Beethoven 9

Waterbury Symphony Orchestra with the NVCC College Choir

Sunday, November 22, 2009
Mainstage Theater
Naugatuck Valley Community College
Waterbury, CT

Beethoven 9 Lecture (2.5 MiB)


Like Mozart and Haydn before him, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed in and mastered all of the major classical genres, from the string quartet and piano concerto to mass and opera.  History, however, has situated Beethoven as the sole figurehead of the great German symphonic tradition. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, symphonists struggled to carve musical paths independent of Beethoven’s daunting shadow; few would claim success.  The two symphonies featured on tonight’s program represent Beethoven’s first and final achievements in the genre.

In the early 1790s Beethoven moved from his native city of Bonn, Germany to Vienna, where he would make an immediate and impressive impact as a virtuoso pianist and composer of piano sonatas. Vienna, however, was the also the city of Beethoven’s great predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, who had steered the development of the Classic symphony to its highpoint at the close of the eighteenth century.  In many ways Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major (1800) falls neatly into this tradition.  Beethoven adopts the conventional four-movement tempo pattern of fast-slow-minuet/trio-fast, with both fast movements falling into straightforward sonata form. The symphony’s largely balanced phrasing and audible formal demarcations reveal the influence of Mozart; indeed, Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major (“Jupiter,” 1788) may well have served as an important model. Notably absent from the first symphony, however, are the expansionist tendencies and heroic dimensions that would emerge with Beethoven’s third (“Eroica”) and fifth symphonies (1803 and 1808, respectively).

At the same time, the first symphony does offer hints of Beethoven’s future transformations of the genre. First, Beethoven takes his initial steps away from the string-driven Classic symphony orchestra.  Here, he enlarges the orchestra through the addition of two clarinets, while pointing towards later efforts at expanding the wind instruments’ traditionally secondary melodic and textural roles.  Second, much like his teacher Haydn, Beethoven reveals a penchant for individuality evident at the very start of the symphony. The Adagio introduction to the first movement begins with a “wrong” chord: a dominant seventh that suggests the subdominant rather than the movement’s main key of C major.  The subsequent Allegro con brio unfolds as expected in a clearly delineated sonata form with the traditional repeat of the Exposition. However, Beethoven does anticipate a predilection for disruption of formal expectations at the close of the first movement’s development section, where he abruptly “corrects” the relative minor key to the tonic C major for the start of the recapitulation. The second movement (Andante cantabile con moto) follows with a main lyrical theme introduced by the violins, but the great musical surprise in this movement lies in the unexpected use of the timpani in a slow movement. The third movement (Allegro molto e vivace) is in the traditional minuet-trio form, but its fast tempo obliterates any direct reference to dance.

While the first symphony shows no overt narrative or musical connections between movements, the fourth movement does recall the playfulness of the first.  In the Adagio introduction to the fourth movement, Beethoven prepares the rising scalar shape of the movement’s first theme with a gradual growth through the scale in the violins, punctuated by witty pauses. The main body of the movement (Allegro molto e vivace) is written in a straightforward sonata form, but with yet another Beethovenian twist:  a modulation to a remote key in the development section, followed by the introduction of a new theme.

Beethoven churned out his first eight symphonies in the span of twelve years, yet twelve more would pass before he completed his Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1824).  Undoubtedly much of this delay may be explained in autobiographical terms.  Beethoven’s recognition of his impending and irreversible deafness helped spur the prolific output of his “heroic” period (1803-12), but a subsequent series of personal crises – in particular, the doomed Immortal Beloved affair and the protracted legal battle over custody of his nephew – resulted in lengthy bouts of compositional paralysis. In the 1820s, however, despite poor health and significant financial woes, Beethoven refocused his attention solely on composition. Other major works from this time include the Diabelli Variations (1823) and the Missa Solemnis (1823).

Since its premiere in May of 1824, Beethoven’s ninth symphony has at once confounded and inspired composers, musicians, writers, critics, and the general public alike.  Its sheer monumentality and complex narrative scheme have continued to defy one-dimensional attempts at formal explanation or interpretation. Especially problematic is the fourth “Ode to Joy” movement, which references and melds elements of sonata form, concerto form, and theme and variations form with the introduction of vocal soloists and chorus into the symphony.  Some scholars have even suggested that the choral movement may be best understood as a four-movement form on its own!

Beethoven’s ninth symphony bears a close kinship to the fifth symphony of 1808.  In particular, both symphonies grow out of a dramatic narrative designed to move from tragedy in the first movement (in the tonic minor key) to triumph and celebration in the last (in the tonic major). Both symphonies also present extraordinary foreshadowings of their respective final movements, especially through periodic and unexpected emergences of the major mode, and both reference the past through reiteration of prior musical material.

The ninth symphony’s first movement (Allegro, ma non troppo) reflects Beethoven’s unique ability to maximize all of the musical and dramatic possibilities of sonata form. The mysterious opening theme emerges pianissimo as if from a void, and the home key of the symphony, d minor, is not affirmed until the start of the bridge section. Beethoven continues to frustrate our expectations with the harmonic ambiguity and fluctuation of the second theme, as he withholds full arrival of the traditional new key until the closing measures of the exposition. The development section is lengthy and modulatory.  Two thwarted build-ups lead to a third in preparation for the shattering onset of the recapitulation:  significantly, in the key of D major.  The movement concludes with a characteristically long and developmental coda, during which the horns hint at the future discovery of the main “Ode to Joy” theme.

The second movement (Molto vivace) is a rousing scherzo in d minor.  Here, Beethoven retains the traditional ternary aspects of minuet-trio form, but imprints the Scherzo with a sonata form all its own.  The movement begins with a falling octave motive that propels the fugal first theme.  It then proceeds as a fast march, leading to the development section’s famous metric play between three and four, reinforced in the timpani.  A loud recapitulation prepares the way for the Trio portion of the movement, in which the D major key and thematic shape once again foreshadow the “Ode to Joy” melody.  The trio is truncated, however, via the abrupt return of the Scherzo, and the movement plays out in the coda’s stretto presentation of the fugue.

In opting for a slow third movement (Adagio molto e cantabile), Beethoven hearkens back to the old-fashioned symphonic convention of placing the minuet-trio movement second.  The slow movement’s song-like character, however, aptly anticipates the introduction of voices in the final movement, which may well have been Beethoven’s intent.  Once again, Beethoven applies multiple forms:  here, a mix of rondo and variation.  Following a brief introduction, the movement’s two main themes are heralded in turn by abrupt modulations and are then subsequently varied.  Most significant here is the character of the second theme; its triple meter and D major tonality offer yet another advance peek at the “Ode to Joy” theme.

Beethoven seems to have contemplated setting Johann Friedrich von Schiller’s ode “An die Freude” (1785) to music as early as the 1790s, but he would not revisit the idea for over two decades.  Political considerations undoubtedly played a role when he began composing the ninth symphony in earnest in 1823.  Like many Europeans, Beethoven had grown increasingly disenchanted as the exalted ideals of the 1789 French Revolution faded against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and ongoing class conflicts between the old aristocracy and an increasingly powerful middle class.  An eventual aristocratic resurgence resulted in renewed oppression and re-imposition of severe censorship, and Beethoven and members of his circle began to look back to the relative freedoms of pre-Revolutionary Vienna for inspiration. In this cultural climate, then, Schiller’s ode, with its celebration of universal brotherhood, seemed the ideal choice.

The choral movement (Presto, with numerous tempo changes) begins with the dissonant “terror fanfare” announcing the famous review and rejection of the main themes of the three previous movements, interspersed with halting recitative-like anticipations of the main theme.  A gradual build-up from low strings to full orchestra reinforces the eventual joyful acceptance of the theme, followed by a return of the terror fanfare and a full orchestral exposition of theme.  Finally, the voices enter with verses 1 through 3 of Schiller’s poem:  first with a dramatic bass recitative (“O friends, not these sounds!”), followed by the four soloists and answering choir.

A choral and orchestral exposition of the “Ode to Joy” melody ensues, culminating in the  Turkish March, which seems to emerge gradually from afar.  Beethoven employs the traditional Janissary instrumentation of bass drum, triangle, and cymbals, plus winds and brass.  These military gestures provide effective background for the content of this section’s verse, presented first for solo tenor and echoed by male choir:  “Brothers, run your course joyfully, as a victorious hero.” A series of dramatic tempo changes and varied textures build momentum towards the jubilant Prestissimo with which the work ends:  a fitting musical partner to the words “All men shall be brothers.” – Elizabeth Lorenzo, PhD

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