Steve Heronemus

Beethoven’s 9th Through My Ears

At the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Beethoven’s 9th, Riccardo Muti conducted a soaring, instantly legendary performance.

The Symphony emerged from the Baroque period as a grand form of composition suited for wealthy courts that could gather and afford to pay a large number and variety of musicians.  It was developed and standardized during the classical period, particularly with Mozart, who wrote more than 40 symphonies, and Hayden, who wrote more than 100.  Ludwig van Beethovenwas a student of Haydn’s and his early symphonies reflect his teacher’s style.

A Classical Symphony consists of 4 movements- fast, slow, dance (usually waltz or minuet tempo) and fast.  The performance time of a Symphony was normally 20 to 35 minutes.  Variations of tempo within a movement are not allowed, with the possible exception of a slow introduction to the first movement.  This introduction served to establish the key but never contained a musical theme.

Each movement was in sonata form, which consists of three main sections: an exposition, a development, and a recapitulation. The exposition presents two themes, elaborated and contrasted in a development where the themes are broken up and woven through different rhythms and keys and then resolved in a recapitulation where the themes are heard again.  The main theme for the fourth movement was a variation of the theme from one of the other three movements, normally the first.

The first thing you may have noticed about the CD is that the Ninth Symphony is the only piece on a disc.  This Symphony is easily twice as long as Haydn – era symphonies. There is a persistent legend that the recording capacity of the CD (74 minutes) is based on a desire by the engineers to fit Beethoven’s Ninth on one disc.

Beethoven was a fervent believer in Enlightenment ideals of replacing the ruling class structures and rules with liberty for and equality of all people. Reason, invention and creativity were valued over birth station, and free will connected us and liberated all to find joy in a life path of each person’s choosing rather than birthright. He had a very emotional stake in these ideals, having been twice rejected for  marriage by women of nobility because of his common birth. He never did marry.

The piece begins with an introduction reminiscent of players tuning their instruments. Was Beethoven trying to annoy the nobility, who liked to gather in their box seats just as the orchestra was tuning so they can be last into the hall and be seen by everyone?  In the Ninth Symphony, the nobility would have been scuffling for their seats while the music had already started.

At the end of the Introduction there is a dissonance. This is created by two complete chords being played at the same time. Neither of the two chords are actually in the key of the piece, so Beethoven uses the Introduction to confuse the key rather than establish it.

The first notes of the Development section are the same as the “tuning notes” we heard in the introduction. Since the rules say you can only develop a theme, the “Introduction” was actually the first theme of the movement. Beethoven broke three rules of composition in the first eight measures.

This funeral march is Beethoven’s way of saying the old ways of composition are done and buried. It is preceded by a slowing of tempo – not allowed within a movement.

2nd Movement Wait – isn’t this supposed to be the slow movement? It is actually faster than the first movement. The theme takes the form of a fugue, something that was only rarely done before. In the middle of the fugue theme, the timpani continues the melodic line. This is the first instance of a percussion instrument being used for melody and not just accent.

3rd Movement Finally, a slow movement. Try counting out beats per measure. Stumped? Beethoven groups phrases into varying lengths, disguising the written meter of four beats per measure. He alternates these groupings freely and even sometimes has different instruments playing different groupings at the same time.

This is incredibly complex, yet the overall effect is peaceful – the music simply flows, growing and ebbing organically like the meanderings of a stream. Exposition, development and recapitulation happen in no particular order like creative eddies merging into the stream’s current. Here Beethoven shows us that music is about what is inside us, the freedom and limitless possibility emanating from the voice of God within your soul, not about rules and structures. This is genius most profound and sublime; art that changed my soul and changed how all of Western culture approached music.

The horn solo is written for the fourth horn (last chair) player and lasts for many minutes. Beethoven’s Ninth remains the only piece I know of where the last chair is traditionally asked by the conductor to stand and be recognized with applause. Beethoven lavishly uplifts and honors the musical voice of even the lowest. More in my book Shells.

The brass flourish underscores Beethoven’s pleasure with his new musical language and announces even more musical revolution to come.

The 4th Movement is really a symphony within the symphony. It has four major sections with an Introduction. It jars the listener out of the serenity of the 3rd movement with a massive set of dissonant layered chords. This is revolution after all, and revolution is never comfortable. Don’t bother even trying to count tempo changes. There are at least 10 in the first few minutes, and some sections are simply labeled “Free”.  Beethoven extends the ideals of liberty and free will even to the conductors and performers of his own work.

The first three “Movements” break the same rules that Beethoven broke earlier in this symphony. In the Introduction, Beethoven teasingly inserts segments of the themes from each of the first three movements, making us wonder which of the themes he will use as a basis for the major theme of the fourth movement. Each time, though, the cellos and basses interrupt the theme, acting as Beethoven’s inner voice saying “I am not going back to a traditional form” and seemingly searching for a new direction.

The cellos and basses suggest a brand-new theme, the familiar “Ode to Joy”, that spreads through the orchestra and chorus like wildfire. Chorus? This is the first time soloists and chorus have been included in a symphony. Unlike the oratorio form, where there was a hierarchy of importance – soloists at the top, then chorus, with the orchestra in a supporting role – here each is an equal partner. At times soloists, chorus and orchestra perform individual musical themes; even the soloists sing ever more divergent lines, again demonstrating the result of individuals acting freely and harmoniously. This is the joy of equality and freedom for all destroying the shackles of tyranny.

It is easy for us to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with our 21st century ears and values and say “that was lovely”.  But doing this trivializes the reality that you have just heard the echo of a massive tectonic shift in Western history.

Art was liberated from rules and form, and from the control of royalty and gifted to the people. Without this momentous work, first performed in a subscription concert for the general public, the grand gift of symphonic composition may have collapsed along with the ruling families of Europe. Never again would a symphony be written for or debuted in a royal court. Art became of, by and for the people, Beethoven became the Thomas Jefferson of culture and the Ninth art’s declaration of independence.

Even the ideas of what constituted civil society in an age of commoners freed from royal rule took form as the Ninth’s popularity gave rise to the ideal of the “gebildete”, or cultured, person. One can argue that, without the Ninth, the environment of creative freedom that gave us Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, van Gogh, Picasso, Rodin, and Martha Graham would not have existed. One can further argue that the cultured society necessary to appreciate their art and make them popular would not have existed.

And, nearly 200 years after its premiere, the 9th’s messages of unity, hope and freedom from tyranny keep it relevant today. Leonard Bernstein conducted an historic performance at Berlin’s Brandenburg gate to celebrate the reunification of Germany after the collapse of communism and protesters in Tiananmen Square played recordings of it. Daniel Barenboim led Israeli and Palestinian musicians in a West Bank performance, various groups have played it in Havana and many commemorations of the 9/11 tragedy have featured it.

Not bad for some 74 minutes of sound penned by a man who couldn’t hear. And maybe that’s Beethoven’s ultimate revolution – shattering the illusion of personal limitations based on external perceptions in favor of a world of infinite possibility because of who we are on the inside.