Beethoven: Finale: Ode, "To Joy" from Symphony No. 9

Finale: Ode, "To Joy" from Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
BORN
: Probably on December 16, 1770 (his baptismal certificate is dated the 17th). Bonn, then an independent electorate
DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna

COMPOSED: 1822-24, with some material having been sketched as early as 1812

WORLD PREMIERE:  May 7, 1824. Michael Umlauf conducted (with the deaf composer standing beside him to indicate tempos), at Vienna’s K√§rntnertor Theater

US PREMIERE: May 20, 1846. George Loder conducted the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—Alfred Hertz led the first SFS performances 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. MOST RECENT—February 2017. Herbert Blomstedt conducted; the soloists were Kiera Duffy, Sara Couden, Nicholas Phan, and Andrew Foster-Williams, with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, and strings, plus (in the finale) soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, and 4-part mixed chorus

DURATION: About 24 mins

The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) claims a special place in the history of the symphony and in Beethoven’s growth as artist, Mensch, and public figure. Its performance can never be an ordinary event.

Since 1812, Beethoven’s life had been in a continuous state of crisis and he had written little. But by 1820 he began to “set about,” as Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon puts it, “reconstructing his life and completing his life’s work.” At first the process was slow. But by 1822, he was again working in a rage of energy. As part of this regeneration, the various projects and ideas connected with the Ninth Symphony began to sort themselves out. The first movement was ready early in 1823; by February 1824, the score was finished.

The first performance was given on May 7, 1824, in Vienna. The deaf composer stood on the stage beating time and turning the leaves of his score, but the real conducting was done by Michael Umlauf. At the end, Beethoven was still hunched over the pages of music, and contralto soloist Caroline Unger gently turned his head around so that he might see the applause he could not hear.

The Ninth Symphony traces a path from darkness to light, and across three long preceding movements, Beethoven depicts struggles and ecstasies. The most horrendous noise Beethoven could devise shatters the profound peace of the third movement, and now an extraordinary drama is played before us. In the gestures of operatic recitative, cellos and basses protest. Quotations of music from the first, second, and third movements vividly dramatize the idea of search. When, after three tries and three rejections, the woodwinds propose something new, the cellos and basses, with some cheering along by winds and drums, lose no time in expressing their enthusiasm. Those hectoring strings change their tone. The orchestra rounds off their recitative with a firm cadence, and without a second’s pause for breath one of the world’s great songs begins.

Beethoven spreads before us in a series of simple and compelling variations, interrupted by a return of the horrendous fanfare that began the movement. What earlier was matter for our imaginations to work on is now made explicit. The recitative is sung now, to words that Beethoven himself invented as preface to Friedrich von Schiller’s Ode.

Schiller had been dead eighteen years when Beethoven set An die Freude. Schiller did not think much of the poem, which is an enthusiastic drinking song. Perhaps Beethoven saw through it, perhaps he read into it what he needed. What is sure is that he transformed it. And once the words are there, they, and of course even more Beethoven’s transcendent responses to them, sweep us along.

Michael Steinberg

A version of this note for Beethoven’s Ninth originally appeared in the program book of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(November 2017)