So I know this is kind of a digression from what I normally talk about but it’s definitely not about heavy metal. I love Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and It’s getting to be that season where you start to hear Ode to Joy and thinking about classical standards. It’s not that I start thinking about the Ninth only at Christmas time but it seems like an appropriate time to talk about it. In fact, I think about it all year long.
This is by far my favourite symphony, I even know the baritone solo that starts the choral part. Before I get into the symphony itself I’ll throw down a little bit of background about the piece. This was Beethoven’s final symphony and he was mostly deaf when he composed it. He hadn’t published anything in a long time when the 9th came out and he was beginning to be forgotten. He had made a huge impact in Austria when he wrote the Eroica symphony also known as the third, for Napoleon. However he scratched out his name when Napoleon crowned himself emperor. Beethoven was a big supporter of republicanism. Even though most of his employers were royalty. Gradually Beethoven isolated himself more and more so by the end of his life he was considered past his prime, a recluse and a malcontent. The fact that he probably didn’t hear his last symphony is a testament to how great a composer he actually was.
This symphony was an enormous undertaking, on Beethoven and everyone who performs in it. It has a huge orchestra and chorus with four soloists. It was one of the longest symphonies up until that point in time, and we actually have this symphony to thank for our current CD length. One of the pioneers of compact discs loved this symphony so much that he insisted that the whole composition could fit on one CD. So the CD’s capacity was increased for 1 hour to 1 hour and 20 minutes. The symphony takes about 1:15 to 1:20 to play.
There are four movements, but most everyone knows the last one, the choral part. The first movement is a tempestuous one. It does something really odd. It starts off with the orchestra warming up before it launches into the movement. Completely unheard of for its time. Then the key of D minor switches to D major, which was another innovation no one had done before. The second movement has this falling sort of opening theme with an emphasis on the timpanis. If anyone lives in DC and listens to WGMS classical station this theme is used whenever they come back from a commercial break. I won’t go into any more detail on the theory mainly because I know very little theory. The third is a slow movement an adagio but it then builds up to the momentous fourth movement. In the beginning of the fourth movement the “Ode to Joy” theme is first played by the basses alone, the bass at this time was not seen as a standalone instrument and is just one more think about how rare this symphony was. One more interesting thing about the fourth is right before the tenor solo a funeral style dirge starts playing. A funeral dirge in a joyous symphony? It makes for an incredibly interesting symphony. As if Beethoven weren’t interesting enough already.
A few facts about the Ninth Symphony
In the movie Immortal Beloved this piece is what Beethoven’s alleged lover forgives him over because of its amazing beauty.
Beethoven and his Ninth symphony is considered the beginning of the romantic era of music
The poem used in the choral part was written by Friedrich Schiller in 1783
It debuted on May 7th 1824 an was a major success. However a repeat performance on the 23rd was not well attended.
Versions to listen to
Just like covers of songs no two versions of the Ninth are the same
1. Leonard Bernstein- world renowned conductor, and probably the most well known
2. Kurt Masur – This is the version I heard first. Great version, not too fast.
3. Hungarian Philharmonic- I have their set of all of Beethoven’s Symphonies, just wonderful.
4. Karl Bohm – Placido Domingo is one of the soloists.
I don’t suggest trying to find it on Youtube, it’s hard to find the whole symphony done by one orchestra, but it may be the best starting point. I personally would go out and get a copy of it.