Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 9
Baptized: 17 December 1770, in Bonn
Died: 26 March 1827, in Vienna
Beethoven is generally thought to have had a rotten childhood; his father was an alcoholic. As was true of many musicians of his time, he came from a family of professional performers; their origins were Flemish (as the “van” indicates; “von” is used for German nobility) though his father and grandfather sang in the court chapel in Bonn. He learned piano and violin at an early age and received instruction on the viola as well. His abilities were noticed early on, and he was sent for a brief visit in 1787 to Vienna, where he met Mozart. After several more years in Bonn he moved to Vienna for good in late 1792.
In Vienna he studied with Haydn and others for a while and soon made a reputation as both a virtuoso pianist and a composer. Because of connections he had formed in Bonn, he was welcomed into the highest aristocratic circles, which fortunately included many generous patrons of great musical discernment. But growing deafness meant the end of his performing career and, not surprisingly, led to great unhappiness, put into words in the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament” of October 1802. This document, written in the village of the same name just outside Vienna, was intended for his brothers but found only after his death among his papers, and outlines the anguish of being a musician who could no longer hear.
Fortunately he could still compose. His “inner ear,” which many musicians develop, allowed him to hear notated music in his mind. Cut off from performing, Beethoven found financial support in part from the sale of his compositions but mostly from an annuity created for him by several Viennese noblemen. He thus became one of the first musicians in Western art music to devote himself full time to composition. Even today this is rare; most composers must perform, write, edit, or teach to earn a living (exceptions to this include Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and John Adams).
After coming to grips with the inevitability of his deafness, Beethoven began a period of great creativity and generated many of the pieces that are most performed today. Following the composition of his Eighth Symphony he entered an extended period that produced few works of depth. Part of this dramatic falling off in productivity was owing to something that every working mother will recognize: the demands of child care. Perhaps because Beethoven never married and is not known to have sired any children, he sought to gain guardianship of his nephew after his brother’s death (he also disliked his sister-in-law intensely). Much time that might have been spent in composition was devoted to caring for the child (a task virtually doomed to failure from the start given Beethoven’s difficult personality) and to complicated and extended lawsuits about the guardianship.
But at last Beethoven returned to serious composition and to the pieces that some consider the greatest of all his works: the final piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, and last of all, the late string quartets. He was not yet 57 when he died.
The Ninth Symphony
This is a long sit on stage before the chorus comes in, so you might want to think about the following while you’re waiting.
Haydn wrote more than 100 symphonies; Mozart, who died at age 35, wrote more than forty. Beethoven wrote nine. This small number is not owing to lack of interest in the genre but rather to changes in the genre itself, mostly originated by Beethoven. Symphonies went from being relatively short affairs to works of considerably increased length, depth, and performing forces, with major changes in their formal structure. In the realm of orchestration, for example, Beethoven wrote the first independent parts for double basses (in the Third Symphony; they had previously simply doubled the celli at the octave), introduced piccolo, contrabassoon, and trombone into a symphony (in the Fifth Symphony; trombones had already been used in operatic and liturgical music), and added triangle, cymbals, and the bass drum (the Ninth Symphony).
The first movement of the Ninth Symphony is in sonata form, but Beethoven thwarts several formal expectations. The work opens with both harmonic and thematic ambiguity; although it is in d minor, the opening sonority is an unexpected open fifth on A and E. After the opening key is finally established, the music modulates (as is normal) but not to the anticipated key. In the eighteenth century, a work beginning in d minor would move to F Major; Beethoven goes instead to B-flat Major. He further refuses to repeat the “exposition” (the section of the movement that lays out the principal thematic material and establishes the major key relationships), even though that was the norm followed in the eighteenth century as well as in his previous eight symphonies.
The second movement is famous to Baby Boomers, as it was the theme music of the nightly television news for many years (today it is hard to imagine any commercial station having such a classy theme). It is a huge scherzo, and striking for appearing second in the symphony. Beethoven’s placement of the scherzo here corresponds to a reconfiguring of the weight of the symphony. In the eighteenth century, the longest and most serious movement of a symphony came first, followed by the slow movement in second place, the dance movement in third position, and something very light and fast in last place, so that the symphony basically lightened up as it proceeded. Beethoven’s placement of the scherzo second and the slow movement third was a step in shifting the intensity of the symphony during the nineteenth century. First movements never turned into frothy things, but eventually last movements were the heaviest and most serious.
The scherzo consists of the scherzo proper (two enormous sections, each repeated), then a strongly contrasting trio (very noticeably begun with a lyrical theme presented by oboe, clarinet, and bassoon). The trio itself has two main sections (the first repeated), after which the scherzo is played again. A normal composer would stop there; Beethoven throws in a coda during which we think the trio is going to begin again (an impossibility in an eighteenth-century symphony) but he gives only enough of it to scare us and then cuts it short and ends the movement.
The third movement is an absolutely gorgeous set of variations using two themes. It is also extremely dangerous, since the sleep-deprived chorister may find her eyes slowly closing as sonorous beauty turns soporific.
In technical terms the final movement opens with a major/major seventh chord, a B-flat major triad to which a major third has been added. In aural terms it opens with a juicy fortissimo dissonance guaranteed to blast the socks off the unwary. The strings are silent until the winds, brass, and timpani have gotten our attention, and only then do they enter—and only the celli and double basses. Beethoven wrote their part in quasi-recitative style so that it sounds as if they are speaking; what they are asking for is the theme for the movement. The celli and basses consider in turn the openings of the fourth, first, second, and third movements, in that order, rejecting all (even, reluctantly, the glories of the the third movement theme). And then at last the beginning of the Ode to Joy comes from the winds. The celli and basses seize on this; the theme has been chosen; the affirmation concludes solidly, finally, in D Major, the parallel major to the d minor of the opening of the symphony. Harmonically we are home.
The rest of the movement is a series of increasingly elaborate variations on this theme followed by a coda. After a set of variations presented by the instruments, the opening of the movement suddenly returns, with more instruments and more dissonance than before. But this time it is cut short with a dramatic moment—the entrance of a human voice in a symphony for the first time in musical history. Not long thereafter we enter and join in the fun.
The text is excerpted from the hymn “An die Freude” (To Joy) by German dramatist, poet, and literary theorist Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Beethoven had wanted to set the text as early as 1790. Its sentiments accord with Beethoven’s liberal ideas, seen in other works such as the Third Symphony, Fidelio, and the music for Egmont. The most famous phrase from the poem is “alle Menschen werden Brüder,” all men will be brothers. It is Schiller’s line—coupled of course with the majesty of Beethoven’s theme—that has made the Ode to Joy the symbol for democracy and freedom through much of the developed world.
There are so many recordings of this piece that you can usually just choose your favorite conductor, orchestra, or chorus and find a suitable recording. If you want something a bit different, try a recording that uses instruments as they were in Beethoven’s day (modern symphony orchestras use modern versions of these instruments). Some examples of “period instrument” recordings include John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique, Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players, and Christopher Hogwood with the Academy of Ancient Music (this last in a boxed set of all nine symphonies).
There are a ton of books about Beethoven. Excellent coverage of both the life and works is found in a book especially written for the intelligent music lover by noted Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood (Beethoven: The Music and the Life, W.W. Norton, 2003). Many readers have enjoyed the psychological portrait given in Maynard Solomon’s Beethoven (Schirmer and Prentice Hall, 2nd edition 1998). A famous older biography is Elliot Forbes’s Thayer’s Life of Beethoven (Princeton University Press, 1967). Begun in the nineteenth century by Alexander Thayer, it was left unfinished, supposedly because the author grew disillusioned with Beethoven’s personality (it is a common but unfortunate fallacy to believe that someone who wrote wonderful music was also a wonderful person). Elliot Forbes completed Thayer’s task in the twentieth century. Finally, Esteban Buch’s Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History (English translation, University of Chicago Press, 2003) traces the reception of the Ninth Symphony since its premiere.
More Pieces to Explore
Most writers divide Beethoven’s works into early, middle, and late periods, but exactly when each period begins and ends is a point of debate. Many would place the early period through ca. 1802 (coinciding with the crisis over his loss of hearing), and all would agree that the middle extends to at least 1812, if not beyond. The early works established Beethoven’s reputation among his contemporaries and remain very attractive, but had he died at the age that Schubert did (31), he would not occupy the pre-eminent position in the pantheon of classical composers that he does now. It is during the middle period that he became the Beethoven best known to the public today. This period of great creativity was followed by relatively fallow years, and then came the late works, which were considered in his time (and still today) as the most challenging, though to many they are also the most sublime.
Because Beethoven is so famous, practically everything by him has been recorded. The pieces given below are the best known. Not all the nicknames originated with the composer.
- Rondo a capriccio “Rage over a Lost Penny” (early)
- 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor; the bagatelle “Für Elise” (both middle)
- Diabelli Variations (late)
- 32 Sonatas, of which Nos. 1–20 are early (including #8, Op. 13, the “Pathétique” Sonata; and #14, Op. 27 no. 2, the “Moonlight” Sonata); Nos. 21–26 are middle period (including #21, Op. 53, the “Waldstein” Sonata; #23, Op. 57, the “Appassionata” Sonata; and #26, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux” or “Lebewohl”); No. 27 (Op. 90) is claimed by some as middle and some as late, and Nos. 28–32 (including #29, Op. 106, the “Hammerklavier” Sonata) are unquestionably late. Do yourself a favor for your next birthday, anniversary, or celebration of St. Wart’s Day and buy a complete set. They are worth it.
*Not* Beethoven’s strong point, though the cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) is historically important as one of the earliest song cycles. See also the individual songs Adelaide, Zärtliche Liebe, Die Ehre Gottes, In questa tomba oscura, Andenken, and Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennst.
The most famous violin sonatas are Op. 24 in F Major (the “Spring” Sonata), Op. 30 #2 in c minor, and Op. 47 in A Major, (the “Kreutzer” Sonata, the impetus of Tolstoy’s gloomy novella); the best-known cello sonata is Op. 69 in A Major. Two great piano trios are Op. 70 #1 in D Major (“Ghost”) and Op. 97 (“Archduke”). Best of all, there are sixteen terrific string quartets, six early (Op. 18), five middle period (the three Rasumovsky quartets of Op. 59, the Op. 74 “Harp” quartet, and the Op. 95 “Serioso” quartet), and five late quartets (Opp. 127, 132, 130, 131, and 135). To these must be added the massive “Grosse Fuge,” Op. 133, originally intended as the final movement of Op. 130 but ultimately published separately with a new closing provided for Op. 130. Take advantage of the next St. Figbarton’s Day sale and treat yourself to a complete set.
Beethoven was never particularly concerned about heeding the limits of instruments, and the same is all too true for much of his choral writing. He wrote an oratorio (Christus am Oelberge) but is best known for the two masses (in C and D, the latter the “Missa Solemnis”). Considerably less exciting is the Choral Fantasia, but that doesn’t stop conductors from programming it. Note how Beethoven prefers to end his works using chorus with the chorus silent.
“Ah! perfido” for soprano and orchestra (early). A great violin concerto (middle), five wonderful piano concertos (the first three early, the others middle period), and a frequently-played but less satisfying triple concerto for piano, violin, and cello. Absolutely super overtures: The Creatures of Prometheus, Leonore Overtures 1-3 (Leonore is the heroine of Beethoven’s only opera), Coriolan, Egmont, The Ruins of Athens, King Stephen, Fidelio, Namensfeier (Name Day), and The Consecration of the House. Buy them all and make yourself happy. And of course the nine symponies (early = Nos. 1 and 2; middle = Nos. 3–8, of which 3 is known as “Eroica” and 6 as “Pastoral”; late = No. 9).
Just one, Fidelio, which underwent considerable revision during Beethoven’s lifetime.
A Personal Note
I first experienced the Ninth Symphony, or rather the “Ode to Joy” part of it, in my high school chorus in the English-language version “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love,” that is doubtless familiar to other singers as well. It was a rare bright spot in an otherwise almost completely insipid diet of fourth-rate choral dreck (the other good piece was the Hallelujah Chorus). My first performances of the full piece were in college, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at both Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh and Carnegie Hall in New York. These were from memory, since my college chorus sang everything from memory (everything, including the Bach B Minor Mass and Elijah). But I was actually disappointed when it was announced that we would sing the Ninth Symphony, because it was a replacement for the piece we were originally scheduled to sing, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, cancelled because it was too expensive to put on. My disappointment was not that I didn’t want to sing the Ninth Symphony—of course I did—but that I knew that there would be plenty of opportunities to perform that work and very few to perform Gurrelieder. And that has proven to be the case, with performances of the Ninth in Symphony Hall, Boston; Tanglewood; Lincoln Center; on the Boston Common in a free concert to celebrate the centennial of the Boston Symphony (where the massive audience burst into applause after the “vor Gott” before the Turkish March, because it sounds like we’re done, right?), and so on, whereas Gurrelieder has cropped up just once for me in decades of choral singing.
So it is with an inward groan that I always greet the announcement of yet another performance of the Ninth Symphony, for it means a repetition of a work already performed many, many, times, while there are dozens of wonderful works using chorus I have never sung that languish by the wayside, ignored. And it means many rehearsals of a work memorized decades ago. But all this grouchiness disappears in concert at the dramatic moment when the chorus rises on stage over the deliciously dissonant fortissimo chord of the orchestra just moments before tradition is shattered when the human voice appears in a symphony for the first time in the history of music. And then I am suddenly very happy to have the opportunity to sing the work yet again. Freude, Freunde.
Revised November 2017