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Beethoven, Ludwig - Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Ludwig van Beethoven
b. Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

Beethoven's genius illuminated every important musical form. The nine symphonies stand at the heart of the standard orchestral repertoire. Through the human journey they chart, demonstrating his progress from gifted novice to supreme master, they proclaim his gifts as clearly and with as much force as anything he created.

The Fifth and Sixth were premièred at the same concert, in Vienna on December 22, 1808. Five years passed before he gave another symphony to the world. No. 7 (début Vienna, December 8, 1813) intensifies the strong emotional contrasts heard in Nos. 3 and 5. Three of the four movements are buoyant and outgoing. The second, however, is the most poignant symphonic lament Beethoven ever wrote. Joy, said Beethoven, is experienced most intensely side by side with its polar opposite.

Symphony No. 8 followed just one year later, premièring in Vienna February 7, 1814. It represented a lightening of tone – but not of craftsmanship – from the Seventh. In a break with tradition, it contains no slow movement – just four contrasting sections offering consistently inspired entertainment.

And then there is Beethoven’s astonishing Ninth. It represented the summit of his career as an artist, human being, and innovator, a creator who strove to embrace ever broader panoramas of life within a single composition.

Its evolution stretched across three decades. The chain of events began in 1793, when Beethoven first read Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy, and determined one day to set it to music. His musical sketch books from 1812 contain ideas for another symphony in addition to the Seventh and Eighth, one which he seems to have viewed as the last of a trilogy begun by No. 7. He had even decided upon the key of D Minor for it – the eventual tonality of the Ninth. Other concerns, both personal and musical, kept this project from developing further.

By 1822, he had not one, but two symphonic projects in mind. The first was a purely instrumental work, the second a “German Symphony,” with a finale to be sung in that language. Eventually, they merged in his mind, stimulated in part by a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London. It struck him that his English patrons would not be pleased with a symphony containing words in a foreign tongue. He decided to write them a purely instrumental work instead.

Later still, he came to feel that his conception, whose first three movements he finished by mid 1823, really needed words to express its goals clearly. He discarded the instrumental finale (it later found a home as the last movement of the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132). It was only then, in the autumn of 1823, that he came to the conclusion that the long delayed rendezvous with the beloved Ode to Joy had finally arrived.

As usual, he tempered his first rush of inspiration with much thought and hard work. Considering the reverence which he felt for Schiller’s poem, it is surprising that he set only half of it, and also rearranged the order of the sections he did use. At the time, he still seems to have been considering using the symphony to fulfill his English commission. He made up his mind to trust the judgment of his patrons, by leaving Schiller’s words in their original German.

He completed the Ninth Symphony early in 1824. This fact gradually became known in Vienna, and a great clamor arose for it to be performed. By this time, Beethoven was feeling both tired and depressed, largely due to what had become his total deafness. That condition left him indifferent to his new work’s being performed. Upon receipt of a testimonial petition signed by the cream of Vienna’s artistic and political aristocracy, he was moved to grant permission for the symphony’s première, and for it to be held there, rather than in London.

On May 7, 1824, at the Kärnthnerthor Theater in Vienna, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was heard for the first time. Michael Umlauf conducted, with the composer seated in the orchestra, score in hand, in order to indicate tempos. The performance, which had been allotted only two rehearsals, was at best a mediocre one. Yet it still drew an enthusiastic response from the audience.

According to Fraulein Unger, the alto soloist, “The Master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it at all, and was not even sensible to the applause of the audience at the end of his great work. He continued standing with his back to the audience and beating the time, until I turned him, to face the people, who were still clapping their hands and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning about, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everyone that he had not done so before because he could not hear what was going on, acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed.”

The first movement begins quietly, yet it vibrates with the expectancy of drama. Author Robert Simpson likened it to “the genesis of music itself,” while musicologist Sir Donald Tovey, citing the great number of times this passage has been emulated (in the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, for example), credited it with exerting “the deepest and widest influence on later music” of anything Beethoven wrote. Throughout this movement’s dramatic course, interludes of repose crop up, but tension and turmoil stand squarely at center stage. The conclusion is, if anything, even bleaker than the beginning.

The following scherzo raises this type of piece, formerly a simple jest, to Olympian heights of drive and brilliance. Even its expansive dimensions can scarcely contain Beethoven’s outbursts of creative energy. The timpani player is here given one of the finest opportunities for display in all music. The symphony's heartfelt, prayer like slow movement (“melody explored to its inmost depths,” Tovey wrote) offers strong, devout contrast. It consists of variations on two gloriously warm-hearted themes.

Finally, what better way could there be to celebrate this hard won contentment than by sharing it with the whole world? Yet Beethoven does not do so immediately. After a turbulent introduction, he first looks back upon material from the symphony’s preceding movements (a practice adopted in such later works as Harold in Italy by Berlioz). Once these have been reviewed and rejected, cellos and basses quietly state the finale’s principal theme, a melody whose very lack of guile makes it completely appropriate to its function. It gathers momentum slowly, yet inexorably, until a reprise of the movement’s opening outburst sets the scene for the baritone soloist’s entry – and a whole new era in music.

Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy contains a tremendous variety of incident. Its kaleidoscope of episodes, in fact, make up an entire symphony in miniature. They include passages of almost frenzied choral celebration, a march like, “Turkish” colored tenor solo, a brilliant fugue for orchestra alone, and the simple, affecting piety of the central call to faith in God. Finally, the orchestra, sparked by percussion, rushes headlong to the exultant conclusion.

Program Notes by Don Anderson © 2018

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