Saturday, January 3, 2009

Beethoven: Symphony #9

"Whosoever has built a new Heaven has found the strength for it in his own Hell."

"The mightiest of Beethoven's symphonies."
--David Dubal, from The Essential Canon of Classical Music

With today's post, I've now finished listening to and writing about the entire cycle of Beethoven's symphonic works. And I have to thank this blog for helping me accomplish a task I've wanted to do all my life: listen closely and carefully to every single one of Beethoven's nine symphonies. It's been a profound and deeply moving experience for me.
Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Beethoven: Symphonie No. 9

Deutsche Grammophon, 1984

Classical music fans with at least a passing knowledge of Beethoven's life and biographical details will know the story of the premiere of the Ninth: Beethoven was actually on the stage with the musicians, assisting the conductor with setting the tempos. Completely deaf, he heard absolutely nothing of the performance.

Anecdotes abound about what exactly happened when the performance ended, but let's let the well-known music biographer George Grove tell us the story in his engrossing description of the event:

The master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it all and was not even sensible of the applause of the audience at the end of his great work, but continued standing with his back to the audience (and beating the time), till Fräulein Ungher, who had sung the contralto part, turned him, or induced him to turn around and face the people, who were still clapping their hands, and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning around, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had not done so before (because he could not hear what was going on) acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed, which was repeated again and again, and seemed as if it would never end.
--From Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies by George Grove

I know of no more compelling story in all of classical music.

Before we get to the listener notes for this symphony, let me share two resources that should be extremely useful if you are interested in learning more about Beethoven:

1) If you would like to listen to and learn all of Beethoven's nine symphonies, I strongly recommend this highly regarded box set, performed by the Chicago Symphony. You'll be able to acquire an excellent quality collection of all of his symphonies with one purchase.

2) Also, an extremely interesting (and free) online resource on Beethoven's Ninth is the lecture series Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: Then and Now by Harvard professor Thomas Kelly at the Harvard@Home site.

Listener notes for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony:
1) Doesn't the opening few moments of the symphony, right after the initial "falling fourths" notes, sound like an orchestra tuning up? It raises the suspense in the listener.

2) Dut dah! dut dah! Once again, Beethoven brings us a simple and yet utterly compelling musical motif.

3) Perhaps the opening of the second movement is as memorable as any opening in any movement of Beethoven's other symphonies. As is common in his symphonies, this opening motif is a variation of the motif from the beginning of the first movement.

4) By far, the most important musician in the third movement is the principal clarinetist. The clarinetist in the 1984 Berlin Phil/Karajan recording is unfortunately a bit shrill and a bit flat. It detracts from the performance.

5) At 8:33 in the third movement, the french horn has an interesting part--a simple eight-tone ascending major scale. When I hear a major scale, I think of all-county music auditions or boring musical drills, thus it's a bit shocking to hear this scale perfectly incorporated into this symphony.

6) Even though you know that there's going to be singing in this symphony, it's still seems slightly unreal when the male singer enters early on in the choral movement (in this recording, it is baritone singer Jose van Dam). In Beethoven's era, the use of choral singers in a symphony may not have been exactly revolutionary (after all, there already existed a tradition of combining chorus and orchestra in cantatas and oratorios), but I think you could reasonably call it progressive. And the way Beethoven combines the singing, the musical power, and the spiritual nature of this work makes the entire symphony overwhelming. It's almost too much to take in.

No comments: