Symphony No. 9, Op. 125, “Choral”

Ludwig van Beethoven

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Date of Composition: 1822–1824
Duration: c. 70 minutes

Last night I heard a beautiful performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. No one will write anything better …

Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1908

Sometimes a work of art takes on new life, reaching greater heights than might first have been perceived. Such is the case with the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), a seeming culmination of all the composer had accomplished previously. In 1824, Beethoven’s composition was innovative in its length (with a fourth movement as long in duration as many other composers’ previous symphonies), its use of instruments typically found in opera orchestras of the time, and most especially, his addition of vocal soloists and choir to the final movement. The composer had experimented with these ideas previously, but never incorporated them all into a single four-movement symphony. Reports of the premiere indicate a resounding success. The audience was appreciative, applauding throughout and offering multiple standing ovations. History, however, tends to repeat only details that support such a canonic work, and thus, it may be surprising to learn that not everyone in 1824 was convinced of the work’s value. Contemporaneous composer Louis Spohr noted “in spite of some flashes of genius, [the first three movements] are to my mind inferior to all the eight previous symphonies,” and he called the fourth movement “monstrous and tasteless.” In the next generation, both Mendelssohn and Schumann claimed not to fully understand the finale.

Difficulties emerged before the premiere took place. Unlike today’s musicians who know the piece well, the music was brand new to original performers. Some musicians complained that certain passages were too difficult, but Beethoven refused to revise any part of his work. Two of the soloists had to be replaced. Of course, at the time, the composer was completely deaf, so who knows which passages orchestra members changed to meet their own needs? Reports indicate there were sections when some musicians stopped playing altogether. And despite his hearing loss, Beethoven insisted on conducting this massive work. The orchestra, however, followed concertmaster Ignaz Schuppanzigh, while Michael Umlauf (music director of the Vienna theater where the premiere took place) kept time in line of view of the full array of musicians, instructing them to ignore the composer.

What did the first audience hear? The first movement opens with an uncertainty of key or melody, as if the composer is experimenting to see where the piece will land. Opening rhythmic figures finally come together to present a regal theme worthy of the greatest symphony of all time, setting a mood for what will come. The second movement scherzo is a rollicking demonstration of the composer’s fugal inventiveness within a classical ternary form. The slow third movement lulls the audience with astounding beauty and tenderness that belies portrayals of Beethoven’s gruff personality. That first audience would have found parts of the first three movements novel, but it is the work’s finale that defied all expectations.

A booming opening gives way to more uncertainty as the concluding movement alludes to individual moments in the previous three, each interrupted as if to say, “this is not the way.” Finally, the all-important Joy theme is presented in the low strings, followed by another set of variations. Then to introduce the voices, a baritone soloist enters with words written by Beethoven himself: “O friends, not these sounds! Let us strike up more pleasing ones, more joyful ones,” dismissing all that came before in favor of a solo, chamber, and choral setting of the poem An die Freude (To the Joy), written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and reissued in 1808. It was this second revision from which Beethoven selected his verses. Schiller’s words first call upon Joy, a daughter of the paradise Elysium, to heal divisions and promote brotherhood. The text portrays the beauty of nature and calls for friendship before offering “a kiss for the world” and praising God’s firmament. It is through this finale that the cumulative orchestra and chorus transcends an earthly realm, bringing together all humanity, nature, heavens, and stars, as indicated in Schiller’s text.

Commissioned by London’s Philharmonic Society, dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, and premiered in Vienna, Beethoven’s symphony held a certain international flavor from its start, which has only grown over time. In the twentieth century, World War I’s Allies heralded the symphony as belonging to everyone except the Germans. As if in response, in the next war, the composition was performed in Berlin for Hitler’s 1942 birthday as Nazi musical propaganda. In 1973, women sang their own “Himno a la Alegría” (Hymn to Happiness) in the streets while protesting the dictatorial Pinochet regime in Chile, and in 1989, students played Beethoven’s symphony over loudspeakers in Tiananmen Square to drown out governmental proclamations of martial law. At the end of that same year, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein led musicians from East and West Germany, England, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union in a performance in the reunited city. Mindful of the moment, the conductor asked the singers to replace the word Freude (joy) with Freiheit (freedom).

Long an established symbol of global harmony, portions of the symphony have been heard in the opening or closing ceremonies of no fewer than eight Olympic games over the last century, the most memorable taking place in 1998 in Nagano. Musicians from Japan, Germany, South Africa, China, Australia, and the U.S. joined in a simulcast television broadcast, demonstrating that humanity truly can come together to sing a song of brotherhood, despite location, distance, tradition, race, or creed, at a time when such technology was still novel. With so many associations, it is no wonder that Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 continues to be revered. Each performance adds meaning to the composer’s original vision as his music stands the test of time. Beethoven, however, did not view the Ninth as his symphonic magnum opus. He planned a tenth, as documented in early sketches. One can scarcely imagine what

© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023