Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Beethoven Symphony No. 9

A legacy of hope

Beethoven’s fervent belief in Enlightenment values found enduring expression in his music and nowhere more so than in the Ninth Symphony with its setting of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy (1785). The principal reason for the broad and sustained appeal of this work for nearly two centuries is the hopeful message it proclaims, almost embarrassingly naïve: People should get along, we are all brothers and sisters.

A new symphony

When Beethoven began intensively composing the piece in 1823 he had not written a symphony in more than a decade. His productivity had waned, deafness had caused him to retreat from society, he had been involved in a nasty custody battle for his nephew, and he was widely viewed as an eccentric figure. Many nonetheless considered him the greatest living composer. When he contemplated giving the premiere of his new symphony in Berlin rather than in Vienna, prominent members of the Viennese nobility and musical establishment joined forces to publish a lengthy public letter 'joyfully acknowledging your worth and what you have grown to be to the present as well as the future.' They declared that his creations stood beside the 'great and immortal works of Mozart and Haydn.' The letter also touched on his isolation: 'Need we tell you with what regret your retirement from public life has filled us?'

'The latest in Vienna is that Beethoven is to give a concert at which he is to produce his new symphony, three movements from the new Mass, and a new overture.' So Franz Schubert wrote to a friend in March 1824. The event, about the master’s first big concert in years, took place at the Kärntnertor Theater on May 7 and began with the Overture to the Consecration of the House, written two years earlier. There followed three movements—the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei—from the Missa solemnis, which had premiered the previous month in St. Petersburg. Then came the Ninth, a work that redefined the genre of the symphony. Much of it was immediately shocking, even baffling for many listeners: the soft and mysterious opening, the unconventional order of the movements, its extraordinary length, and, above all, the unprecedented use of vocal soloists and chorus for the last movement.

Footsteps of a giant

Probably no other piece of orchestral music has exerted such an impact on later composers. How, many wondered, should one write a symphony after the Ninth? Schubert, Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler — the list goes on and on — dealt with the question in fascinating ways that fundamentally affected the course of 19th-century music. Schubert quoted the 'joy' theme in his own final symphony, composed the following year. Most Bruckner symphonies begin as does the Ninth, with low string rumblings. Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Shostakovich followed Beethoven’s model of including a choral finale.

Aesthetic debate about the Ninth Symphony reached a climax with the 'War of the Romantics,' exemplified by Brahms and Wagner, that pitted absolute music against program music. Brahms kept putting off writing a symphony. He confided to conductor Hermann Levi: 'You don’t know what it is like to walk in the footsteps of a giant.' When his First Symphony finally premiered in 1876 (by which time he was 43), it was immediately hailed as The Tenth, an indication that many viewed him as Beethoven’s heir. Eduard Hanslick, the formidable Viennese critic who was Brahms’s advocate and Wagner’s nemesis, wrote: 'Seldom, if ever, has the entire musical world awaited a composer’s first symphony with such tense anticipation—testimony that the unusual was expected of Brahms in this supreme and ultimately difficult form. … If I say that no composer has come so close to the style of late Beethoven as Brahms has in this finale, I don’t mean it as a paradoxical pronouncement, but rather as a simple statement of indisputable fact.' Brahms’s finale seems to 'correct' the momentous choral path Beethoven chose by setting Schiller’s text. The principal hymn-like melodies of both finales is similar—as Brahms acknowledged—but he rejected voices and words and had his Symphony remain purely in the realm of the instrumental, a potent monument to absolute music.

For Wagner, on the other hand, Beethoven’s union of music and word pointed to the 'music of the future' in which extra-musical programmatic elements were necessary. Wagner was obsessed with the Ninth Symphony, beginning as a teenager when he made a piano arrangement of it. He conducted the piece many times and wrote extensively about it. In his autobiography he declared that he was inspired by the 'mystical influence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to plumb the deepest recesses of music.' This ultimately led to the 'universal drama,' the uniting words and tones, found in his own operas.

Listening to the Ninth

Among the many unexpected and extraordinary features of the Ninth is the opening (Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso). Symphonies before it, almost without exception, began loudly. This was an attention getting device that could quiet the audience (no way to dim the lights, after all) and make a grand impression. Beethoven’s mysterious opening grows as if out of a void. Against the murmurings of the low strings emerge falling fifths in the violins, fragments of a melody that gradually coalesce into a loud and imposing first theme. It has been likened to the creation of the world and the intensity of the movement lives up to its origins.

Beethoven switched the expected order of movements (another feature composers imitated) by placing next the scherzo (Molto vivace). A favourite with audiences from the beginning (especially the prominent role given to the timpani), it projects both humour and power. The lyrical slow movement (Adagio molto e cantabile) seems to explore more personal, even spiritual realms. Indeed religious elements, made explicit in the finale, are central to this work, which may be considered the unidentical twin of the Missa solemnis, composed around the same time. This profound slow movement is the progenitor of great later ones in the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, among others.

Ecstatic and joyous coda

The Presto finale opens with what Wagner called the 'terror fanfare,' a frantically dissonant passage that leads to an extended section for cellos and basses to be played, according to the score, 'in the manner of a recitative, but in tempo.' Fragments from the previous three movements next pass in review—just a few measures of the opening theme from each—but are interrupted, one might even say rejected, by the strings. This unusual instrumental recitative comes to a close with a full cadence, as one would expect in an opera or oratorio, and is followed by a lyrical aria-like melody, the famous 'Ode to Joy' theme to which words will later be added. After some seven minutes the movement starts all over again. The 'terror fanfare' returns, but this time it is followed by a true vocal recitative when the bass soloist enters singing several lines that Beethoven wrote himself to preface Schiller’s poem: 'O friends, not these tones. But rather, let us strike up more pleasant and more joyful ones.' The chorus and four vocal soloists take up the 'joy' theme, which undergoes a series of impressive variations for the remainder of the movement. One of the most striking is a section in the Turkish manner, a festive march featuring cymbals, triangle, drum, piccolo, and trumpets. The music reaches a climax with a new theme: 'Be embraced, you millions! … Brothers, above the starry canopy there must dwell a loving Father,' which is then combined contrapuntally in a double fugue with the joy theme and eventually builds to an ecstatic and joyous coda to end the symphony.

A resisted masterpiece

In his penetrating essay Resisting the Ninth, music historian Richard Taruskin pointed to ways in which some musicians and listeners have resisted the Ninth Symphony. The Symphony, he argues, 'is among connoisseurs preeminently the Piece You Love to Hate, no less now than a century and a half ago. Why? Because it is at once incomprehensible and irresistible, and because it is at once awesome and naïve.' Those who revere the work may be surprised to hear that anyone ever resisted it. Undoubtedly its humanist message has been neutered through overexposure and trivialization in movies and TV commercials. For some listeners today, Taruskin argues, the message of the Ninth is difficult to take seriously anymore: 'We have our problems with demagogues who preach to us about the brotherhood of man. We have been too badly burned by those who have promised Elysium and given us gulags and gas chambers.'

Tyrants and terrorists

Yet Beethoven understood that great works of art matter, in part because they constitute a threat to tyrants and terrorists. He strove to express a deeply held Enlightenment vision that has resonated for nearly two centuries.

The Ninth Symphony has surfaced at crucial times and places, appropriated for widely diverse purposes. As the ultimate 'feel-good' piece, the work has been used repeatedly to open the Olympic Games and bring nations together in song. Yet during the Nazi era it was performed to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. Its 'joy' melody is the official anthem of the European Union—but it was also the anthem of Ian Smith’s racist regime in Rhodesia during the 1970s. Within more recent memory, protesters playing recordings in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and jubilant students boomed it as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. That December Leonard Bernstein led a notable performance there with an internationally constituted orchestra in which he changed Schiller’s Freude (Joy) to Freiheit (Freedom). The piece was enlisted once again for commemorative performances in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on America.

Beethoven had wanted to set Schiller’s poem as early as 1793 and made various attempts. He included a line from it the finale of his opera Fidelio. By the time he finally decided how to use the poem to conclude his final symphony, he was at the end of his career and had just a few years left to live. The political situation in Prince Clemens von Metternich’s Austria had become reactionary and deeply repressive, far from the Enlightenment idealism he had celebrated as a teenager in his first extended work, a cantata honouring the death of Emperor Joseph II. Yet even during dark times Beethoven remained hopeful—or at least able to find a way to offer hope to the millions, to the brotherhood of humanity.

Christopher H. Gibbs