Thursday, October 9, 2008

Beethoven 9 - Always New, Always Compelling

Last spring, I posted a series of essays on Beethoven and his magnificent Missa Solemnis (check this blog’s subject index). (Of course, this librarian indexes all her posts by subject(s)!) The critically-acclaimed May 2008 performances by The Hartford Chorale, with The Hartford Symphony, were my first experience with this work. As usual, I supplemented my musical preparation with research and reading, and came away from the experience with a new appreciation for Beethoven as a spiritual person (with qualifications; see my essay on this topic, in particular the paragraph headed “Spirituality”). The investment of time and thought changed my understanding and appreciation of Beethoven and his music.

Now, as The Chorale prepares now for its October 24 and 25 performances (with the HSO) of Beethoven's iconic, remarkable, and utterly unique Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”), I find myself marveling that 184 years after its completion, this work is still fresh and compelling. Though most of us on stage will have performed it before, there are members of the Chorale, and perhaps of The Hartford Symphony, and surely of the audience, who will experience it for the first time on October 24 or 25. Even after 184 years and countless performances, the “Choral” Symphony will always be new for someone. This was made manifest in a recent conversation with my 15-year-old daughter.

The other day, as my husband (who also sings in the Chorale) was listening to a recording of the Symphony and working hard at memorizing the fourth movement (yes, we will be performing from memory), my daughter was delighted, not only in the magnificent music, but in the text itself. She could hardly keep from dancing through the house. (Freude!)

A few years ago she had pointed out to me, very astutely, that Beethoven had been wise to devise a simple melody for the “Ode to Joy” theme (“Freude, schöner Götterfunken”). “It’s like a folk song,” she said, adding that “Beethoven wanted people to remember it. It’s easy to remember and anyone can sing it. That’s important for music that carries such a big idea.”

This time around, it was the thrilling syncopation that underscores the most important line of the text (“Alle Menschen verden Brüder” — “All people are brothers”) that moved her most. In her words: “It pushes all the energy, and the whole idea, forward!” (It is very sad that in many hymnals and other instances where this melody has been used the syncopation is smoothed over and made foursquare, supposedly to make it “easier” to sing.)

Her other “amazing moment” is the otherworldly and ethereal pivot modulation that flings us from D major to F major (“steht vor Gött,” or “stand before God,” at measure 330) in preparation for the drop into B-flat major for the Turkish march. She was left speechless with joy and amazement, as most of us usually are at that remarkable moment. (That is also one of the best soprano moments in the choral repertoire!)

Of course, those who have known and loved the Symphony for a long time would agree that these are the “big” moments and the “big” ideas, but it was moving to watch her discover these on her own, and enlightening to hear her analysis of what makes them special.

Being an avid student of history (especially via the wonderful lectures from The Teaching Company), she knows a fair amount about Beethoven, his life, his music, and his leadership in the progression of musical development from what we call the “Classical” period to what we now call the “Romantic” period. “He was a radical, wasn’t he?” she observed. “You know, if he were alive today, he’d be playing an electric guitar.” She’s right!

When I perform the Symphony with The Chorale later this month, I will sing for everyone who will be hearing it for the first time. I can hardly wait!

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