Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 (“Choral”) Ludwig van Beethoven
One of history’s pivotal composers, Ludwig van Beethoven was born on Dec. 15 or 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany, and died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827. His Ninth Symphony, Op. 125, was composed over a period of many years, most intensely between 1822 and 1824, culminating in its premiere in Vienna’s Kärtnertortheater on May 7, 1824. It is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, timpani, and strings.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has acquired a status of universal approbation unmatched in the symphonic repertory. The British affectionately call Beethoven’s Ninth the “Choral” Symphony, while the Japanese, who each December present well over 100 performances of it, have dubbed the work “Daiku” (“Big Nine”). It is a mainstay of concert halls and music festivals throughout the world. Richard Wagner saw fit to perform it when he laid the cornerstone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1872. In China, revolutionary students gathered in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989 played its finale through loudspeakers to bolster their spirits. Later in the same year, Leonard Bernstein led a ceremonious performance of it in Berlin, changing Schiller’s “Freude” (Joy) to “Freiheit” (Freedom) in symbolic recognition of the razing of the Wall.
The Ninth is, at the same time, one of Beethoven’s most perplexing compositions — a work that remains one of the world’s most revered musical masterpieces, but which is not without its problematic side. Its musical syntax is a fascinating mixture of complexity and simplicity, and over the years critics have seen fit to assail it on both counts. Virtually no composer writing after Beethoven could escape the Ninth’s immense shadow. Stemming as it did from a particular time and circumstance — Vienna during the reign of Emperor Franz I and the repressive Prince Metternich — with all the musical, social and cultural associations of that period, the Ninth Symphony has emerged as ceremonial piece par excellence, befitting artistic and political summitry, as well as populist symbol for freedom-loving citizens from Beijing to Berlin. The Ninth Symphony is more than a monument of Western music: it is a cultural icon.
Beethoven’s last symphony represents the culmination of two discrete projects. The most immediate one was the fulfillment of a commission for a new symphony tendered by the Philharmonic Society of London in 1822, itself the partial satisfaction of an earlier request from the Society for two new symphonies. The other project dates back to 1792, the year in which we have the first evidence of Beethoven’s interest in setting Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem, “An die Freude,” to music. The joining of these separate projects into the Ninth Symphony did not occur until relatively late in the symphony’s evolution. First performed in Vienna on May 7, 1824, the Ninth Symphony has had an impact that is impossible to measure fully.
Indeed, the work itself seems immeasurable. Its opening Allegro un poco maestoso is far from the longest first movement that Beethoven wrote, yet its scale is greater than any other. One reason for this lies in the density of its content. From a barely audible murmur, fragments in the strings grow in speed and intensity as they coalesce to form the titanic first theme. The time scale in which this occurs is small, but its implication is immense. Never before, and rarely since, has such force ever been unleashed in music. The opening of the movement is unique, and all subsequent imitations of it (Wagner, Bruckner and Strauss) were done so in fully self-conscious homage to Beethoven. Equally cataclysmic in its impact is the explosion in D major that launches the movement’s recapitulation. The powerful funereal peroration from the coda also has also been imitated — most notably by Mahler — but never equaled. The first movement of the Ninth Symphony is tragedy writ large.
The scherzo, which is placed as the second movement, offers little relief. Tragedy is replayed here as farce as even the strings and kettledrums hammer out its distinctive three-note dotted motif. After a full-scale treatment of the Molto vivace in sonata form, replete with a contrapuntal exposition and metrical trickery in the development section, the pastoral trio in D major offers the first true moment of respite. As many listeners are aware, “scherzo” is the Italian word for “joke.” But those familiar with Beethoven know that humor has its dark side, and the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony is one of the grimmest ever penned. The final “joke” of this movement comes in its coda, where Beethoven threatens to repeat the trio section, only to thwart our expectation with an abrupt ending (a trick he also plays in the scherzo of the Seventh Symphony).
The Adagio molto e cantabile third movement dwells in the realm of pure melody. Aestheticians in the 18th and 19th centuries were fond of making a distinction between the “sublime” (lofty) and the “beautiful” in art. If the first two movements are representative of the former, the third movement of the Ninth Symphony surely is an exemplar of the latter. The movement is cast as a rondo with varied reprises for each of its two themes. A distinguishing characteristic of the first theme is the woodwind echo that occurs at the end of each phrase of the hymnal theme played by the strings, a feature that is retained in each of its returns. The second theme is a contrasting dance-like Andante moderato in triple meter. The literal midpoint of the movement (and, in fact, the entire symphony) is its ethereally calm development section, where the color of the woodwinds dominate its landscape. The fourth horn emerges out of this heavenly serenity with a celebrated passage, culminating in an unaccompanied scale. Listeners are urged to notice how this instrument continues to play a prominent role throughout the remainder of the movement.
The onset of the finale rudely shatters the calm with a glancing dissonance and a passage that Wagner dubbed the “horror fanfare” (Schreckensfanfare). Evidence from Beethoven’s sketches reveal that Beethoven had considerable difficulty effecting a transition from the purely instrumental opening movements to the choral part of the finale. How, after all, does one introduce an element that never before had belonged to a genre? Using every bit of his ingenuity, and bringing his experience gained from previous works to bear (the “Choral” Fantasy and several piano sonatas), Beethoven hit upon the idea of using instrumental recitative — played here by the cellos and contrabasses — as a conduit from the realm of the instrumental to that of the vocal. The instrumental recitative is a superbly effective device, used as a link between fragmented reminiscences from the previous movements.
The purpose of these thematic recollections has been interpreted in various ways by analysts. Most writers suggest that the recitative serves as a rebuff of the spirit of these earlier movements, each of which in turn is spurned by the cellos and basses until the famous “Joy” melody is presented. But there is another possible reason why Beethoven elected to bring back these themes, a reason that is as much prospective as retrospective. The elaborate multi-sectional finale is, in fact, an entire four-movement symphonic structure in miniature. Viewed from this perspective, the episode of recitative and recollection is also a prefiguration of the structure of the entire finale.
The presentation of the “Joy” theme in variations (both instrumental and vocal) comprises the gesture of a first “movement.” The portions of Schiller’s “An die Freude” used in this part are the ones that are most overtly profane or pagan in spirit. This is followed by the “Turkish” music as a kind of scherzo, which in turn yields to a solemn slow “movement” (“Seid umschlungen, Millionen”). This third section devotes itself to the most overtly sacred parts of the poem. The re-entry of the “Turkish” percussion movements marks the onset of the “finale,” where Beethoven joins together the profane and the sacred in a symbolic marriage of Athens and Jerusalem, with Joy serving as the agent through which “all men become brothers.”
David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.