17th), in Bonn, Germany, and died on March 26, 1827, in Vienna. He composed his Ninth Symphony mostly between 1822 and February 1824, although he was actively plotting the piece by 1817 and some of its musical material was sketched as early as 1812. The work is dedicated to King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia (though Beethoven dedicated another manuscript copy of this symphony to the Philharmonic Society of London). It was premiered on May 7, 1824, at Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater, with Michael Umlauf conducting (and the deaf composer standing beside him to indicate tempos). The first North American performance took place on May 20, 1846, with George Loder conducting the New York Philharmonic. Alfred Hertz gave performances with the San Francisco Symphony of the first three movements in February 1923, then conducted the work in complete form on April 1, 1924, with soloists Claire Dux, Merle Alcock, Mario Chamlee, and Clarence Whithall, with a chorus assembled for the Spring Music Festival. The most recent performances, in September 2008, were conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas; the soloists were Erin Wall, Kendall Gladen, Garrett Sorenson, and Alastair Miles, with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, and strings, plus (in the finale) soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, and four-part mixed chorus. Duration: about sixty-six minutes.

Almost all commentators on music have had something to say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and their opinions have been so divergent as to make one wonder if they could possibly have been speaking of the same piece. Many early audiences chalked off the work as the raving of a deaf lunatic, and nearly three decades into its life we find a reviewer for the Boston Atlas trying to explain it away politely as “the genius of the great man upon the ocean of harmony, without the compass which had so often guided him to his haven of success; the blind painter touching the canvas at random.” Beethoven’s contemporary Louis Spohr, one of the most revered violinists and composers of their generation, was an enthusiast of his colleague’s early works, but here he drew the line. Its first three movements, he wrote, “in spite of some flashes of genius, are to my mind inferior to all the eight previous symphonies,” and he found the finale “so monstrous and tasteless . . .  that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.” And yet, wrote Hector Berlioz, “There is a small minority of musicians, whose nature inclines them to consider carefully whatever may broaden the scope of art . . .  and they assert that this work is the most magnificent expression of Beethoven’s genius. . . . That is the view I share.” Even critics who had problems grasping this symphony tended to echo a sentiment that these writers express: Whatever you make of it, this is the work of a master.

Beyond that, there was room for considerable discrepancy, from Schumann’s assessment that “here a great man has created his greatest work” to this opinion from Stravinsky: “‘The Ninth’ is sacred, and it was already sacred when I first heard it in 1897. I have often wondered why.”

We are allowed to have mixed feelings when encountering this piece, and what we may perceive as its flaws might stand as virtues from someone else’s perspective. Take its length, for example. When the work hit in 1824, nobody was prepared. Beethoven’s Third Symphony had tried listeners’ patience by clocking in at perhaps fifty minutes back in 1805; now they were faced with a symphony that might last another twenty minutes beyond that, a scale that proved baffling to many early audiences. But because of this piece, other symphonists soon began scaling up to bigger structures than had been imagined previously. Modern audiences, accustomed to symphonies of an hour or more (by Bruckner or Mahler, for example), are unlikely to experience Beethoven’s Ninth as shockingly long; yet its dimensions were cause for wonder when it was new.

So was the inclusion of voices in its finale. What were listeners to make of it? Was this a proper symphony at all, or a sort of oratorio? And what about the vocal writing itself, which Verdi decried (“No one will ever approach the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement”)? In truth, this is no exercise in bel canto. But this symphony packs an undeniable punch, in no small part thanks to precisely these “problematic” features—the momentum acquired through its remarkable length, the revitalizing of its essential sound with the entrance of the chorus in the finale, even the drama associated with solo singers sitting silent for nearly an hour and then leaping in to wrestle challenging tessituras.

Like all of Beethoven’s symphonies, the Ninth was conceived as a grand experiment; but somehow it held on to its stature as a beacon of the avant-garde more firmly than did its predecessors. Doubtless that has to do, in large part, with the fact that it was Beethoven’s last symphony. Many, many avant-garde moments pepper the composer’s symphonic production—the harmonic dissonance that opens the First Symphony, the expansion of the orchestra itself in the Fifth, the departure from the traditional four movements in the Sixth (and these are only a few examples)—but in every case those advances were immediately swept along in a current of more Beethoven, always building toward new advances. Standing at the end of that astonishing sequence of works, the Ninth takes on a magnified aura of monumentality—of finality, on one hand, but also of pointing to a future that Beethoven would not address personally. Beethoven himself could show where the implications of the Eroica or the Pastoral might lead. The path from the Ninth remained an utterly uncharted challenge to future generations of composers.

The path of the Ninth Symphony itself is perfectly clear. It is one of Beethoven’s many musical journeys from darkness into light, a trajectory he had already explored in such works as his Third and Fifth symphonies and his opera Fidelio. Mystery shrouds the opening: strings and horns playing the open fifth interval of A-E—harmonically vague, not clarifying until the thirteenth measure that the key of this piece is to be D minor, when that is stated in resounding fortissimo. That is the moment when the movement’s principal theme is sounded by the full orchestra—or rather, by what gives the impression of being the full orchestra, since the composer holds his trombones in check until the scherzo and his piccolo, contrabassoon, and percussion (apart from timpani) until the finale. A wealth of subsidiary themes are presented in short order and put through a tense process of development and recapitulation before the movement reaches its apocalyptic coda.

The wide-open intervals of the symphony’s beginning are recalled by the hammer-blows, in falling octaves, that launch the scherzo—with the third of the figure’s four introductory eruptions literally pounded out by the solo timpani. These will return, interrupting the comparatively elfin scurry of the scherzo’s ongoing flow. At times the pounding leads to a galumphing swagger, all the more resonant after the gentle, woodwind-laden pastoralisms of the movement’s middle section.

The Adagio introduces the soulful side of Beethoven, greatly in contrast to the athleticism of what has come previously in this symphony. The movement unrolls as a set of extended variations. Mostly these involve the first violins’ tender melody that graces the opening, but to a lesser extent Beethoven also develops a second theme, which flows a bit more urgently.

The hushed spell is broken with the presto that opens the Finale: a horrific explosion by the orchestra that is punctuated by the most curious thing, a recitative-like passage played in unison by the cellos and basses unaccompanied. Although no text is expressed, the recitative seems to be asking questions, and the orchestra responds with answers that allude to material heard in the preceding movements. After considerable back-and-forth these low strings announce the famous theme that will fuel what is essentially a movement of variations. The first three of these variations involve instruments only, weaving in threads of greater complexity, until finally, after a recurrence of the movement’s opening eruption, the bass soloist sings a real recitative (with words by Beethoven): “Oh friends, put aside these sounds! Let us be more civil and speak more joyfully.” Now we hear the principal theme, intoned to the words of Friedrich Schiller’s ode “To Joy.” By way of continuing variations--as sundry as a “Turkish march,” a vigorous orchestral fugue, and some passages of high-wire vocalizing--Beethoven leads us through his grand choral finale.

This ode was far from Schiller’s finest literary achievement, but attached to the intensity of Beethoven’s expression it has come to symbolize the highest aspirations. Friedrich Nietzsche argued that “Beethoven’s music is music about music,” but ensuing generations have begged to differ. Beethoven’s Ninth has come to be music about the hopes and dreams of humankind.

—James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, the SFS Chorus, and this week’s vocal soloists are recording the Beethoven Ninth at these performances, for future release on the SFS Media label. |  Ferenc Fricsay conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)  |  Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (BIS)  |  David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (Arte Nova)  |  For listeners inclined towards historically informed performances, John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Archiv/Deutsche Grammophon) or Roger Norrington conducting the London Classical Players (Virgin Classics)

Reading: Beethoven, by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books)  |  Beethoven, by William Kinderman (University of California Press)  |  Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood (W.W. Norton)  |  Beethoven, by Barry Cooper (Oxford, Master Musicians Series)  |  The Beethoven Compendium, edited by Barry Cooper (Thames and Hudson)  |  Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in its most recent revision by Elliott Forbes (Princeton University Press)  |  Beethoven and his World: A Biographical Dictionary, by Peter Clive (Oxford)  |  Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, by Nicholas Cook (Cambridge Music Handbooks)  |  Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, by Maynard Solomon (University of California Press) 

On DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Beethoven and the Eroica, part of our Keeping Score series (SFS Media). Also available at keepingscore.org.

(June 2012)