Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!
From Ode to Joy
Beethoven Symphony No 9
I Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
II Molto vivace
III Adagio molto e cantabile
In all the Western classical tradition, it’s hard to think of a piece of music that has been subject to more intense scrutiny, or invited more musical criticism, than Beethoven’s final Symphony. ‘We shall never make head or tail of the Ninth Symphony until we treat it as a law unto itself,’ the musicologist Donald Tovey wrote in 1935. Nicholas Cook, in his 1993 companion guide, called it ‘a construction of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the values, hopes and fears of those who seek to understand and explain it’. It is a musical behemoth, a work so central to our understanding of classical music’s trajectory that it has divided musical history into ‘before’ and ‘after’. But if we still struggle to make sense of it now, nearly 200 years after it was first composed, imagine for a moment the audience’s reaction at the premiere.
They had waited some 12 years for Beethoven to unveil his new Symphony, following the disappointment of the Eighth which, as one reviewer kindly put it, ‘did not create a furore’. Who knows what they expected after the Ninth’s slender predecessor? At less than half an hour, that earlier work was by far the shortest of the composer’s symphonies to date. But they can hardly have anticipated the vastness of the Ninth, clocking in at 70 minutes, its instrumentation swollen by the addition of trombones, contrabassoon, four horns and percussion, not to mention four vocal soloists and a full chorus. The dimensions of the Symphony alone are staggering, but Beethoven’s technical and aesthetic ambitions are more impressive still. The Ninth has proved to be not just a turning point in symphonic composition, but also one of the most important and iconic works of any genre composed at any time in history. As Rachmaninov declared a century after its premiere: ‘Nobody will ever write anything better than this Symphony.’
Beethoven’s fascination with Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘An die Freude’ (‘Ode to Joy’, or literally ‘To Joy’) – which would form the foundations of the work’s Finale – dates as far back as the late 1790s, when he made his first tentative attempts at setting the words to music. But his sketchbooks show that he started work on the Symphony as we now know it in 1815, imagining a work in which the instruments enter ‘one by one’ and outlining his first ideas for some of its key themes. In the early 1820s he began to give it his full attention, and by 1824, it was complete. Its premiere took place in Vienna in May that year, with Beethoven himself on the podium – his first such appearance in more than a decade. But his deafness was so severe by this time that he shared conducting duties with Viennese conductor and composer Michael Umlauf, who kept the orchestra together while Beethoven – who could no longer hear the music – lagged several pages behind. Some reports suggest that at the end, Beethoven had to be turned around to see the applause that he could not hear.
Despite a rapturous public reception, the critical response to the Symphony was more mixed, with general feelings of bewilderment about this bold new symphonic direction. Beethoven’s contemporary, Louis Spohr, wrote that the Symphony’s first three movements, ‘in spite of some flashes of genius, are to my mind inferior to all the eight previous symphonies’. He found the Finale to be worse still: it was ‘so monstrous and tasteless… that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it’. Beethoven had shocked his listeners before – as far back as the startling chords that open the First Symphony, through to the unprecedented pictorialism of the Sixth — but with the Ninth,
Beethoven crossed another line. In the Finale, for the very first time, Beethoven introduced the voice. Hitherto a wholly instrumental genre, in the Ninth the Symphony took an enormous leap into an altogether new musical sphere. ‘O friends, no more of these sounds!’, the bass soloist implores, as each of the themes of the preceding movements are trotted out in turn at the start of the Finale. It’s an abrupt interjection with both small- and large-scale implications. On the one hand, this announcement resets and restarts the Ninth Symphony, paving the way for the ‘Ode to Joy’, which soon follows. But it’s also Beethoven’s way of ushering in a new chapter for the symphonic tradition, a turning point in musical history unlike any other, effected by a single, wilful individual.
And unlike any other work in Beethoven’s output, the Ninth Symphony is almost impossible to discuss without starting at the end. It has an unparalleled, teleological drive with an unshakeable purpose, in which the Finale – although baffling – is also somehow a seemingly inevitable endpoint. When the ‘Ode to Joy’ emerges, resplendent, in the Symphony’s Finale, it is the culmination of everything that has come before, its distinctive melody in fact prefigured in each of the preceding movements. But the sunny assurance (or is it sarcasm?) of the ‘Ode to Joy’ is hard-won. While most of Beethoven’s symphonies just start – with conviction and without hesitation – the Ninth quivers mysteriously into being. Agitated strings tremble quietly around the open interval of a fifth, the violins offering tentative interjections, the key and metre uncertain and undefined. It takes 13 bars before Beethoven finds his theme and announces it loudly with the full might of the orchestra. It’s as though the world itself, at that moment, had come into being.
From here, Beethoven takes us on a broad and, at times, tortuous journey, with the opening movement in effect a whole symphony in miniature. By its recapitulation section, Beethoven has transported us from D minor to D major – a shift that took place over four movements in the Fifth Symphony, but which, in this bold new symphonic landscape, is swiftly and deftly dispatched. But the first movement ends macabrely back in the minor, the funereal trudge of the lower strings preceding a series of apocalyptic hammer blows in the final bars. Listen, Beethoven seems to say, as I lay the symphony to rest.
After all that, the scherzo that follows seems like an ironic afterthought, its buoyant energy quite at odds with what has come before. Its clipped, staccato theme seems unnervingly light-hearted, almost flippant. When the timpani begin to intrude, shunting the established rhythm out of alignment, it becomes clear that Beethoven is toying with us. This is not the measured classical minuet of yesteryear, but a mischievous scherzo that intends to set the Symphony on a new path. It’s as though Beethoven has lost patience with Classical traditions: his goal now is to disrupt, destabilize and overturn our expectations. The trio section with which the scherzo is coupled seems to grasp for greater stability, its rustic drone tethering us to D major, its chorale-like theme pre-empting the communal hymn of the Finale. But it’s the stop-start scherzo with its disorderly timpani that closes the movement, the bucolic calm of the trio out of reach for now.
If the second movement seems flighty and irreverent, the same can hardly be said of the ensuing slow movement, which is almost as long as the opening movement, unfolding through an intense and typically Beethovenian series of double variations. Beethoven shows little inclination to hurry here, the movement’s exquisite stillness hinting at an arcadian landscape just beyond the horizon – the Elysian fields, even, that we meet in the Finale. So when the brass shatter the peace with what Wagner called a Schreckensfanfare (‘terror fanfare’) and wrench us back to the present, it’s as though Beethoven has pulled the rug from beneath our feet. Elysium remains, for now at least, still tantalisingly elusive: there is work still to be done here.
And with that the bass soloist calls a halt – ‘No more of these sounds!’ – and in doing so announces the arrival of a new musical landscape. But he also makes a wider plea to humanity – ‘Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!’. And in one deft move he transforms the Symphony into an extra-musical vehicle for hope, community and peace. This extraordinary leap may be the work of one wilful individual, but it is also the culmination of decades of symphonic development. The Classical symphony as we know it can go no further: this is the symphony’s rebirth.
Beethoven's 9th Symphony will be performed at the Festival on Thu 24 Aug at Usher Hall. Click here to view the artists performing at the concert.
© Jo Kirkbride
Jo Kirkbride is Chief Executive of Dunedin Consort and a freelance writer on classical music. She writes regularly for the BBC Proms, London Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Britten Sinfonia