Classical VI: The Pinnacle: Beethoven’s 9th

The Pinnacle: Beethoven’s 9thFor our final concert of the season, the YSO is joined by the Yakima Symphony Chorus, Justin Raffa, chorusmaster, to perform the pinnacle of symphonic music, Beethoven’s Ninth.

Ludwig van Beethoven
(December 17, 1770-March 26, 1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125
(1824)

One cannot overstate the impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The work has been considered a landmark since its premiere and has cast a huge shadow over all who have wanted to write symphonies since. It caused some composers to hesitate and doubt their abilities, others to respond by taking desperate measures and move into other expressive genres, such as program music, for example, and still others to avoid orchestral music altogether, feeling that the pinnacle had been reached, which would create inevitable (and/or unwanted) comparisons forever. 

Beethoven worked on this symphony for a very long time. There are sketches of material from as far back as 1800 that wound up being included the work, even though he only worked seriously on the piece itself from about 1817. The resulting range of expression and musical materials is incredible. It is amazing to think that all of this music could come from only one person, but considering how Beethoven viewed the piece in the context of his life during that time, the depth and breadth of expression is not that surprising. He was fully deaf and aware that his health was beginning to fail. He had lost several close friends and family members. He had written numerous works that had gotten longer and longer, with deeper levels of expression and introspection. Originally conceived as two symphonies in sequence, the Ninth Symphony became the culmination of a lifetime of thought and emotion, and both are given ample opportunity to express an incredible breadth and depth of feeling. Scholars generally agree that he wrote each movement independently and then found ways to unify them in the finale, culminating with the only possible way to end such a work, by adding the human voice to the orchestral sound.

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of each movement is its rhythmic identity. In the first movement, dotted rhythms create the energy and propulsion to get this monumental work moving, giving way to a smoother yet no less active second theme. Eventually, the two themes are combined in numerous permutations and instrument combinations, and the first movement ends leaving us wondering what could possibly come next. The scherzo that follows has two obvious rhythmic motives, an opening dotted rhythm in a fast three-beat pattern, contrasted eventually by a smoother trio theme in a duple meter. While most composers hold fugal treatments for the end, Beethoven launches into imitative counterpoint almost immediately, and the effect is a wonderful sense of ebb and flow as the parts eventually come together and then separate for another “go-’round.” The lyrical contrast in the trio section is quite remarkable, and the final return of the opening section makes for a stirring ending. There would seem nowhere else to go at this point except to something slower and more lyrical, and Beethoven does not fail to accommodate. The third movement has a noble, dignified character. It is constructed in a modified rondo format such that each time the main theme returns it is modified or varied, usually adding melodic elaboration or more activity to the accompaniment.

It is the finale, however, that took this already monumental piece and raised to onto a pedestal of such height that virtually no other symphony has yet approached it. There is a long introduction with several parts: a startling initial passage for the orchestra followed by an instrumental recitative for the ‘cellos and basses (anticipating the voices to come later), interrupted numerous times with passages recalling the preceding three movements. Eventually this arrives at an orchestral version of the famous “Ode to Joy” hymn, which continues to get more involved and more impressive as it goes along. Then, as it comes to a logical end (and one begins to wonder why the chorus is present), the startling opening returns, and the solo voices take over, beginning with the recitatives and returning directly to the “Ode to Joy,” this time with full chorus. This also reaches a logical end, but Beethoven, not one to shy away from bringing on the “kitchen sink,” really shakes things up by beginning a new section with, of all things, a Turkish band playing a new version of the hymn. Perhaps armies are marching off to spread the good news, or perhaps it just occurred to him that this was the next logical step; whatever the reason, the result is a brand new feeling of momentum, eventually joined again by the soloists and chorus, leading to yet another logical ending. However, several stanzas of Schiller’s poem remain, and the composer, having exhausted the audience’s expectations anyway, moves into new sections of contrasting moods to suit the text. Even the most monumental of works must come to an end, and the steady build-up of energy and emotion leads to an amazing, triumphal ending, where an emotionally-drained audience, orchestra and chorus practically fall into each others’ arms in exhaustion. It is no wonder that this work has received the attention it has, and the final result is one of the true landmarks in musical history, a capstone of the past and a break-through to the future.