Symphony No. 9 in D Minor

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, Austria, March 26, 1827

In the nearly 200 years since its composition, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 has become far more than just another symphony. It is now "The Ninth": an artistic creation, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which every age and nearly every culture finds a mirror of its identity, its struggles, and its aspirations. In his guide to the work, Nicholas Cook traces the breadth and often-contradictory nature of the Ninth's appeal. To the European revolutionaries of 1848, it expressed their democratic aspirations to break free of entrenched autocratic regimes. And yet to the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s it became identified with Communist ideology: Beethoven's "joy through struggle" seen as identical to Communism's slogan "victory through struggle." And who can forget Leonard Bernstein's supercharged performance of the Ninth with musicians from the former East and West Germanys at the crumbling Berlin Wall in 1989? Capturing the exhilaration of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, he asked the singers in the finale to change the word "Freude" — "joy" — to "Freiheit" — "freedom."

How could one work mean so much to so many different cultures and for so many different reasons? And what does it mean to us today? Most listeners would agree with Michael Steinberg that, "Explicitly, it seeks to make an ethical statement as much as a musical statement." Beethoven always believed that music had a higher purpose beyond the making of beautiful sounds, that it could express and inspire human aspirations toward a more exalted life, in closer harmony with neighbors and strangers alike, and ultimately with God. In the Ninth, he drove home this message by crowning his instrumental symphony with an unprecedented choral finale: a setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy," in which joy is defined as a state in which "All men are made brothers."

The Ninth Symphony comes from the visionary last years of Beethoven's life during which he also created the Missa solemnis and his celebrated late string quartets. He had not written a symphony since the Eighth in 1812. The years that followed had been a period of emotional struggle and artistic stasis. Only when Beethoven resolved the battle for custody of his nephew Karl in 1820 did his creative powers flow freely again. Now virtually stone deaf, he had, in biographer Maynard Solomon's words, "reached a stage where he had become wholly possessed by his art."

Since at least the early 1790s, Beethoven had loved Schiller's "Ode to Joy" (written in 1785 as a drinking song!) and considered setting it to music. When he made the bold decision to risk a vocal finale, he edited the poem to make it express a higher joy for mankind than could be found in any tavern.

Premiered at Vienna's Kärtnertor Theater on May 7, 1824, the first performance reportedly moved its audience to tears as well as cheers. Beethoven was on the podium, but the real conductor was Michael Umlauf; the musicians had been instructed to follow only his beat and ignore the deaf Beethoven's. The performance would probably have sounded terrible to us today: orchestra and singers had had only two rehearsals together of a work that many found beyond their capabilities. And yet the magic of the Ninth somehow won out. At the end of symphony, the alto soloist, Caroline Unger, had to turn Beethoven around to see the audience's tumult; unable to hear them, he had remained hunched over his score.

And what of the wonders of this score? Later composers wrote longer first movements, but the Ninth's opening movement, at just 15 minutes, seems the vastest of them all. From the opening trickle of notes, seemingly born from the primordial ooze, emerges the mightiest descending theme. After moods of struggle, reverie, and provisional triumph, Beethoven appends a huge coda that even touches on a ghostly funeral march before the orchestra shouts the principal theme one last time.

The Scherzo second movement — Beethoven's greatest example of the fierce dance form he refashioned from the 3/4-time minuet — is built out of another descending motive, consisting of just two pitches and a dotted rhythm. From that dotted rhythm and the potential it offers to the timpani to become a major player instead of an accompanist, Beethoven creates a witty, infectious movement of relentless intensity. And if the Scherzo is the apotheosis of a rhythm, the succeeding slow movement is the apotheosis of melody. Here Beethoven builds a double variations movement out of two melodies, one slow and noble, the other like a flowing stream: a musical representation of a heavenly utopia.

The key of D major finally triumphs over D minor in the exhilarating choral finale, famed for making the cellos and basses speak like human voices as they review the events of the previous movements and then dismiss them in favor of the sublimely simple "Joy" theme. The remainder of the finale then becomes a series of extraordinary variations on this heart-stirring melody, sung by chorus, the solo quartet, and orchestra.

The other major theme of this huge finale is sung in unison by the tenors and basses at the words "Seid umschlungen, Millionen": "Be embraced, ye millions." It opens an extended, awe-struck episode in which the chorus hails the loving Father, creator of the universe, and concludes in a magnificent double fugue in combination with the "Ode to Joy" theme. At the end, Beethoven drives his voices almost beyond their capacities to express his glorious vision of a new world just beyond human reach.

Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2014