As The Hartford Chorale prepares for its May 9 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”) with the New Britain Symphony Orchestra, I’ve been thinking about this music and its place in our cultural awareness. Yesterday, in writing about why each of us in the Chorale should invest ourselves fully in this performance, even if we have performed this music umpteen times in the past few years, I said, “Spiritually, the Symphony belongs to the world and to every person in it. Every performance of this music has the potential to become an affirmation of the joy in living that Beethoven, despite his often-tragic life, was able to comprehend and communicate so clearly.” (Read the entire essay HERE.)
But is the Ninth Symphony primarily about joy? Certainly Beethoven, through Schiller’s words, exhorts us repeatedly to experience Freude! And Beethoven’s musical setting, which exalts and illuminates Schiller’s text in the way that only music can do, creates joy in us and in our listeners. Countless critics and interpreters have come to the same conclusion. For example, in his Choral Masterworks: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford UP, © 2005), program annotator Michael Steinberg observes: “Just think of what Beethoven [achieves] in the Ninth Symphony, how he can make us believe in the power of joy as no lecture or dissertation on joy could, and more important, as Schiller’s ode cannot do by itself.”
Others contend that Beethoven’s theme in this Symphony is brotherhood, and that we achieve joy through our bonds with our fellow humans. Music critic and composer Alexander Serov (1820-1871), explaining the musical and thematic integrity of the Symphony, posited that the overall theme of the symphony is “the idea of brotherhood,” which is expressed musically through the “joy” theme. (Quoted by Nicholas Cook in Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Cambridge UP, © 1993).
But I think there’s more to it than that.
Certainly, in the emphasis Beethoven places on the words Freude and Brüder, we can see and hear that these concepts are indeed important to him (and, by extension, to us). But why use a multi-movement symphony as the framework for what could have been composed as a free-standing, independent choral work? Are the first three movements necessary to our understanding of the fourth? What is Beethoven getting at in insisting that we listen to almost an hour of instrumental music before we hear his setting of Schiller’s poem?
In trying to answer this question, I did a lot of reading and thinking and listening. In my research, I came across an article by composer and musicologist Jan Swafford that seemed to articulate the idea I was struggling to define, that is, that the music is at the core of the symphony, not the text. Rather than try to paraphrase his ideas, I’ll offer the key excerpts that spoke to me most clearly:
In a singular way, the Ninth enfolds the apparently contradictory qualities of the epic and the [elusive]. First movement…Big and loud…wildly unstable…searching…inconclusive…. At the end there's a funeral march… But who died…? Next comes the scherzo… a Dionysian whirlwind, manically contrapuntal … The third movement is peculiar mainly in its cloudless tranquility… one of those singing, time-stopping adagios that mark Beethoven's last period. … The famous finale is weirdest of all. … Why does this celebration of joy open with a dissonant shriek that Richard Wagner dubbed the “terror fanfare”? Then the [string] basses [play] … a recitative with no words… One at a time, themes from the earlier movements are introduced only to be rebuffed by the [string] basses… This, then: The Joy theme is unveiled by the [string] basses unaccompanied, sounding … like somebody (say, the composer) quietly humming to himself … Then … the terror fanfare again. And now up steps a real singer, singing a real recitative: “Oh friends, not these tones! Rather let's strike up something more agreeable and joyful.” Soon the chorus is crying, “Joy! Joy!” and the piece is off, praising joy as the universal solvent… [here’s the part that strikes home in me:] The finale's Joy theme is almost constructed before our ears, hummed through, then composed and recomposed and decomposed. The Ninth is music about music [emphasis mine], about its own emerging, about its composer composing. And for what? “This kiss for all the world!” runs the telling line in the finale, in which Beethoven erected a movement of epic scope on a humble little tune that anybody can sing. The Ninth, forming and dissolving before our ears in its beauty and terror and simplicity and complexity, ending with a cry of jubilation, is itself his kiss for all the world… When the bass [soloist] speaks the first words … [the] invitation to sing for joy [comes] from Beethoven, not Schiller. It's the composer talking to everybody, to history."
Music about music. And consider that this quintessential music about music was composed by a deaf man, a sometimes bitter and despairing man who created for us this most human, most loving Symphony, given to us now and forever as his “kiss for all the world.”
Swafford, Jan. “The Beethoven Mystery: Why haven't we figured out his Ninth Symphony yet?” Slate.com, June 30, 2003 http://www.slate.com/id/2084948/
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Choral)
New Britain Symphony Orchestra
With guest artists The Hartford Chorale
Maurice Peress, Music Director
Saturday, May 9, 2009, 7:30 p.m.Pre-concert talk at 6:30 pm
Welte Hall, Central Connecticut State University
New Britain, Connecticut
Telephone: (860) 826-6344