An Ode to Joy – Beethoven’s Symphony 9

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125

Ludwig van Beethoven – Bonn, Germany / December 15, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria / March 26, 1827

The evolution of this towering piece, one of the supreme achievements of western art, spanned more than three decades. Beethoven read Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy in 1793, and determined to set it to music one day. By 1822, he had 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 Beethoven that his English patrons would not be pleased with a symphony containing words in a foreign tongue, so he decided to write them a purely instrumental work instead. Later still, he came to feel that his conception, whose first three movements he completed by mid 1823, cried out for words to express its goals more clearly. It was only then that his long-delayed rendezvous with the Ode to Joy finally arrived.

Considering the reverence which he felt for Schiller’s poem, it is surprising that he set only half of it, and changed the sequence of those sections he did use. At the time, he still seems to have been considering using the symphony to fulfill his English commission. His final decisions were to trust the judgment of his patrons and leave Schiller’s words in their original German, and to have the premiere take place in Vienna, rather than in London.

The Ninth Symphony was heard for the first time on May 7, 1824, with Michael Umlauf conducting. The composer sat in the midst of 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.”

By setting particular words in the Ninth, Beethoven let it be known that he considered it more than an abstract work. This prompts speculation as to whether he had conceived every movement with specific extra musical ideas in mind. He left no direct indications; such considerations must rest with listeners. In general terms, however, the sequence of moods in its three opening sections is as easy to follow as the Finale’s.

The first movement begins quietly, yet it vibrates with the expectancy of drama. Throughout this movement’s dramatic course, interludes of repose crop up, but tension and turmoil stand squarely at center stage. The following scherzo raises this type of piece, formerly a simple jest or dance, to Olympian heights of drive and brilliance. Beethoven gave the timpani player one of the finest opportunities for display in all music. The prayer like third movement offers strong, devout contrast. It consists of variations on two gloriously warm-hearted themes.

After the finale’s turbulent introduction, Beethoven reviews, then rejects, material from the preceding movements. 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 the Ode to Joy contains a tremendous variety of incident. Its kaleidoscope of episodes include passages of almost frenzied choral celebration; a march like tenor solo spiked with Turkish percussion; a brilliant fugue for orchestra alone; and the simple, affecting piety of the central call to faith in God. Finally, orchestra and chorus rush headlong to the exultant conclusion.

Program Notes by D. Anderson

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