Classical VI: Ode to Joy: Beethoven’s 9th
In our series finale, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the YSO with the pinnacle of symphonic music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The YSO Symphony Chorus joins the orchestra for the symphony and for Beethoven’s unique Choral Fantasy, and the program opens with Diane Wittry’s Ode to Joy Fanfare.
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Diane Wittry
Ode to Joy Fanfare
(2020)

Award-winning American composer and conductor Diane Wittry has been music director of the Allentown (PA) Symphony Orchestra since 1995, as well as music director of the Garden State Philharmonic (NJ) since 1918. She is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and has composed several works for orchestra. Composed for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Wittry’s Ode to Joy Fanfare is a mashup of many of the themes in his famous Ninth Symphony. Its celebratory mood is a perfect concert opener, anticipating the excitement of two monumental works by Beethoven to come.
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Ludwig van Beethoven
(December 17, 1770-March 26, 1827)
Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, op. 80
(1808)

Composed right in the middle of his “Heroic” period (1803-1814), Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy is one of his more unique works. Its premiere must have been very interesting—a benefit concert in Vienna on December 22, 1808, that also included the premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the concert aria “Ah, perfido,” two movements of the Mass in C major, and the Fourth Piano Concerto.
Beethoven wanted a flashy finale to the concert that combined the three featured sounds of the evening (piano, orchestra and chorus), and this piece was apparently written to fulfill this purpose. According to accounts, Beethoven himself played the piano part and the opening solo offers an example of his improvisational style (at the premiere he apparently did improvise this section).
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There is some question to the authorship of the poetry used, though now generally attributed to Christoph Kuffner, and apparently it was written after the music for the choral parts had been composed—thus, the words had to be fitted to the music. Due to limited rehearsal time, the performance was quite below expectations—accounts mention the piece having to be stopped and restarted, with players, including the composer/pianist, getting lost on repeated sections, etc. The final choral sections have been compared to the later, more profound Ninth Symphony, and the similarities are enough to warrant it— after an opening piano cadenza, there is a set of variations carried forward by the soloist and orchestra (even with a Turkish march), culminating in the chorus singing about love, joy, and universal brotherhood.
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Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 12
(1824)
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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.
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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 in 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.
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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.
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It is the finale, however, that took this already monumental piece and raised it 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.