Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Beethoven’s Stars

Over the past two or three years, I’ve had the pleasure of performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony several times. One of the many advantages of performing this music so many times within a relatively short time is that I’ve really had a chance to learn it inside out, not only as a singer, but as a music historian, poet, and person. The Ninth Symphony is so substantive – not just the music, but what Beethoven tells us about humanity as the music unfolds – that to begin to understand it requires care, attention, and desire, not just during the weeks of preparation, but for months before and after the performances. As I’ve written earlier (see link at the end of this paragraph), as part of my personal preparation for these performances, I invested substantially in reading, studying, and analysis of the score and text. I’m still thinking and learning about it all, and looking forward to performing the Symphony again later in the 2009-2010 season. You can read about my reflections on preparing and singing this music so often, and for different audiences, here:

Beethoven packages his Message of (and to) Humanity in what is certainly some of the most memorable music ever written. A few years ago K 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.”

There’s another moment in the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony that I find equally compelling and very magical. It’s in the section before the final double fugue, beginning at measure 627, marked Adagio ma no troppo, ma divoto (Slow but not too much, but devotedly). Here the music drops to its knees as the choir asks: “Do you fall down, O millions? Are you aware of your Creator, O world? Seek Him above the starry firmament!” Beethoven responds to the question musically: a rising stair-step series of diminished intervals unfolds in the high winds, practically forcing us look up, up, up to find the answer, “For above the stars He must dwell.” The stars shimmer ethereally as the orchestra repeats the diminished harmony in pianissimo triplets. Then the brilliant and climactic D-major double fugue bursts like comets and meteors from the starry sky: “Let me embrace you, O millions! Joy, beautiful, divine!”

How this moment must have burned itself on the heart and mind of Johannes Brahms! Some forty years after Beethoven completed his Choral Symphony, Brahms invoked Beethoven’s starry heavens in his own masterwork Ein deutsches Requiem. In the third movement of the Requiem, the baritone soloist and choir ask, “Now, Lord, O what do I wait for?” Though the passage builds powerfully, it is restive and unresolved, and it finally falls away in a series of diminished chords, as the choir repeats the searching question, “O what do I wait for?” Brahms answers the question not in words, but in music, by giving us, unmistakably, Beethoven’s starry sky, in a suddenly-familiar series of diminished chords, sounding quite high in the orchestra in pianissimo triplets. The music commands us to Look up! to find the answer. Brahms’s double implication – that what we wait for is above us, in the starry heaven, and that Beethoven’s musical depiction of this concept is definitive – invokes an immediate sympathetic response and recognition in any listener who knows Beethoven’s Ninth. Brahms’ setting of the phrase which follows (“My hope is in Thee”) is ecstatically reverent, rising inevitably in a searing crescendo before the joyous D-major fugue that closes the movement.

Knowing as we do the degree to which Brahms revered Beethoven, it is not surprising to find homage to the Ninth Symphony in the German Requiem. But earlier this year, I found Beethoven’s stars in a less likely, and wholly unexpected, place. It was during [an event] devoted this year to choral music of Maurice Duruflé, with that master’s Requiem as the centerpiece of our study and performance. The opening words of the final movement, In Paradisum, are these: “May the angels receive you in Paradise.” The first four bars of the movement which precede these words unfold as stair-steps of diminished chords, piano, rising, rising, rising steadily to heaven. The evocation of Beethoven’s starry sky is unmistakable – indeed, it is almost an exact quotation, though in a different key – and the command to the listeners to Look up! is irresistible. One does not customarily think of Duruflé as having been markedly influenced by Beethoven, but perhaps the starry diminutions of the Ninth caught his ear and his imagination, as happens with me, every time.

© 2009 Sarah Hager Johnston All rights reserved.

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