Ludwig Van Beethoven
Mass in C, Choral Fantasy, and Symphony No. 9
Baptized: 17 December 1770, in Bonn
Died: 26 March 1827, in Vienna
Beethoven had a rotten childhood. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother died when he was 16, leaving him responsible for his two younger brothers. 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. Before he left Bonn, his friend Count Waldstein (future dedicatee of the Op. 53 piano sonata) wrote that “you will receive the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.”
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.
Mass in C, Op. 86
Beethoven composed relatively little for chorus; vocal writing in general was not his forte, and he (unlike Haydn) was not trained as a choirboy. Although one of his goals as a composer was to excel in every genre, his strengths lay far more in instrumental music. Further, thanks to the political, cultural, and societal upheavals of the eighteenth century that led to the Catholic Church’s diminishing importance across Europe, sacred music in general was losing its cachet as a site for serious composers. This is not to say that composers stopped writing sacred music (or choral music) but rather that other genres tended to command more of their attention and energy. In addition, choral music increasingly became the province of amateur singers (in contrast to the professional chapels of the past), which, unfortunately entails a loss of prestige. But there’s still plenty of good—even great—stuff being written throughout the nineteenth century.
In addition to a variety of minor works, Beethoven’s choral writing includes the oratorio Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives, Op. 85) from 1803, which Beethoven expert Lewis Lockwood characterizes as “an essentially routine work.” At this point Haydn was fresh from his triumphs of The Seasons and The Creation; Beethoven, in unspoken rivalry with his teacher, comes off second best here (a very distant second), although the final chorus “Welten singen Dank und Ehre” is often performed in English translation. There is also the choral/orchestral Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 (from 1808; a poor man’s Ninth Symphony) and the cantata set to texts by Goethe, Meerestille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 112, from 1815). The chorus has a role in Beethoven’s incidental music for Die Ruinen von Athen (the Ruins of Athens, Op. 113, from 1811) and König Stephan (King Stephan, Op. 117, also from 1811) as well as Beethoven’s only completed opera Fidelio (Op. 72, final version 1814, includes the famous “Prisoner’s Chorus.”) In his late years Beethoven makes a go at choral writing again, but now with astonishing results: the Missa solemnis (Op. 123, a doozy, premiered 1824) and the genre-shattering Ninth Symphony (Op. 125, also premiered 1824).
And then there’s the Mass in C. This was a commission for the Catholic Beethoven in 1807 from Prince Nikolaus II Esterházy (of Haydn patron fame) for the name day of his wife, Princess Maria Josepha Hermenegild. She was the recipient of six previous name-day masses by Haydn from 1796-1802, all glorious works that Beethoven knew and admired. He called them “inimitable masterpieces,” and his sketches for his own Gloria include two passages from Haydn’s Schöpfungsmesse (Creation Mass).
The composition itself was done in a last-minute rush; on August 20 Beethoven wrote to reassure the Prince that everything would be ready for the September 13 premiere little more than three weeks away. A flock of copyists labored to make the parts ready in time, with many errors as a result.
[An aside: all Beethoven scholarship indicates that the mass was a commission for the Princess’s name day, and that the premiere was September 13. But references to Haydn’s name day masses list September 8 as the Princess’s name day, and that makes much more sense. September 13 is the feast of St. John Chrysostom and St. Venerius. September 8, on the other hand, is a major Marian feast, the feast of her nativity. One can only assume that, for whatever reason, in 1807 the performance took place several days after the actual name day proper.]
In part because of the error-strewn performing parts, the premiere at Eisenstadt was not a success. It certainly didn’t help that, at rehearsal the day before the performance, only one of the five altos scheduled to sing showed up (so much for our reputation as the reliable workhorse of the chorus). A visitor in attendance wrote that the mass had “unsuccessful music” by Beethoven, and at the reception following the event, the Prince exclaimed “But my dear Beethoven, what have you done now?” He later wrote that “Beethoven’s mass is unbearably ridiculous and detestable, and I am not convinced that it can even be performed properly; I am angry and ashamed.” Beethoven hung around Eisenstadt for three days following the premiere, making corrections to the parts, but the damage was done. By the time the full score was published, in 1812, Beethoven dedicated the work not to Prince Esterházy, but (after considering several possibilities) to Prince Ferdinand Kinsky, one of his most generous supporters (he, along with Prince Lobkowitz and the Archduke Rudolph, pledged an annual annuity to underwrite Beethoven’s compositinal work). The publication itself was unusual in including, in addition to the standard Latin text, a German contrafactum text (not by Beethoven) that divided the mass into three “hymns”: one for the Kyrie and Gloria, one for the Credo, and one for the remaining movements. Beethoven made various changes between the first performance and the published score. According to Jeremiah McGrann, the published version shows “a softening of tone. Changes in tempo tend to slow down the fast sections or lighten the mood;” the Agnus in particular was less dramatic than the original version.
The mass is of similar length to Haydn’s name day masses, and uses a scoring that Haydn used: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 5-part strings, organ with figured bass, SATB soloists, and SATB chorus. These similarities notwithstanding, Beethoven’s mass was different enough (“advanced” enough) from Haydn’s masses to upset the musically conservative Prince Esterházy. To the twenty-first century listener, this reaction is somewhat amusing. To us—knowing Beethoven’s whole output, and knowing the many ways in which he shook up the musical establishment of the time—the mass is lyrical rather than dramatic, one of his tamer efforts. As Lockwood puts it, the mass has “a narrow range of contrasts,” which differentiates it from other things written around the same time, such as the Fifth Symphony. But Beethoven had different goals for different pieces, and it was not his intention with this mass to “épater les bourgeois” (or, more accurately, épater l’aristocratie), even if that’s what he ended up doing.
Although almost all performances of the Mass in C today are as a concert work, the piece was written and premiered as a liturgical composition. This means that a full Catholic mass took place, in which the polyphonic movements of the Mass Ordinary (see “A Short History of the Catholic Mass” in the Bach Mass in B Minor entry) were interspersed amidst other movements (e.g. Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, etc.) I don’t have the specifics for what took place in Eisenstadt in 1807, but I suspect that these other movements were performed as accompanied plainchant. In other words, Beethoven’s was not the only music heard during the mass. But it was certainly the most significant.
The Kyrie wins the prize for Beethoven’s weirdest tempo designation: Andante con moto assai vivace quasi Allegretto ma non troppo (andante with motion, very lively, almost allegretto but not too much). His written comments on the Kyrie are more helpful: “The general character of the Kyrie...is heartfelt devotion, deep sincerity of religious feeling” and “gentleness is the fundamental characteristic of the whole work...cheerfulness pervades this mass. The Catholic goes to church on Sunday in his best clothes and in a joyful and festive mood. The Kyrie eleison in the same way introduces the entire work.”
The textual structure of the Kyrie is tripartite: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison. Interestingly, although Beethoven has an ABA’ musical structure, the musical sections do not align perfectly with the textual sections. The Christe begins in m. 37 with SAT soloists, solidly in E major. The initial Kyrie itself modulated from C to E—something Haydn never would have done, and in fact Beethoven already gives us a taste of E major with a triad of that sonority already in m. 9. That kind of unexpected harmonic shift is typical for Beethoven (think of the opening of the Eroica Symphony) but is again not what we would expect from Haydn. That’s the sort of thing that surely displeased the Prince.
But back to the layout of the Kyrie. When we return to the Kyrie text—and indeed, the Kyrie melody—after the Christe, we are still in E Major—not what we would expect. Beethoven does bring us back to C Major with the opening melodic material in m. 84. Most of the time we have all four voices singing; the soloists often sing as a quartet (this is true of the entire mass), and there’s usually continuous eighth-note motion in the orchestra, so no crazy textural changes. So we’ve got an interesting combination of conservative (for Beethoven) features along with the unexpected harmonic, melodic, and formal elements that threw off his first listeners. This is true of pretty much the whole mass.
One other unexpected element: the mass starts with the basses alone. Only in m. 2 do the instruments and the other voices enter.
Barry Cooper’s edition of the mass for the Bärenreiter Urtext series attempts to recreate the final version of the mass (just as the critical edition does), but there are various differences between the editions owing to the incomplete surviving material, differences of interpretation, and different editorial priorities (if you haven't already figured this out, musicologists often disagree). For singers, the biggest difference is in the Kyrie at m. 108 of the alto part, where, rather than having a dotted quarter G followed by a quarter note E (written as two eighth notes tied across the barline), Beethoven’s first version was a quarter note G followed by a dotted quarter E (again, tied across the barline). This means that altos begin their series of suspensions a smidgeon earlier than in the revised version. Contrapuntally this reading, which occurs in earlier manuscript material, is more obvious than the version that Beethoven (presumably) approved in the printed edition, which is the reading the critical edition uses. Performers will thus need to make a choice between the two readings.
After sitting out the Kyrie, flutes, trumpets, and timpani are added to the mass for this joyful movement. The Gloria is divided into three sections: the opening Gloria (cut time, Allegro), a contrasting Qui tollis (3/4 meter, Andante mosso), and the closing Quoniam (C meter signature, Allegro ma non troppo). While the movement begins and ends in C major, the middle section moves to the distant key of F minor. There’s slightly more solo writing in this movement (tenor for “gratias agimus;” alto for the beginning of the “Qui tollis”); all four soloists sing together on occasion as well. The “Qui tollis” brings the expected fugue, now including the word “amen” in the fugue subject. The word “amen” then receives its own treatment from m. 343 to the end.
The Credo consists of four sections, similarly divided by meter and tempo: the opening Credo (3/4, Allegro con brio), “Et incarnatus est” (2/4, Adagio), Et resurrexit (C, Allegro), and Et vitam venturi (C, Vivace). The movement opens and closes in C major, with the most dramatic harmonic movement in the “Et incarnatus” section, which soloists open in Eb major. When the chorus reenters for “Crucifixus,” the switch to minor mode (Bb minor to start with) is textually appropriate. Very typical for Beethoven is the unsettling passage beginning in m. 155, where the melodic writing and alternating dynamics in the orchestra work against the underlying meter (again, think of the first movement of the Eroica Symphony). With the switch to “Et resurrexit” we are back, appropriately, in major, first D major but then quickly modulating to the expected C major. We close the movement with a spritely fugue on “et vitam venturi” and finally an extended final “amen.”
The Sanctus text of the Catholic mass is comprised of five sections: Sanctus, Pleni, Osanna, Benedictus, Osanna. Beethoven subdivides this into four sections. The initial Sanctus (similar to the opening of Haydn’s Paukenmesse Sanctus) uses C meter, an Adagio tempo indication, and the unrelated key of A major (not really surprising, since Beethoven has been exploring unrelated keys throughout the mass so far). The second section combines Pleni and Osanna. Meter and key remain the same as the Sanctus, but the tempo switches to a brisk Allegro and greater use of imitation, especially in the fugal exposition of the Osanna.
Soloists have been silent so far but are now very much the focus of the Benedictus (2/4 meter, Allegretto ma non troppo); most of the time the chorus just provides little commentary echoes. The key switches to F major (which is distant from the A major of the Sanctus, but closely related to the C major of the rest of the mass). The critical edition of the mass starts afresh with measure numbers here, so their m. 1 of the Benedictus is actually m. 49 for editions that join all sections of the Sanctus (e.g. Kalmus). Aside from the emphasis on solo voices, the Benedictus is also noteworthy for several spots where the orchestra drops out altogether, beginning with the opening. I especially like the tenor/bass soloist duet starting at m. 158 (m. 110) and again at m. 162 (m. 114). I also really like what feels like the climax of the chorus part, our little imitative riff at 149 (m. 101) that concludes with an excellent soprano/alto suspension. The movement concludes with a return to A major, Allegro, and the Osanna music we sang earlier.
The Agnus is in many ways a dramatic movement, and it’s striking to learn that the original version was toned down for the first publication (the basis of most modern editions). It is in three sections, but like the Kyrie, these are not linked to the tripartite text (Agnus dei...miserere nobis; Agnus dei...miserere nobis; Agnus dei...dona nobis pacem) as we might expect.
The opening section (poco andante) is in C minor—the only movement of the mass to start in a minor key. Linked with that unexpected sonority is the somewhat unusual 12/8 meter, accentuated by almost constant eighth-note motion in the orchestra. The choral writing makes much of the “qui tollis” figure of mm. 4-5; hesitancies and silences alternate with more sustained lines, and we have a wonderful imitative arching figure beginning with the bass pickup to m. 28. In m. 37 our text switches to a pleading “dona” (the start of “grant us peace”), and the soloists are the ones who first get the full phrase, with the switch to the second section (m. 40, Allegro ma non troppo) and our home key of C major. What’s odd about this section, though, is that we are not done with the “Agnus dei...miserere nobis” text even though we should be if we’ve reached “dona nobis pacem.” By m. 67 we’re back to “Agnus dei...miserere nobis,” C minor, and an agitated orchestral accompaniment, not at all what we expect. We thrash around there for a while and then are gently led back to C major, soloists, and “dona nobis pacem,” this time for good. After a thorough and joyful exploration of this sentiment (from m. 40 through 165) we reach the short concluding section at m. 166: 2/4 meter, and a tempo designation of “Andante con moto, tempo del Kyrie.” Beethoven closes his mass as he began it, with music drawn from the peaceful opening Kyrie.
The New Edition
The new critical edition (published by Henle) of the mass is fairly recent (2004). The editor, Jeremiah McGrann, is a friend of mine from graduate school, so I was able to ask him questions about the big change in the alto part: m. 65 in the Agnus (there are various changes to text underlay across the mass, but they are not as crucial as the Agnus question). Those who’ve sung the mass with an older edition (e.g. Kalmus) are used to having the altos sing Eb at m. 65, hurling us into the minor mode and a return to the Agnus dei text. The altos are extremely important at this point. The entire orchestra except for the second flute and the trumpets are playing, and everyone—everyone!—has the pitch C at this point—except for the altos. We are the ones to supply the third to the sonority (think of the premiere, with those five lonely altos). We determine whether it’s major or minor on the downbeat (by beat 2, the orchestra has E-flats in the strings). Here’s the problem, though. While the altos have an written E natural, the organ part has Eb. As mentioned above, the organ part has a figured bass. For those readers who were not music majors in college, “figured bass” was a system used for keyboard players in ensemble works, beginning around 1600 and still in use in the early nineteenth century. The keyboard player (or player of another chordal instrument, e.g. lute) in an ensemble work was given the bass line only and expected to improvise an accompaniment based on guidelines provided by figures, a form of shorthand that told the performer which chords to play. To get back to the Mass in C, at m. 65 the organ part has a written C, and then the “figure” of a flat, which means that a C minor triad is expected on the downbeat—thus creating a horrible clash with the altos. While it’s true that Beethoven was hardly afraid of dissonance, this is not the type of dissonance that he practiced.
The problem is exacerbated by the miserable state of the surviving material. For some works of Beethoven we have plenty of material to work with. Not so for the Mass in C. What’s left today is an autograph manuscript for the Kyrie and the first 205 measures of the Gloria (thus, no autograph for the Agnus), the heavily marked up performing parts, a full manuscript score (by copyists, not Beethoven), and the published score, with lots of differences between the last-named and the earlier material. We don’t have the engraver’s copy or corrected proofs, and I can affirm that mistakes almost always creep in at the various stages of proofreading music. It is a zillion times easier to proof a text than it is to proof music—a text proceeds one word at a time, whereas music, although unfolding in time, has multiple parts, texts, phrasing indications, dynamics, articulation marks, tempo designations, expressive signs, and so on. Frankly, I try to keep musical examples in my publications to a minimum just to avoid the proofreading. And just so you know, Beethoven was not a particularly assiduous proofreader (he has my sympathies).
What’s a performer to do? Either the alto part or the organ part is wrong. At some point in the past an editor added a flat to the alto part to prevent that unwanted dissonance. But it’s also possible that the error was in the placement of the organ figure (i.e., it would appear over the second beat, not the downbeat), and someone has recently tried to make a case that Beethoven didn’t even write the organ part at all. Conductors will need to decide for themselves where they want the minor sonority to begin, since we can’t determine that from what’s left.
A more straightforward correction involves the Quoniam section in the Gloria. The correct meter there is C, but Breitkopf & Härtel (who did the performing parts and p/v score) switched it to cut time.
The third movement of Beethoven’s late string quartet in A minor, Op. 132, is a beautiful and deeply moving slow movement. Beethoven was frequently ill, and this movement provides a connection to his biography. He gave it the lengthy title “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (holy song of Thanksgiving to the deity by a convalescent, in the Lydian mode). When I first wrote this entry for Mass in C (July 2021), it was right before what would be my third performance series of the composition. Being able to sing in a chorus again—after sixteen dreadful months—made those performances truly a Heiliger Dankgesang.
Choral Fantasy, Op. 80
Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (or more strictly, his “Fantasia für Klavier, Chor, und Orchester” in c minor, Op. 80), dates from 1808; the date is often erroneously given as 1807. In December of 1808 Beethoven planned a giant benefit concert of his own music, to be held at the Theater an der Wien. At this time in Vienna, concerts were mostly either private events among aristocrats or public occasions to benefit charity; Beethoven would often perform pro bono at the latter. This concert, however, was intended to benefit Beethoven himself financially, which meant he needed a time when theaters were normally closed, e.g. around Christmas.
The concert was a doozy (to put it mildly). Beethoven himself would improvise at the keyboard (the norm for pianist/composers of the day, although Beethoven’s increasing deafness soon put an end to that). The concert would also include the Gloria and Sanctus/Benedictus portions of his recent Mass in C, along with the concert aria Ah! perfido (written twelve years earlier). Plus the premiere of the Fifth Symphony!
Also, the premiere of the Sixth Symphony!
Also, the first public performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto!
Somehow Beethoven felt this was not quite enough music for his fans, so he decided to write a finale that incorporated all the performers (chorus, soloists, pianist—Beethoven himself—and orchestra). Hence the Choral Fantasy, and a concert that lasted four hours. Even in a day when lengthy concerts were the norm, this was pushing it.
The concert took place on December 22 and was not exactly a success. The soprano slated to sing the aria had withdrawn after Beethoven quarreled with her, and her replacement, who was quite young, was not up to the demands of the work. The theater was extremely cold. Because the Choral Fantasy had been composed so late, it did not receive sufficient rehearsal, and the orchestra was already antagonistic to Beethoven because of problems in an earlier concert. As a result, things broke down in the middle of the Fantasy (some performers took a repeat and others didn’t) and they had to restart the section.
At least it made for a memorable evening. And possibly Beethoven even made money from it, but that’s something we don’t know.
As noted, the piece is for solo piano, orchestra, and voices, consisting of SATB chorus and SSATTB soloists. The work opens with a section for solo piano (as does the fourth piano concerto, in defiance of the usual orchestral introduction in eighteenth-century concertos); the opening was improvised by Beethoven the night of the concert and only written down later. The orchestra joins the pianist to embark on a series of variations of an attractive melody taken from Beethoven’s song Gegenliebe, written years earlier. The “opus” number for Gegenliebe, by the way, is “WoO 118,” where “WoO” stands for “Werke ohne Opuszahl”—works without opus numbers, which is how modern musicologists catalogue such compositions. Towards the end of the piece soloists and then chorus enter for the final variations, by which time we’ve switched to a bright C Major.
The text is sometimes attributed to Christoph Kuffner, but this can’t be confirmed. As the almost-literal translation shows, the text is one that is uplifting and affirming, filled with positive emotions and references to the power of music.
I have always thought of this piece as a “poor man’s Ninth Symphony,” and the connections between it and the last movement of Beethoven’s ninth are widely recognized; Beethoven himself acknowledged them. The Ninth Symphony lacks a piano, of course, but the final movement is, like the Choral Fantasy, a set of variations on a melody that is treated first instrumentally and is then taken up by soloists and chorus. The two themes themselves are in fact similar, and there is some distinctive harmonic motion that is shared. The texts express similar sentiments. And like the Ninth Symphony (and various of Beethoven’s choral works), the Choral Fantasy ends with orchestra only, no singers.
Ghastly premiere notwithstanding, the piece is now widely performed, and I’ve sung it many times, including a concert where this was the first half of the program and the Ninth Symphony was the second half (NOT the best programming), and another one that jettisoned soloists and had the chorus sing the solo parts. The score usually used (for the concerts I’ve sung, at least) is an old one published by H.W. Gray. I have a photocopy of what appears to be the edition of 1900, at which point H.W. Gray is listed as “agents for Novello & Co.”; the score costs 50¢. I also have a hard copy, slightly later edition of the same where H.W. Gray is now “A Division of Belwin/Mills Publishing Corp.,” sold for $1.50. Those were the days! It probably costs at least three times as much now, if not more.
What’s important about this edition, though, is that it has several text errors. Instead of the correct “lohnt DEM menschen” it usually reads “lohnt den menschen.” Then, at the end of the work, the last five syllable are not “lohnt ihn Göttergunst” as written in the score, but rather “Götter-, Göttergunst” (I double checked this against the Beethoven Critical Edition to make sure). So mark those changes in your score!
Despite Beethoven’s massive influence on music, his innovative choral/instrumental combinations were never widely adopted. While plenty of pieces by later composers join chorus and orchestra, these are usually works that aren’t symphonies. But choral symphonies do exist, e.g. Mendelssohn Lobgesang; Mahler 2, 3, and 8; Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony; and so on. Piano works with chorus, though, are almost nonexistent. The Busoni piano concerto is one work, and the eighth piano concerto by the forgotten Daniel Steibelt (1765–1823) from 1820 uses male chorus for the finale. But that appears to be it. So enjoy singing the Choral Fantasy! It’s an odd duck in the repertoire.
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).
As always, the Cambridge Companion volume (edited by Glenn Stanley, CUP, 2000) includes perceptive essays on all aspects of the music as well as other topics. There are so many biographies that noted Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood has just written a book (on the eve of his 90th birthday!) tracing their history (Beethoven’s Lives: The Biographical Tradition, Boydell Press, 2020). Excellent coverage of both the life and works is found in another book by Lockwood, this one written especially for the intelligent music lover (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, Wonne der Wehmut, Kennst du das Land?, 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 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 July 2021, July 2022