Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony – Music About Music

I’ve posted several essays here about Beethoven’s masterful Symphony No. 9; you can read them all here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Beethoven%20Symphony%20No.%209

Still, there always seems to be more to say.

Back in the fall of 2012, a member of ChoralNet www.choralnet.org posted this query:

I have just listened to the Tanglewood Festival Choir sing Beethoven’s 9th symphony. I came to Tanglewood with a group called Road Scholar and they had a lecturer who knocked the forth [sic] movement, the choral movement as being out of place and just wrong for the symphony. He quoted a lot of scholars including Beethoven, but he did not have a comment from a choral singer. I wonder what choral singers and conductors think about this piece. My only comment as an alto is that it is too high but it is my favorite symphony. In fact I downloaded only the last movement to my I-pod and play it all the time. Comments please. I would like to refute this expert. (http://choralnet.org/view/395090)
Here, slightly edited, is the response I posted:

I, too, am in the midst of rehearsals of the mighty Ninth...

The last movement is an organic continuation, and summation, and apotheosis, of the first three movements.

Consider the long opening of the fourth movement: here is humanity – voiced by the basses and celli singing the amazing instrumental recitative – searching for the ultimate expression of love and beauty and expression. Within this narrative, Beethoven considers, and rejects, the themes and ideas of the first, second, and third movements.

Eventually, the basses and celli give us the “Joy” theme – and it flows on in sublime beauty, especially with the introduction of the bassoons and clarinets in counterpoint - oh my.

To really understand this, one must know that the “Joy” melody was composed for Schiller’s words, even though we are not aware of those words until the baritone soloist sings them some pages later. (Beethoven had drafted this melody, specifically for Schiller’s words, years before he began work on the Ninth in earnest.)

Now, Beethoven could have concluded the symphony with a typical sonata form treatment, or a rondo allegro, or theme and variations based on the “Joy” theme or other thematic material, all done with instruments alone. But Beethoven introduces a human voice (the baritone soloist) to tell us – in his own words, not Schiller’s – “Not these tones!” No, we must have words to complete the expression of humanity.** Beethoven loved words, literature, poetry – and here he melds music and words perfectly to create something that is bigger than either words or music. When the baritone begins the first verse proper, we understand that the “Joy” theme is not an instrumental theme (not these tones!) but a vocal theme, crafted for these very words. And one voice is not enough – we need a large chorus and four soloists and the wonderful orchestra to express the ideas of human love that are too big, too grand, too magnificent to be contained in conventional forms and orchestration and vocal tessiture.

**Wagner loved the Ninth for this reason – it’s telling that the Ninth was performed at the laying of the cornerstone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus – Wagner conducted.

I love singing the Ninth, even though this weekend’s four performances (!) will be something like the 12th-16th times that I’ve performed it in the last five years. Audiences want to hear this work. It is important. I always remember that there will be people in the audience, or in the orchestra, or in the chorus, who might be hearing, playing, or singing it for the very first time. I sing for them.

Though I’m a soprano and have to sing those 70+ high As (yes, someone has counted them), I always enjoy studying, rehearsing, and performing the Ninth. I never tire of it. The key is to sing lightly, with lots of head voice in those high notes, without too much vibrato, and pace yourself carefully, especially, if you have (as I do) three rehearsal nights followed by four performance nights. Whew! In a large chorus, no one needs to scream. It doesn’t all have to be fortissimo. Fifty sopranos singing high A well will sound better than 60 sopranos, 10 of whom are struggling.

For more insights into Beethoven and the Ninth, I highly recommend a 2010 book by Harvey Sachs, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824. It’s a highly readable, not-too-long book that explores the Ninth in the context of the social, political, literary, psychological, and musical contexts of the period. You will learn, for example, about the reasons for Beethoven’s choice of a “Turkish” march, including discussion of instrumentation there. I was fascinated to learn that Beethoven had long wanted to set Schiller's “Ode,” and to learn more about the place of that particular literary work in the thinking of the time. There’s also discussion of why Beethoven might have written the choral parts as he did. I enjoyed Sachs’s survey of reviews and reactions from Beethoven’s contemporaries, as well as a discussion of how the work has been regarded over time. Sachs also includes a detailed, but readable, analysis of the entire symphony - not a structural or musical analysis, per se, but more of an extended program note that explains the relationships between the movements and how the fourth synthesizes and crowns the whole. His overview of the final movement is extremely germane to this thread. Highly recommended; in fact, I just re-read it last week.

Also recommended is Maynard Solomon’s wonderful biography of Beethoven - a gold mine.

Jan Swafford’s take on Beethoven’s Ninth is, I think the best, particularly this passage (I’ve emphasized the sentences that catch me in my musical gut):

Famously, the Ninth first emerges from a whispering mist to towering, fateful proclamations. 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, 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, from east to west, high to low, naive to sophisticated. When the bass speaks the first words in the finale, an invitation to sing for joy, the words come from Beethoven, not Schiller. It’s the composer talking to everybody, to history. That’s what’s so moving about those words. There Beethoven greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.

Swafford, Jan. “The Beethoven Mystery: Why Haven’t We Figured Out His Ninth Symphony Yet?” Slate, June 30, 2003.
And “that humble little tune that anybody can sing”? I remember when my wonderful daughter was about 12, as she and I were listening to a recording of the Ninth (I was preparing for a performance, which she attended), she sang along with the “Joy” theme. Later she 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.”


As a follow-up to my comment above, wherein I mentioned that I sing for those in the audience who have never heard the Ninth “live”: Yesterday I sang the last of four consecutive performances of the Ninth .... After Saturday’s performance, I ran into a 60s-something friend (we sang in the same church choir) who had been in the audience. It was her first “live” Ninth, though she knows it well from recordings. She was deeply moved and very grateful to have heard it. And at the conclusion of our final performance yesterday, I found myself in tears as the orchestra concluded the glorious coda after the last choral entry. It was overwhelming in its beauty and power. And when the audience leapt to its feet even while the strings were still vibrating, well, I doubt there were many dry eyes in that packed concert hall. (All four performances were sold out.)

The Ninth, especially that fourth movement that the tour guide derided, endures and will endure. And I look forward to singing it again and again.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Chorister

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