Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony stands as the culmination of Beethoven’s twenty-four-year career as a composer of symphonies. The Ninth both sums up Beethoven’s artistic career and, with the choral finale, daringly points the way forward to new conceptions of what a symphony could say and be. Listen below to Music Director Franz Welser-Möst discuss the Ninth’s first three movements and how they tie into Beethoven’s musical past, before investigating the famous choral finale.
I. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
As Franz describes, the first three movements of the Ninth Symphony recall past ideas and themes that Beethoven had previously explored. The first movement is a depiction of dark fate, of death. Franz connects this to the funeral march from the Eroica but also to the idea of creation (the universe). The bare intervals of the octave, fifth, and fourth that open the movement do not indicate any one particular key, and thus function as a sort of primordial mist from which the movement emerges.
II. Molto vivace (Scherzo and Trio)
The second movement explores dance and movement, as in the Seventh Symphony. A puckish scherzo, the movement shows the different ways the same kinds of motion can be interpreted, as Beethoven uses all of his compositional resources to shift among menacing, joyful, and mischievous moods. In the trio, Beethoven returns to the bucolic mode of the Pastoral symphony.
III. Adagio molto e cantabile
The finale to the Ninth Symphony is a grand drama in which Beethoven explores and extols the idea of universal brotherhood. The movement famously is a setting of Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy (1785). Schiller was an influential German poet, playwright, and philosopher who was associated with the Aufklärung (German Enlightenment), and strongly believed in the power of the arts to elevate humanity by imparting knowledge and morality. His Ode to Joy, "rich with notions of liberty," was variously interpreted throughout its history as being religious, freemasonic, revolutionary, and a "harbinger" of romanticism.1 In Beethoven's hands, the poem takes on a more explicitly promethean tone.
Beethoven begins his promethean drama with an unexpected and violent introduction, which Wagner described as the Schreckensfanfare ("Terror Fanfare"). Musicologist Esteban Buch describes what follows this arresting opening as a "search" by the "composer/soloist" to find a melody that can be sung by all. Recalling and rejecting each of the three earlier movements, ultimately, the "Ode to Joy" theme is discovered; it becomes the chosen melody by which the community (the chorus) can be led in song in a "learning or apprenticeship process."2 This is emphasized in Beethoven's music in a few ways: The Ode to Joy melody begins in the lowest registers of the strings, and slowly grows to encompass the entire orchestra in a musical depiction of one voice inspiring many, in that the soloists teach the chorus the song, each singing a phrase that the chorus then takes up and expands.
Following this is a Turkish march that Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford describes as "the era's definition of a bizarre move."3 Although the text's military imagery supports the march setting, that the march is Turkish requires some explanation. In Western European classical music of this era, Turkish music, marked particularly by a percussion section of bass drum, cymbals, and triangle, was frequently used to represent the exotic east. In this context, though, the usage "suggests an image of global brotherhood," which Swafford connects to the Masonic song "Mankind in East and West."4 Although the “Ode to Joy” melody performed by the Turkish band is different, it is still the same fundamental song: a musical representation of this more expansive idea of human brotherhood.
Later in the movement, we arrive in an extended passage for chorus with a distinctly religious cast. Franz connects this section with the Benedictus from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (1823). As he notes, the Benedictus is the portion of the Roman Catholic Mass celebrating the Eucharist, in which bread and wine transubstantiate into the divine flesh and blood of Christ. This is a moment of great mystery, matching the religious character of this portion of Schiller's text, which asks: "Do you sense the Creator, world?" Franz is joined by Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood in this interpretation: Lockwood describes how Beethoven enhances this aura of religious mystery through the mingling of older modal and newer tonal harmonies and the immense dynamic and pitch space the music occupies.5
The movement concludes with an ecstatic finale, in which past elements all come together, including Turkish bands and reverent choruses, in a full-throated celebration of humanity's victorious coming together. From the dark “Terror Fanfare” of the movement’s opening we have reached the blinding, joyous light of Elysium.
Beethoven believed in the power of music to change humanity. Like the mythological Prometheus, he gave fire to humanity through his compositions, endowed with the bright spark of creation. From his time to ours, his music continues to set alight the hearts and minds of listeners around the world. When listening to any music, remember his words to a young pianist: “Persevere, do not only practice your art, but endeavor also to fathom its inner meaning; it deserves this effort. For only art and science can raise men to the level of gods.”6
1 Esteban Buch, Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History, translated by Richard Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 48.
2 Buch, Beethoven’s Ninth, 103.
3 Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 851.
5 Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), 204.
6 As found and discussed in Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 9.
Alexander Lawler is a Historical Musicology PhD student at Case Western Reserve University. This is his third year working in the Orchestra’s Archives, having previously written “From the Archives” online essays (2015-2016) and designed a photo digitization and metadata project (2016-2017).