Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

The following originally appeared as a program note to a DePaul Symphony Orchestra performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.  You are welcome to reprint this program note free of change; but please let me know about it and attribute me.  Thanks! 

There are not many pieces about which the question can be asked whether it is the most important work in the history of the art form. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is one of them.  So ubiquitous is it in the world of music that its composer and genre often aren't even mentioned: when musicians speak of "The Ninth," no one asks what they mean.  Virtually every 19th and 20th century composer struggled with its massive shadow.  It gave Brahms such anxiety that it took him 24 years to complete his first symphony.  (When a critic pointed out the resemblance between the main theme in the final movement of Brahms's first and the "Ode to Joy," Brahms reportedly said, "any ass can see that").  Its power caused Wagner to imagine that the symphony had outlived its usefulness, and that his music dramas had to be the way forward.  That nearly every Bruckner symphony begins with hushed tremolando strings and a melody involving open intervals is no coincidence.  So intimidated was Mahler at the prospect of writing a 9th numbered symphony that he created a song cycle instead.  The "Ode to Joy" has been used to sell action movies, the European Union, Christianity, and Nazism.  It has been used to celebrate openings of the Olympic Games, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and victories in Southeastern Conference football games.  It has been used for brainwashing both fictitious and real. 

All this merely makes the work that much more difficult to interpret as a modern listener, dealing with the actual sounds in a concert hall.  What is the work itself, stripped of its historical baggage, trying to tell us?  Is it even possible to attempt such a listening?

Surely it is worth a try, because the impression left on its contemporaneous audience was definitive and overwhelming (there seems no reason to doubt the well-known story that Beethoven had to be turned around by the alto soloist to face the rapturous ovation of the audience because he was completely deaf).  Beethoven's audience understood it, first and foremost, as a symphony; not as "the Ninth," "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee," or a child's piano song.  Its grotesquely ambitious and outsized proportions, its mixing of styles and genres, and its visceral directness all work together to create a heretofore unimagined symphonic experience that, while it has arguably been equaled, cannot be said to have been surpassed.

While most symphonies until the 1820s (and indeed, Beethoven's 1st through 8th) begin with either a slow introduction or an immediate statement of a principal theme, Beethoven's 9th begins in a way that suggests that it has been going since the beginning of time: with a subdued tremolo in the second violins accompanied by horns, playing an open fifth.  The first violin's cautious entrance is not a theme at all -- merely an interval.  The rest of the orchestra's subsequent steamrolling crescendo thus sounds positively apocalyptic when it arrives at the main theme made up of similar intervals, hammered at a fortissimo dynamic level, in unison, and not in the key in which the symphony had begun.  After the process is repeated in a different key, the main portion of what a listener assumes to be a sonata form movement begins in earnest.  It is no ordinary sonata form, however.  It does virtually none of the things one expects of a normal exposition: there are not identifiable, contrasting themes (are there really themes at all?); there is not a clear break in the middle to set off the second part; and while there is an attainment of a new tonal area (the “wrong” one: B-flat major, instead of the expected relative major of F), it could not be less secure.  Indeed, the exposition veers seamlessly off into the development section, which is a virtual perpetuum mobile of sixteenth notes, churning through key after key.  If the opening of the first movement was the beginning of the world, the recapitulation is the final judgment: a sudden but decisive crescendo that lands on an inverted major chord, causing the timpani's previously merely threatening presence to exact moments of vengeance.  The rest of the orchestra writhes through indecisive harmonies before running out of energy.  The rest of the recapitulation recasts the exposition’s materials in a minor key.  The coda begins as a solemn but subdued march by the brass and woodwinds; it crescendos to a massive, severe unison version of the main theme that wrestles the movement to a decisive close.

The second movement, not the usual slow, song-like affair, is a vast, demonic scherzo, much longer and on a hugely grander scale than any that had come before it.  Its lightning-stroke opening descending gesture is a rethinking of the first movement’s descending main theme.  A short theme introduced timidly by the second violins, prominently featuring a falling octave, piles on top of itself as more and more instruments are added.  Whether at loud or quiet dynamics, the orchestra becomes obsessed with the falling octave motif, repeating it relentlessly, tirelessly, manically, tyrannically; even the timpani is retuned from its usual fourths and fifths to participate.  When the falling octaves change their rhythm and suddenly introduce a major key, we realize that we’ve been listening only to the A section the whole time.  The innocence of the middle section, the Trio, is stunning in comparison.  The simple-minded oboe and clarinet tunes ascends and descends in a step-wise fashion (its implications for the last movement’s “joy” theme perhaps not clear to a listener) to an equally empty-headed accompaniment in the bassoons.  A moment of nostalgia allows the entire scherzo section to return, its sternness unaltered.  Another repeat of the Trio is cut short by the falling octaves to end the movement.

After two such exhausting experiences, the slow movement is a welcome arrival.  It is cast in the key of B-flat major, a key already important to the first movement.  The first movement is invoked again by recasting the first two notes of its main theme (D and A) into the new key – the sublime, simple A section melody in the violins is presented unadorned and reverentially.  The woodwinds lovingly repeat the tail ends of phrases.  So heavenly is the theme that it does not to want end, instead veering inconclusively towards a new key.  The ensuing B section spins out an ecstatically windy melody in the second violins.  The first violins take their cue from this and bring us a variation on the A section made up of twists and turns every which way.  A variation of the B section is also heard, now in yet a third key with the woodwinds playing the melody.  The solo clarinet seems to want to give us even another variant of the A section, but the music wanders into distant, dark regions with unusual contributions from the fourth French Horn.  The violins, relieved, bring us back to the home key, and the final variation of the A section, now transfigured into joyous, flowing, improvisatory babbling as the woodwinds accompany approvingly.  The movement climaxes with a twice-repeated fanfare, whose revelatory modulation the second time does little more than postpone the inevitable coda.  A sense of complete repose closes Beethoven’s longest symphonic slow movement.

Thus, the terrifying noise that opens the Finale, what Wagner called the “horror fanfare,” is all the more disruptive.  Since the work's premiere, there has been an unceasing scholarly debate about the form of such a massive, truly unprecedented creation.  This is no surprise: it incorporates elements of variation, rondo, sonata, and concerto forms.  But it is perhaps best understood according to Charles Rosen’s analysis of it as a microcosm of the work as a whole, a mini-symphony of its own.  Its first “movement,” after the horror fanfare, continues with aimless, wordless recitatives in the cellos and basses.  The three previous movements are each recalled and rejected in turn.  Only after the woodwinds hint at the “Ode to Joy” theme is the recitative allowed cadence.  The cellos and basses then present the theme themselves, sotto voce, as if testing the waters.  Three more variations ensue, adding instruments jubilantly.  The violence of horror fanfare interrupts again, though.  Beethoven has now had enough, and in one of the most dramatic moments in all of music, intercedes to address the audience directly with his own words (not those of Frederich Schiller, the poet of the actual “Ode to Joy”): “oh friends, not these tones,” sings the bass-baritone.  “Rather, let us raise our voices more pleasingly, and more joyfully.”  It is a stunning compositional moment, moving in its almost naive sense unproblematic communication between composer and audience.  The chorus responds with enthusiasm, and the joy theme is now heard in another set of variations, this time setting, with chorus and soloists, Schiller’s poem elucidating enlightenment ideals of joy and universal brotherhood.  Working itself into an agitated state, the music comes to an awed halt on the phrase “And the cherub stands before God!”

Here begins the second “movement” of the Finale, the scherzo, in the all-important key of B-flat major.  The surprising, ostensibly trivializing, use of a Turkish military style (complete with percussion and an piccolo) depicts the sentiment “Run, brothers, along your path, joyful, as a hero to victory” as encouraged by the tenor and lower voices.  An whirlwind of a double fugue takes over, with the joy theme as its subject.  Spending itself of energy, all seems defeated.  In a moment of utter sublimity, a quick and unexpected modulation brings the ode back more powerfully than before, crashing through our psychology with an overwhelming vision of utopia.

The slow “movement” moves to G major and begins with a new theme accompanying the words “be embraced, millions! This kiss is for the whole world!” heard in the trombone and lower voices.  Music of ravishing beauty ensues, climaxing in register on the words describing the dwelling place of the “loving father” “beyond the starry canopy.” 

The “finale” of the Finale returns to D major and unifies the joy theme and the “be embraced” theme into another enormous double-fugue.  The subsequent section re-introduces the soloists, who, with the chorus, become fixated on the idea that “all people shall be brothers.”  The closing section of the “movement,” the actual movement, and the symphony combines, for the first and only time, all forces on the stage into a frenzied, orgiastic, uninhibited rush to a final cadence.  By assembling the largest performance forces in music history until that point, Beethoven’s goal must to induce in the audience a literal experience of the overwhelming and all-consuming joy that is the subject of the poem, surely with the hopes that the memory of the emotion will lead listeners to take his exhortation that “all people shall be brothers” seriously.  In short, it is not too much to say that Beethoven is trying to fundamentally change the world through the writing and performance of this symphony.

The Ninth Symphony was written by a deaf composer who hadn’t worked in the genre in a decade, and whose music had fallen out of fashion in favor of Italian opera.  Getting it performed was an extraordinary ordeal; it made hardly any money for the already cash-strapped composer, and in any case, he couldn’t hear a note.  Beethoven had little to gain from writing it or supervising its performance, other than the measly commissioning fee of £50 from the London Philharmonic Society.  Those facts, plus the work’s subject matter, lead only to one inescapable conclusion: that it was written, quite simply, out of a profound love for humanity that is the very best of who we are as a species.  That it continues to be universally beloved is a testament to the fact that we all seem to know that.