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Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony with Final Chorus on Schiller's "Ode to Joy"

Ludwig van Beethoven

The above is the original title bestowed by Beethoven himself on the release of his monumental piece, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125. Chronologically, the completion of the piece in 1824 places the work in Beethoven's third period, his most contemplative one. However, this is misleading since the symphony was the result of three separate ideas by Beethoven (the first dating back as early as 1793, and another one as late as 1823), finally converging into one complete work. In other words, we can find elements of style from his earlier periods juxtaposed against elements from his late period of composition. The integration of Schiller's Ode to Joy in itself marks a bold transition towards Romantic Music. The emotion conveyed in this piece could only come from Beethoven and still succeeds in communicating with audiences of today – a fifteen minute standing ovation to a recent performance of the symphony that I attended said it all.

The writing of Symphony No. 9 was quite long-winded. As mentioned earlier, assuming that this symphony came entirely from Beethoven's third period is misleading; similarly, referring to the symphony as the Chorale symphony is equally misleading because it distorts Beethoven's true intentions of the piece. In actuality, Symphony No. 9 was not meant to include a vocal movement; he had worked out a completely instrumental fourth movement, but threw it out and it later became the finale for the Opus 132 String Quartet in A Minor (1826). We know that this piece was many years in the making because of his sketches; he sketched constantly, and took them whenever he moved, which was quite often. These sketches, like an artist's doodles, often became themes of later works.

The earliest conceived idea of Symphony 9 was the idea to set Schiller's Ode to Joy to music. This idea emerged as early as 1793. He had always admired Schiller, and some of his piano sonatas of the first period were possibly based on some of Schiller's essays (e.g. the Pathètique Sonata in C Minor, Opus 13, 1799). One of his sketchbooks from 1811 shows that Ode to Joy would become a cantata, rather than become integrated within an orchestral work. On the other hand, Beethoven had plans to write a ninth and a tenth symphony. The ninth symphony would be completely instrumental, while the tenth would introduce the voice into the symphony. In 1822, he visited a prominent Leipzig music critic, whom he told that in the tenth symphony: "vocal parts would enter gradually – in the text of the Adagio Greek Myth, Cantique Ecclesiastique – in Allegro, feast of Bachus." (from Thayer's Life of Beethoven by Alexander Thayer, Plantiga). Yet another idea Beethoven had was to introduce the voice into the symphony – his plans for the tenth symphony – since he had exhausted the expressive resources of instrumentation, and introducing the voice seemed to be the only way to transcend the restrictive forces of instrumentation.

Between the years of 1818-1819, and 1822-23, Beethoven worked on the first three movements of Opus 125, making use of the material from his sketchbooks. At this point, Symphony 9 did not include plans to include Schiller's Ode to Joy, let alone voices.

In 1822, he actually sold the rights of the symphony to the London Philharmonic Society; but he never completed the promised completely instrumental symphony. It was not until the middle of 1823 when the idea of incorporating these three ideas: setting Ode to Joy to music, incorporating voice into the symphony, and writing an instrumental ninth symphony, finally coalesced into one work. But even at this point, the composer was "still sorely troubled" (Plantiga, 64) on how to introduce the voice into the finale convincingly when the singers had sat quiet upon stage during the first three movements:

The working out of the fourth movement, however, began as a struggle seldom encountered before. The problem was to find a suitable introduction to Schiller's Ode.

One day he burst into the room and shouted at me: 'I got it! I have it!' He held his sketchbook out to me so that I could read: "Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller"; then a solo voice began the hymn of joy.
Schindler in October 1823 (Plantiga, 64)

Even with this new found idea (although it obviously changed a bit), it still was another year until the transition of instruments to voice finalized. He found it difficult to suddenly introduce a chorus of voices after a long instrumental symphony; it was simply incongruous. His final conclusion on this difficulty reflects on the aesthetic struggle he encountered while writing the fourth movement; this movement is quite unusual in its structure. In brief, the movement begins with an outraged, tumultuous, flurry of sound; then a restatement of the prior three movements, each interrupted and rejected by instrumental recitative. Finally, a new theme, initially hesitantly advanced by the orchestra, is slowly accepted, ending in a triumphant statement of the new theme in D Major. Then the previous instrumental recitative transforms into real recitative, with a solo baritone singing: O friends, not these tones; instead let us sing more pleasing and joyful ones. Berlioz calls this the "treaty of alliance between chorus and orchestra." (Plantiga, 65) Then the more joyful tones are the first lines of the poem. Beethoven chose to emphasize two ideals: the universal brotherhood of man through joy, and the love of the heavenly father. Throughout the fourth movement, there is a general trend from the terrestrial to the divine.

Beethoven's move to utilize the human voice elicited numerous comments and thoughts from other musicians:

Berlioz: Beethoven had already written eight symphonies before this. What means were open to him, in the event of his proposing to go beyond the point at which he had already arrived, by the unaided resources of instrumentation? The junction of vocal with instrumental forces.
Wagner: It is wonderful how the master makes the arrival of Man's voice and tongue a positive necessity, by this awe-inspiring recitative in the bass-strings. (Plantiga, 68)

In order to fully appreciate the all encompassing nature of this piece, we must look into the three periods of Beethoven's compositional career; since the work is a collaboration between these styles. His idea to use Ode to Joy came from his desire to set it to music, which developed during his first period, when he was very interested in the writings of various philosophers. The first and second movements, and even parts of the fourth movement have echoes of his second period, his "heroic" era. The third, fifth, and seventh symphonies were composed during this period. The third symphony, Eroica, embraced the heroic ideals of the French Revolution. The great difference between this powerful era and his third period was quite dramatic. The sudden change in style was mainly due to his deteriorating hearing loss, which directly caused his compositions to lose the power of his second period. All these factors contributed to the new Beethoven: a more quite, abstract, and introspective Beethoven. Joseph Kerman describes music of this period as "miraculous, encompassing all the strength of his earlier music together with a new gentleness and spirituality." (Kerman, 215)

Essentially, only the third movement truly encompasses the stylistic nuances of Beethoven's third period. This third movement, an adagio, "soars effortlessly, constantly renewed by the veiled cadences and an overlapping of instrumentation; .. a supreme example of the composer's late contemplative style, and one of the finest melodies he ever wrote." (Plantiga, 68)

The musical achievements of this piece are also quite outstanding. The symphony begins aborigine, beginning as if it had always existed from birth (Pestelli, 250). The rustling pianissimo on A and E rapidly crescendo to a powerful theme, with a falling arpeggio in D Minor. The opening of the movement was written in 1816. David Wright, who wrote the program notes to the 23 November 1996 performance of the symphony at Carnegie Hall, says that "you feel something stirring up in the pianissimo, but the enigmatic sound of open fifths, neither major, nor minor, cannot tell us whether to welcome it or fear it." (Stagebill, 20) These falling fifths eventually swell into a "menacing" fortissimo theme in D Minor. This movement is far off from classical sonata form, and is important because it shows the transition between the Classic and Romantic periods of music. Towards the end, a haunting theme played by the bass emerges, a "kind of funeral march built over a grinding, chromatic ostinato." (Cooke, 30) This ostinato (a term usually used to describe baroque music), is at first played by just the bass, then spreads upwards, eventually taking over the orchestra.

A parody of the first movement, the second movement, an engaging scherzo does not take its time to emerge. It communicates its energy through the use of staggered rhythm, staccato, and timpani accompaniment. On a technical note, the scherzo opens with a falling fifth (just like the first movement), then transforms into a legato, then plunges a full octave. The scherzo runs along interrupted until it is interrupted by brief slow interludes by the strings; the scherzo manages to overpower them initially, but then a trio takes over. The trio offers a relief, with a change in timbre. It consists of variations on a folk-like tune. Then the scherzo enters with a grand re-entrance. What sounds like a repetition of the trio is quickly stampeded by the scherzo and timpani, ending the movement quite abruptly.

The adagio movement is a striking contrast to the energetic scherzo and trio. Kanne said that the third movement was "a most profound song, full of warmth, and flowing in heavenly melancholy." (Cooke, 32). Dominated by the winds, the melody of the third movement in B Flat Major is truly the product of Beethoven's third period. Echoes of the first movement can be heard here. As the melody becomes freer, the strings softly accompany using pizzicato, setting up an almost ethereal aura. The melody progresses even more, increasing in volume, and when it seems that it is coming to a close, a loud fanfare intrudes in E Flat Major, the key of Eroica.

And another dramatic transition happens between the third and final movement. Beginning with a outraged flurry of instruments (dissonant too). Immediately, the cellos and basses play dramatic recitative, hinting at some sort of "rapprochement between the instrumental and vocal music." (Plantiga, 65) Then, in succession, themes from the three prior movements are played, but are quickly interrupted and rejected by the recitatives of the basses and cellos. Finally, a new theme emerges from the orchestra, now hesitant because of what happened previously. It is accepted, however, but not without a minor protest from the basses and cellos. Eventually other instruments join in, which lead to a triumphant statement of the theme in D Major. When all seems dandy, however, Beethoven replays the original confrontation from the opening of the finale. This time, though, the dramatic recitative of the cello and basses is replaced with real recitative – the human voice; in this case, a solo baritone voice. Then the exquisite choral-orchestral exposition on Schiller's Ode to Joy engages in four stanzas. A variation, also known as the Turkish March variation, is indeed a Turkish March, taking its lead from the words Lauftet, Bruder, eure Bahn, Freudig wie ein Held zum Siegman, translating to Hasten, Brothers, like a hero marching to victory (there are several different, but similar translations). This march then leads to a long orchestral interlude, then to a fugue on two themes. This leads to a an overpowering full orchestral-choral development. A display of the male and female choruses is sung in an almost meditative, prayer-like way, starting from Seid umschlungen Millionen!, or Be embraced, all ye Millions! As for the ending, I think David Wright puts it the right way: "… [it] ponders the mystery and beauty of divine grace. Then everybody goes all-out to the joyous and thrilling close." (Stagebill, 20A).

We've examined, so far, the history and musical features of the symphony. The premiere of Symphony No. 9 was performed in Vienna, 7 May 1824. Perhaps this excerpt best describes how the audience received the piece:

His turning around, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had not so before because he could not hear what was going on, acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration.
English writer George Grove
after meeting with Karoline Ungher,
one of the soloists at the premiere

And over 200 years later, similar reviews can be had from concert goers, including myself. Honestly, I have been waiting months for any orchestra to perform Symphony No. 9, and then I discovered that it was going to be performed at Carnegie Hall on November 23. The excitement of the audience about the piece filled the air as I entered the hall. It was much easier to hear the opening of the symphony, the rustling pianissimo that I mentioned earlier. I could hear every minor detail of Beethoven's orchestration, which is something that is lost in recordings, in my opinion. It was strange how the chorus and soloists sat in the back, quiet, the entire first three movements. When they all stood up right before singing in the fourth movement, there was a definite energy in the air – the anticipation of the audience to hear the sacred half of the fourth movement. There really is no word to describe how the chorus and soloists performed. Perhaps magical? The experience of hearing it live as opposed to a CD was overwhelmingly superior. As the final bars of the symphony were being played, I wished I could have relived that spent hour again.

Anyone can appreciate Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for its simple, yet complex aesthetic beauty. Upon understanding what went on behind the writing of the piece and by investigating its history does one gain a much greater and deeper understanding of the music.

Copyright © Bonnie Koo, 1997.