Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN

BORN: Beethoven’s baptismal certificate is dated December 17, 1770. Bonn, then a sovereign electorate (now Germany)

DIED: March 26, 1827. Vienna, Austria

The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven 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 of this process and of the struggle for clarification, the famous opening offers a microcosmic view. This crescendo is achieved by more than an increase in volume. Rhythm and harmonic tension also play their part. We hear at first just two notes, A and E. At a certain point in the crescendo, the E’s drop away, to be instantly replaced by D’s in bassoon and horns, the new note sounding in fact strangely dissonant against the prevailing A’s. The D turns out to be the “answer” on which the whole orchestra agrees in the great fortissimo summit of that first crescendo, but the tense anticipation of that note is a personal, marvelous, and utterly characteristic touch.

The scherzo is a huge structure, as obsessive in its driving and exuberant play with few ideas as the first movement was generous in its richness of material. The trio carries a certain sense of hymnal or communal music about it. It reaches forward toward the world of the Ode, “To Joy.”

Two bars of upbeat—clarinets, bassoons, middle and lower strings—ease us into the Adagio. Beethoven at first alternates two themes of contrasting gait, key, and temperature, varying each, soon dropping the second, but enveloping the first in ever more fanciful decoration. The effect is one of exaltation and, at the end, profound peace.

The most horrendous noise Beethoven could devise shatters that peace, 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 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 "Happily, like His planets flying / along their magnificent heavenly orbits / . . . as a hero runs to victory.”—Michael Steinberg

A version of Michael Steinberg’s note 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.

(July 2019)