Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 | Symphony Study No. 20 of 118

by Glenn on November 22, 2015

“Few musicians would assert that the Ninth is the greatest of all symphonies, that it is the summit of Beethoven’s achievement, perhaps not even that it is his finest symphony or, in any altogether personal way, their own favorite. Yet we treat it as though we did in fact believe all those things. It claims a special place, not only in the history of the symphony and in Beethoven’s growth as an artist, mensch, and public figure, but also in our own hearts and heads, in what we can remember in our lives and what we look forward to. A performance of it can never be an ordinary event, just another concert, and not even the phonograph record—whose democratic way of making all things indiscriminately accessible is certainly a mixed blessing—has been able to kill that. Insistently, its shadow falls across the music of the nineteenth century and the early years of our own. Everywhere, we hear the echoes of its mysterious opening, of it bizarreries, its recitatives and hymns, its publicly waged struggle for coherence and resolution.”

—Michael Steinberg

Beethoven created a new model of a symphony with his Third and Fifth symphonies. Steinberg calls it the “victory” symphony—things begin with tumult but are worked out in a triumphant end. Yet, he wasn’t done. Steinberg tells us the Beethoven’s Ninth “redefines the nature of symphonic ambition” and that we must “come to terms with it.”

It’s been ten years since the premiere of Beethoven’s Eight Symphony in 1814. Beethoven is completely deaf. He will be on stage during the performance, but the “real” conductor, as Steinberg refers to him, is Michael Umlauf, whose instructions to his musical forces was “to pay no attention to [Beethoven].”

i

So much drama in this first movement.

ii

The scherzo is magical. Contrast in symphonies can come any number of ways. Steinberg points out the predominant contrast between the first and second movements,

“The scherzo is a huge structure, as obsessive in its driving and exhuberant play with few ideas as the first movement was generous in its richness of material.”

The trio is such a lovely passage. There are elements of foreshadowing of the gorgeous, “Ode to Joy” that will arrive in the final movement.

At the end of the trio a moment of darkness and back to the scherzo. What a mood shift. Not a musical shift, but a shift in feeling. It’s not an ominious moment, but the little surprise at the end is fun. You think you’re going back to the trio, but no, it’s over.

iii

Up to this point, the performance by the The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique felt very familiar to me in terms of tempos. It wasn’t a radical take on Beethoven. The main differences between this and other recordings I’ve heard has related to orchestra color and balance. And there is something of a “storm in a bottle” quality to this performance. The music is full of fury, but it feels somewhat contained, although that could be part of my listening with headphones. The playing is so clean and tidy that there’s something of a starkness to everything that has come before.

And then we arrive at the Adagio. The adagio is not played quickly, but it feels faster than other performances which I’ve heard that embrace the tradition of milking the Adagio for all it’s worth.

Steinberg offers a lengthy and helpful explanation of what’s going on:

“The metronome mark in the score of 60 to the beat for the Adagio is worth observing; however, conductors are so much in thrall to tradition, one based on a language of solemnity from much later in the nineteenth century, that the tempo we most often hear is likely to be something like two-thirds of the one Beethoven indicates. At the traditional slow pace, the music must move with four, or even eight, impulses per measure. If you transfer the habit of four or eight impulses per measure to Beethoven’s tempo, the effect will be of scramble and haste. If, on the other hand, you pay attention to how the harmony moves and let that determine your breathing and pulse rate, you will discover that with only two impulses per measure you can, at exactly the tempo Beethoven prescribes, have a wonderfully spacious sense of forward motion, a true adagio molto. In one of the later variations, the violins take wing in fantastical flights of sixteenth-notes and sixteenth-note triplets. At Beethoven’s tempo we can hear that he does not intend an espressivo, much-leaned-into violin melody with some vague wind chorus behind; rather, the winds play the theme, clearly and intelligibly, and the violins add an ecstatic—and brilliantly virtuosic—counterpoint …”

The work that John Eliot Gardiner and the OreR have done with Beethoven’s Symphonies is something like an architectural restoration. There is how the Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth has been performed over the years and here is this clearing away of the layers of paint so we can see the original detail. It wasn’t shocking by any means, but this was a very different interpretation.

iv

The drama of the final movement is something. I think of it as a play within a play. It’s like the actors in a play realize there is no final act and so they shout, “We need a finale,” but the cellos and basses are somewhat difficult to work with and their complaint overwhelms everything, “We agree, we need a good finish, but not just anything will do. And, by the way, your anxiousness about the lack of finale isn’t helping us figure out how to end.”

The winds and brass complain again, to which the lower strings reply, “We get it but, how about ideas rather than outburts.”

The violins try to introduce the theme from the opening movement but the cellos and basses say that won’t work.

The winds try to bring back ideas from the scherzo, these are shut down by the lower strings as well.

Then the theme from the adagio. Still the cellos and bases are inconsolable.

Finally, the glimmer of a new theme—which has already been hinted at earlier in the symphony but discarded in a brilliant act of foreshadowing, and isn’t it interesting how literary this musical work is?—is suggested and immediately you hear the excitement in the cellos and basses. They are profoundly moved: “That’s it. That’s how we need to finish.”

Then we’re off. The hair on your arms stands as this theme is introduced so quietly and gently. Like Portland this week, after so many days of rain, a break and a blue sky. There have been some sublime moments in this symphony—in the trio of the Scherzo and the Adagio—but this is something different. We’ve been looking at the world from the tops of small valleys. Now we are on top of the whole range, like the lighting of the beacon fires in Lord of the Rings.

Can you imagine the world without this tune?

Everyone gets a turn with the melody. We move from serene to majestic. Just phenomenal.

But something happens. The climax of the glorious tune comes and goes and we are taken back to the opening storm of the movement.

And then Beethoven does something that had never been done: A voice emerges and says (sings),

“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere
anstimmen, und freudenvollere.”

“O friends, no these tones!
Rather, let us tune our voices in more
pleasant and more joyful songs.”

(Translation by Donna Hewitt, included in Michael Steinberg’s essay on Beethoven’s Ninth.)

The music unfolds in a set of variations. My favorite is the marching band. I love how Steinberg sets this up,

“[W]ith a boldness of contrast that no other composer except perhaps Mahler would have dared, he brings us the sound of a distant and approaching marching band as men are bidden to follow their courses ‘gladly, like a hero to the conquest.’”

I would quibble with one thing Steinberg says. He seems to equate the risk-taking of Beethoven and Mahler. But is there a Mahler without a Beethoven? Beethoven’s unconventional juxtaposition lays precedent for what will come. Beethoven did this magical thing that inspired Mahler to include, among other things, in his symphonies: soloists, a choir, a klezmer ensemble, off-stage instruments, bird calls, hunting horns, military band, mandolin, and, let’s not forget, … cowbells!

Mahler’s victory symphonies, 1, 2, and 5—and, in a way, 3, 4, and 9 have their own resolution with a different sort of victory—are only possible because of what Beethoven has done.

And just think what Mahler will do with Beethoven’s sense of scale. The length of Beethoven’s Ninth will be, nearly, a mere starting length for Mahler’s symphonies. While Beethoven’s orchestra was big for it’s time, of course Mahler will take that to an extreme, with this caveat: Mahler had big moments for a big orchestra, but he was sparing in the use of all his forces at one time.

All of this is a mut point, of course, because the “What if …?” question is impossible to deal with. At the end, we have reality—a stream of history that includes Haydn and Beethoven and will go on to Mahler, the zenith of the symphony in my mind.

***

I hope I come across the paper I wrote in college where I compared and contrasted Beethoven’s and Mahler’s use of a choir in their Ninth and Second symphonies, respectively. I can’t remember what I said exactly and would like to read what I was thinking back then. The tempo of the music is certainly different, but both composers had similar aspirations and declarations—this world is not all there is.

Beethoven, quoting Schiller, says,

“Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such ihn überm Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.”

“Have you any sense of the Creator, World?
Seek Him above the canopy of the stars!
Surely he dwells beyond the stars.”

That’s a good message for a Sunday morning.