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 its predecessors. Doubtless that has to do, in large part, with the fact that it was Beethoven’s last symphony. The Ninth takes on a magnified aura of monumentality—of finality, on one hand, but also as an utterly uncharted challenge to future generations of composers.
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125 1824 | 66 mins
The Ninth Symphony is a musical journey from darkness into light.
Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
Mystery shrouds the opening. A wealth of melodies are presented before the movement reaches an apocalyptic coda.
Hammer-blows, in falling octaves, launch the movement—with the third of the four eruptions literally pounded out by the solo timpani. These will return, interrupting the comparatively elfin scurry of the music. 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.
Adagio molto e cantabile—Andante moderato
The Adagio introduces the soulful side of Beethoven, greatly in contrast to the athleticism of what we have just heard. The movement unrolls as a set of extended variations. Mostly these involve the first violins’ tender melody that graces the opening, but to listen also for a second melody that flows more urgently.
Finale: Ode, “To Joy”
The hushed spell is broken by a horrific explosion by the orchestra that is punctuated by the most curious thing—a tune played by the cellos and basses, alone. The music seems to be asking questions, and the orchestra responds with answers that allude to parts of the preceding movements. After considerable back-and-forth the low strings announce the famous theme that will fuels what is essentially a movement of variations. The first three of these variations involve instruments only until finally the bass soloist sings (words by Beethoven): “Oh friends, put aside these sounds! Let us be more civil and speak more joyfully.”
Then—one of the most famous passages in all of music intoned to Friedrich von Schiller’s ode “To Joy.” By way of more 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 music is about the hopes and dreams of humankind.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.