Notes on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony These are Chris H. Gibbs' notes on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Notes on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

Throughout his career, Beethoven was a fervent believer in Enlightenment values and found ways to express those beliefs in many of his compositions, as well as in his letters and other writings. One of the reasons for the nearly universal appeal of his Ninth Symphony is that people enjoying or seeking freedom see this work as exquisitely expressing a message they wish loudly to proclaim. And that message is simple, almost embarrassingly naïve, one we learn as children: People should get along, we are all brothers and sisters.

An Enlightenment Testament

As a child of the Enlightenment, Beethoven grew up during the American and French revolutions. He later followed political events closely in the newspapers and experienced war first hand when Napoleon's troops invaded Vienna in 1805 and 1809. Beethoven's first large composition, written at the age of 19, was an impressive 40-minute cantata commemorating the death of Emperor Joseph II, who had done so much to liberalize the Austrian empire in the 1780s. Years later, Beethoven struggled to write his lone opera, "Fidelio," which tells the story of a loving wife saving her husband, an unjustly jailed political prisoner. Through her heroic deeds he is rescued and tyranny exposed.

For his last symphony, Beethoven returned to a lengthy poem by Friedrich Schiller that he had long wanted to set to music but for which he had never quite managed to find the right mode of expression: the "Ode to Joy" (1785). Schiller's famous words state that in a new age the old ways will no longer divide people and that "all men shall become brothers." Since its premiere in Vienna in May 1824, performances of the Ninth Symphony have become almost sacramental occasions, as musicians and audiences alike are exhorted to universal fraternity.

The Ultimate Symphony

On a more purely musical level, perhaps no other piece of music has exerted such an impact on later composers. How, many wondered, should one write a symphony after the Ninth? Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler—the list goes on—all dealt with this question in fascinating ways that fundamentally affected the course of 19th-century music. Schubert, who apparently attended the premiere, briefly quoted the "joy" theme in his own final symphony, written the following year. Almost every Bruckner symphony begins in the manner of the Ninth—low string rumblings that seem to suggest the creation of a musical world. Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Shostakovich followed the model of a choral finale. Wagner was perhaps the composer most influenced by the Ninth, arguing that in it Beethoven pointed the way to the "Music of the Future," a universal drama uniting words and tones, in short, Wagner’s own operas.

But composers were not the only ones to become deeply engaged with the Ninth, to struggle with its import and meaning. For more than a century, the work has surfaced at crucial times and places. As the ultimate "feel good" piece, the Ninth has been used at various openings of the Olympic Games, bringing all nations together in song. Its melody is the official anthem of the European Union. The Ninth has also appeared on many solemn occasions. Within recent memory, we may recall protestors playing the Ninth in Tiananmen Square in Beijing or German students doing so during the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were many performances in the wake of 9/11, when the Ninth was once again enlisted for its universal and hopeful message.

Many will remember a remarkable world-wide broadcast of Leonard Bernstein performing the Ninth in Berlin on Christmas Day 1989, soon after the city's reuniting. Leading an international orchestra and chorus made up of musicians from east and west, Bernstein changed Schiller's text from an "Ode to Joy" (An die Freude) to an "Ode to Freedom" (An die Freiheit). This alteration was certainly appropriate given the circumstances; what many in the audience may not have realized was that freedom exactly captures what the poem is about. The original message had to be disguised in a time of political repression. Schiller probably meant "Freiheit," but had to say "Freude."

A Resisted Masterpiece

In a penetrating essay, "Resisting the Ninth," music historian Richard Taruskin has pointed to ways in which some musicians and listeners have resisted the Ninth Symphony, embarrassed by what they consider its naive optimism. This Symphony, Taruskin states, "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 naive."

Those who revere the Ninth Symphony may be surprised to hear that some have resisted it now or at any time. Undoubtedly its message has been "neutered": over-performed, trivialized in movies and TV commercials, and often treated by musicians in purely musical terms rather than in humanistic ones. For some modern listeners, Taruskin argues, its message may be 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." Yet Beethoven understood that great works of art matter, in part because they constitute a threat to tyrants and terrorists. We should not, however, retreat into artistic masterpieces solely for comfort, nor separate them from life. Beethoven strove for ways to express a deeply felt political vision. The students in Beijing and Berlin, and the many others who have appropriated the Ninth Symphony, recognize the urgency of its message.

A Closer Look

The opening of the first movement (Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso) grows out of a void. Against the murmurings of the low strings emerge falling fifths in the violins that grow to a loud and imposing first theme; it has all been likened to the creation of the world and certainly no symphony before had sounded anything like it. Beethoven switched the expected order of movements (another trait later composers would imitate) by placing the scherzo (Molto vivace) next. A favorite with audiences from the beginning (especially the prominent role given to the timpani), it projects both humor and power. The lyrical slow movement (Adagio molto e cantabile) explores more personal, even spiritual realms.

The Presto finale opens with what Wagner called the "terror fanfare," a dissonant and frantic passage that leads to a "recitative" (so marked in the score) for the cellos and basses. Fragments from the previous three movements pass in review—a few measures of the opening theme of each—but are rejected by the strings. After this strange, extended recitative comes the aria: the famous "Ode to Joy" melody (imitated by Brahms in his First Symphony) to which later will be added words. After some seven minutes the movement starts over again—the "terror fanfare" returns, but this time is followed by a vocal recitative with the bass soloist singing "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 continuing series of variations, including a brief section in the Turkish manner. The music reaches a climax with a new theme: "Be embraced, ye millions! … Brothers, above the starry canopy there must dwell a loving Father," which is later combined in counterpoint with the joy theme and eventually builds to a frenzied coda.

Program note © 2006. All rights reserved. Program note may not be reprinted without written permission from The Philadelphia Orchestra Association.