Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 

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: 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)

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

NORTH AMERICAN 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 66 mins

THE BACKSTORY  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. The symphony packs an undeniable punch, in no small part thanks to its “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. 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 MUSIC  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 nearly the full orchestra. A wealth of subsidiary themes are presented and developed in short order 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, no more of these sounds! Instead, let’s strike up a song that’s more pleasant, And more joyful.” Now we hear the principal theme, intoned to the words of Friedrich von 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 conducting the San Francisco Symphony and the SFS Chorus (SFS Media)  |  Ferenc Fricsay conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)  |  David Zinman conducting the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (Arte Nova) 

OnlineKeeping Score: Beethoven’s Eroica with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at keepingscore.org and on iTunes and Amazon)

ReadingBeethoven, 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)  |  Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, in its most recent revision by Elliott Forbes (Princeton University Press)  |  Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, by Nicholas Cook (Cambridge Music Handbooks)