Why is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony so significant?

Monday, April 13, 2020 - 14:08

250 years after Ludwig Van Beethoven’s birth, his Ninth Symphony is still generally agreed to be one of the most important artworks in Western culture. Musical experts call it the greatest symphony ever written, commentators are still talking about its visionary political message – and even casual classical music listeners would recognise the tune of the ‘Ode to Joy’.

Professor Laura Tunbridge, whose book Beethoven, A Life in Nine Pieces is out in July 2020, explains how the symphony came about, what its first listeners heard, and why it’s such an important piece of music. 

Beethoven (1)
Beethoven portrayed by Joseph Carl Stieler in 1819-20. This is said to be the only portrait of the composer painted from life

Beethoven thought that he might have made a mistake. After the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, in Vienna on 7 May 1824, responses were mixed.  There was spontaneous applause after – and during – individual movements. However, there was concern about the music’s complexity and especially its mammoth finale, which unexpectedly brought in solo singers and chorus. 

The now celebrated ‘Ode to Joy’ for a while was in danger of being cut and replaced with an instrumental movement. Although that change was not made, 19th-century performers took far greater liberties with scores than they do today and often only select movements from the Ninth Symphony were played in concert.  From today’s perspective, when Beethoven’s Ninth regularly tops rankings of the greatest ever classical music, it seems almost unimaginable that the Symphony was not immediately heralded as a masterpiece. In some influential quarters, it was.

The originality and scale of the work, though, perplexed many performers and listeners. It was not until later in the 19th century, as symphonic ambitions grew, that it began to be elevated to its current status. 

 

It was a symphony like no other, a hugely ambitious score ending with a choral finale.
Journalist Martin Kettle on Beethoven’s Symphony No.9

When he began the Ninth, it had been some time since Beethoven had composed a symphony. After completing the Seventh and Eighth symphonies in quick succession in 1812 he kept various orchestral projects in mind. He did not pursue them until he received a commission from London’s Philharmonic Society in December 1822. Beethoven had long hoped to visit London, where he had a number of supporters. In the end, he neither travelled there nor gave the premiere to the Philharmonic Society.

When composition began in earnest, Beethoven drew on sketches he had made over the past decades. He thought about composing not one but two symphonies.  He had toyed with a variety of versions of Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ since the 1790s. Now, he repurposed a melody from his ‘Choral Fantasy’ to present Schiller’s paean to enlightenment values of friendship in his Symphony’s grand, choral finale.

 

By adding the text by Schiller, a philosopher whom he greatly admired, and incorporating the sound and inflection of the human voice, Beethoven conveyed a broad existential philosophy that embraced his belief in unity, tolerance, peace and joy.
Conductor Marin Alsop 

The production of the Ninth Symphony overlapped with the composition of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, the ‘Diabelli’ variations, and the Missa solemnis. In some ways it is not as experimental as those works.

For a start, the Ninth Symphony has the conventional four movements and it follows the tradition of starting in the minor key and ending, triumphantly, in the major. The inclusion of voices, while unusual, was not necessarily radical but pandered to the popularity of choral music in Vienna at the time.

If Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is revolutionary, it is from within. The inclusion of singers is just one aspect of his inventive sound-world.

Each movement is longer than usual and subverts formal expectations. To some early listeners, that made the music sound chaotic. Yet by returning to themes from the previous movements at the start of the finale, Beethoven also asserts the Symphony’s coherence. The music seemed disordered to some but to others, promised a higher order.

 

The ninth symphony opens in a darkly mysterious sound cosmos. We are as far as possible from the blazing affirmation with which the symphony will eventually end.
Journalist Martin Kettle on the beginning of the Ninth Symphony

By 1824 Beethoven was in his fifties, short-sighted, hard of hearing, and recovering from a protracted court case over guardianship of his nephew. He often claimed he was under-appreciated in his adopted home-town of Vienna.

Certainly, symphonies were far less popular than opera; especially, by the 1820s, operas by Rossini. But Beethoven still had many admirers, who published an open letter urging him to premiere his new symphony there, rather than in London or the other option, Berlin.  Encouraged, Beethoven organised two concerts in Vienna in May 1824. Both programmes included the Ninth Symphony.

The first began with his overture to the Consecration of the House, followed by three movements from another new work, the Missa solemnis, before the premiere of the Ninth Symphony.

There are several contradictory accounts of the concert. Some say the venue (the Kärntnertortheater) was packed; others, that there were empty boxes. There were more rehearsals than usual for a concert, but many members of the orchestra and chorus – a mix of professionals and amateurs – found the music challenging. Apparently some violinists simply put down their instruments when it became too hard.   Orchestras at the time depended for direction on their violinist concert-master, in this case Beethoven’s long-term collaborator Ignaz Schuppanzigh. He was supplemented by the theatre’s Kapellmeister, Michael Umlauf, who took on a more conventional conductor role.

Beethoven stood by him, apparently to give tempo indications but, as had long been his way, also gesticulated wildly. So lost was he in the music, that the young contralto soloist, Caroline Unger, had to draw his attention to the audience waving their handkerchiefs and applauding. That probably happened at the end of the Scherzo, rather than after the whole Symphony was over, as legend prefers.

 

Musical history is full of turning points. Beethoven’s Ninth broke the symphonic mould.
Writer Fiona Maddocks, from 100 Works to Carry You Through Music

Although it was enthusiastically received, the second concert featuring the Ninth Symphony was less well attended, perhaps simply because it was a nice sunny day. As a result, Beethoven barely covered his costs.  This was not unusual; benefit concerts were undertaken at the organiser’s risk and it was rare for them to make a profit after expenses (hall rental, performer fees) had been paid.

The Ninth Symphony, though, was richly rewarded by music critics. It received extended reviews that praised Beethoven, like Mozart and Haydn, as proof of Vienna’s musical supremacy.

Beethoven started work on a tenth symphony but it was not completed before his death in 1827, leaving the Ninth to stand as a symbol of his achievements in bringing together people to extol the virtues of universal friendship.

Or, as Schiller’s Ode puts it, ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!’ (‘Be embraced, you millions! Here’s a kiss for all the world!’).

 


 

Our performance of Beyond Beethoven 9 on Thursday 16 and Saturday 18 April 2020 could not take place as we are currently closed due to the coronavirus. The production featured conductor Marin Alsop, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and several hundred singers, and included a new translation of the libretto and new musical sections as part of the global project All Together: A Global Ode to Joy.

 

Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces (Viking, 2020) is released on Thursday 16 July 2020.

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