Season Finale: Beethoven's Ninth
Ludwig van Beethoven
1770 – 1827
Symphony No. 9 in D minor 1824
It has been said that a particular period of time produces genius – a viable notion in the case of iconoclastic, "break-out" artists, philosophers, and writers. Known as the Age of Enlightenment, the years 1750 - 1850 embraced the restless, revolutionary spirit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Encouraging the revolutionary upheavals was the surging wave of new political and intellectual ideas of philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire.
Beethoven proved himself a true disciple of Rousseau's credo — the right of the creative mind to assert itself unhampered and that all citizenry must also embrace the theme of equality for all men regardless of class or caste. And so it was with the iconoclastic Beethoven. Personally, he marched to his own drummer, and asserted his immense ego in creative ways that would shake the foundations of music.
Three Clearly Defined Periods of Composition: Beginning in l794, Beethoven's 30 years of a steady flow of music could be characterized neatly into three clearly defined periods of work. The first period (l795-1802), defined as the Imitation Period, was largely associated with the Baroque and Classical forms of Bach, Haydn and Mozart, although Beethoven's own strong personality was beginning to question blind allegiance to "inherited" social and musical traditions.
In the second period, defined as the Externalization Period (1803-1816), the composer began a number of innovations in such things as the size, emotional force (dynamics), and numerous variations in the keys and modes of each composition. To demand such diverse and sudden mood shifts required instrumental mastery and complex technical prowess from participating musicians.
The last period is known as the Reflection Period (1816-1827), in which the character of his compositions becomes meditative through a combination of tranquil mood and calmness mixed together with sudden dynamic intensity. Beethoven's deafness kept him from hearing contemporary works of his peers, causing him to draw musical ideas from journalistic jottings he kept for this purpose. It was during this last period of his life when the Ninth Symphony was created.
Creation and Premiere: The genesis of the Ninth Symphony was a commission granted to the composer in 1822 by the London Philharmonic Society. By 1824 the deaf composer had finished the Ninth, after struggles to work out an innovative structure that included the controversial addition of a choral movement. Beethoven had not appeared on stage for 12 years, despite being constantly at work composing from his "inner ear." A premiere concert in Vienna was arranged to show that the 55-year-old composer had box office appeal even in deafness.
Only two rehearsals were scheduled for this massive new work, and the 45-piece orchestra showed itself clearly not up to the task of delivering a masterful performance of this untried work. It was already known that stone-deaf Beethoven's conducting ability had been sadly compromised by his handicap. At times his was a body of strange movements, as if playing all the instruments and now singing the vocal lines. He had never heard a note of this work, and was unable to correct musicians or modify material during rehearsals. To salvage the premiere performance, musicians were instructed to follow the concertmaster's direction instead of Beethoven's.
Considering the scanty amount of rehearsal time, the Ninth's premiere must have been a strange presentation. The concert was fully subscribed, in anticipation not only of the maestro's rare appearance, but also of this latest symphony's possible new features.
Historical accounts report that Beethoven, beating out the tempo while standing close to the concertmaster's chair, continued his "conducting" after the work had ended. While he was still turning pages, the nearby alto soloist physically turned the composer around to face the audience. Now facing front, Beethoven saw the clapping of hands, waving of arms, and approving faces. Bowing deeply to the concert-goers, he is said to have wept.
There are reams of written commentary and analyses on the Ninth, beginning after its premiere and continuing into the 21st century. The opinions have been so diversified and extreme as to make one wonder if commentators and musicologists could be speaking about the same work. Some premiere audience members wrote off the work as the "ravings of a deaf lunatic." Beethoven's friend and contemporary critic Louis Spohr, an enthusiast of his colleague's earlier works, said, "Its first three movements, in spite of some flashes of genius, are inferior to all the eighth previous symphonies, and the 4th movement is monstrous and tasteless. I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it." Another critic at the premiere commented, "Some weak players set down their bows and sat out measures. Some sopranos couldn't reach the high notes so they didn't sing. It is surprising that the piece made an impression at all." But another reported, "The effect was indescribably great and magnificent."
For several years after the master's death, the Ninth Symphony was considered too difficult to perform and too long to program easily. Although it did win champions from the start, it was not established in the repertory until the mid-19th century. From that time, the Ninth was pointing the way toward the innovative Romantic Era music of Beethoven followers Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Brahms, Berlioz and others.
First Movement: Barely audible, mysterious murmurings create a passage eerily sounding like an orchestra tuning up softly against a shimmering background of tremolo violins. This opening passage is suggestive of darkness and void before creation. Gradually fragments of the theme emerge from the darkness, until the main theme suddenly is blasted out by the full orchestra. The same mysterious passage is launched several times to be followed by a host of new subordinate motifs. All are punctuated with dramatically heavy and light dynamics. Orchestra sections talk back and forth, as the composer puts them through an exhausting, emotionally charged process of development and repetition. The movement finally concludes with a fortissimo statement.
Second Movement: What mischievous fun is projected in this fast-moving, playful, galloping movement! (This familiar theme was used in NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report some years back.) The principal theme is treated as a fugue, appearing in second violins, passing on to violas, then celli, basses, and finally first violins. Throughout it is staccato, with lightning speed and rhythmic momentum, punctuated by rollicking, rocking timpani. By way of contrast, the middle section is a hymn-like melody for oboes and clarinets amidst upward-sweeping strings.
Third Movement: The tuneful, slow movement makes a profound impression because of the boisterous drive and drama of the movement that preceded it. The music that follows is tender and emotionally intense. The movement is in Beethoven's beloved variation form — actually double variations because there are two basic themes. The two variations are interrupted by episodes in which big horn calls occur with full orchestra along with little arabesque-like sounds by strings.
Fourth Movement: Beethoven creates a new style for this symphony's fourth movement. This one combines elements of symphonic and concerto form; in addition to the vocal soloists and chorus, the movement includes Turkish march rhythms and a vigorous orchestral fugue.
The peaceful mood is shattered by an outburst of orchestral sound in contrast to the serenity of the last movement. One by one, a main theme from each of the three earlier movements is briefly recalled; the orchestra is searching for the appropriate melody with which to profess the brotherhood of man. At each search, a strong bass rejects the offerings. At last there appears a fourth melody, presented first by cellos and basses, joined in by violas, with violins taking it up the end. This is the well-known Ode to Joy. It comes bursting forth in sections before a sudden peal of gloom appears. This is interrupted by a baritone vocal recitative with the following admonishment: "Oh Friends, no more these sounds continue. Let us raise a song of sympathy and gladness. O joy, let us praise thee!"
Schiller and Beethoven (who added lyrics) continue their verbal and musical messages by use of solos, quartet, full chorus, and orchestral sections: "It is divine joy that binds us all together. The joy of friendship and of love, the joy links all living things and gives us earthly pleasures. Live joyfully like conquering heroes, for you are embraced by a loving father from above. Let us raise a song of sympathy and exhortation." The Ode to Joy lyrics and music are repeated and paraphrased until its listeners absorb the message.
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Steven Errante, conductor
Unless indicated, all program notes are researched and written by Dr. Steven Errante.