Beethoven is the ultimate progressive, believing that the world exists for us to improve. While his own circumstances were miserable – loveless, pain-stricken and frustratingly deaf – he retained to the last a shining faith in peace and understanding.Norman Lebrecht
At the end of his Missa Solemnis, Beethoven asks great and terrible questions. Why are we here? What is the point of existence? How can we achieve peace, both for ourselves, our society and our planet? These questions have vexed the greatest philosophers in history and Beethoven could be excused for simply ducking out the back door and leaving us all with the questions raised by that faux-unresolved chord at the very end of his great mass.
But that really wasn’t Beethoven’s style. Even as he was polishing up his great mass, Beethoven was already hard at work on something he hadn’t done in more than a decade–composing a symphony. In his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven resolved to leave no doubt as to his purpose; for the first time, Beethoven would speak directly to his audience in a language other than tones. And in this symphony, Beethoven would conclusively answer these great questions.
The Ninth Symphony is a work on a massive scale, laying down a marker so daunting that composers for the next 100 years spent the better parts of their lives wrestling with it. Indeed, it was the Ninth Symphony that gave rise to the formal discipline of musicology. While composers frequently studied the scores of their predecessors and contemporaries, the formal academic study of music was unknown in the West. Whether it was its message—a sonic wrecking ball of humanist ideals, advocating for social change, hope for the masses and prefiguring the political reforms to come over the century—or the chaotic music tied to a central coherence that seemingly slips through your fingers every time you think you’ve found it, academics across multiple disciplines have never tired of examining this remarkable work.
How to even begin taking about, in such and abridged fashion, this iconic symphony? Even the great composer, Hector Berlioz, considered that offering an opinion or analysis of it was a fool’s errand. Well, fortunately, I am exactly that sort of fool.
The Ninth Symphony was written on a grand scale, for an orchestra far larger than any that had come before it. Of course, Beethoven was completely deaf by this point–so it is worth stating that Beethoven was imagining a sound in his head that he was unable to test in practice, unlike any other composer in history. And it’s not like Beethoven had dumbed down his music–if anything, the Ninth finds Beethoven at his most revolutionary. Timpani solos? Yes, please. A full chorus? Absolutely. Complex fugues? Of course. A symphony composed on a vast scale, not equaled until the operas of Richard Wagner and the symphonies of Gustav Mahler? Naturally.
But that vast scope isn’t immediately apparent. In contrast to so many of his great symphonic works, the Ninth doesn’t open with a statement of intent. Instead, we are presented with music best described as “orchestrated silence.” Barely perceptible, the first theme begins to emerge from this primordial ooze–strings playing open fifths, As and Es, for 17 measures. This is music at its most basic–it is as if Beethoven is reaching back to the dawn of Western music, before the invention of the triad, to build his harmony. Some have compared this to the orchestra tuning up, since violins tune first on an A and E, but Beethoven has a deeper purpose here. Removing the third from the chord, allows Beethoven’s symphony to opens ambiguously, since a fifth is neither major nor minor. This is an idea that Beethoven will repeatedly return to: Ambiguity is part of the key to unlocking this score.
Beethoven builds his music gradually, through dynamics and rhythm primarily, and harmonics secondarily (by adding descending fourths to the score). We get the sense that Beethoven is building the music to something big, and the rhythm suggests both anticipation and nervousness in equal measure. Slowly, Beethoven brings in more instruments, almost imperceptibly–and when the horns and timpani announce themselves, we get the first theme, in glorious and terrible D Minor, the key of despair. Beethoven has added the third to his fifths, completing the chord and resolving the ambiguity. but theme is jagged and decidedly unmelodic. Rather, it is a command: Beethoven has orchestrated the moment of creation.
And then the music repeats, but the fifth is now a D and an A, giving us the sense that we are moving to something different. The second theme (in heroic B Flat Major, a third below D Minor) is sweet and stands in sharp contrast to the angry first theme. Beethoven begins to develop the second theme in a series of variations on the original motif (which includes a remarkable synthesis of the second theme’s harmony with the first theme’s rhythm).
The music is becoming more complex–and a more realized soundscape emerges. D Minor reemerges and struggles with the new key for supremacy. At times, it appears that Beethoven is developing both themes, albeit in fragments (even presenting part of the first theme in the key of the second!). And just as B Flat Major appears to have conclusively won the day, the primordial music returns and we enter the development section another third lower, in G Minor. Angsty and rage-driven music takes over, drowning out the sweetness. Repetitive, almost obsessive, Beethoven’s angst appears to recede, but it is a false dawn–the recapitulation comes, shocking and without warning (and with a barely perceptible key change to D Major, the key of triumph, breaking the rules about the restatement of the theme).
This key change to D Major is one of the more incredible moments in a work filled with them. Again, we are dealing with intentional ambiguity and this barely perceptible key change is important both for the resolution of this movement and the overall theme of the symphony. First, why is the key change so hard to hear? Because Beethoven puts the third that defines the key, F Sharp, in the lowest register (bassoons and basses), making it both difficult to hear and highly unstable. The struggle between minor (mostly D) and major (mostly D and B Flat) is an idea that Beethoven will repeatedly return to over the course of the symphony. And by shifting here, from minor to the parallel major, Beethoven hints at the meaning: The Answer he promised will be one of hope. But, at least for the moment, this hopefulness is lost amidst music filled with despair and defiance. Opinions differ on whether this opening chord of the recapitulation is terrifying or triumphant. To me, it is neither. I hear Beethoven’s defiant hope, despite everything. Defiant hope amidst a world filled with misery and despair would not be stable, it would be tenuous at best. And that’s exactly what Beethoven gives us. The instability of D Major is soon apparent as the mood darkens with a return to D Minor. At the close, a funeral march emerges, and Beethoven’s foul mood consumes all in its path, building to the final, inescapable, and inevitable resolution. But what is it? The final chord is an unharmonized D–our ears are tuned to D Minor, so that’s what I inevitably here. But it also could be D Major. This ambiguity is the Question, restated.
By the time we get to the end of the movement, it feels as if we have heard an entire symphony. Beethoven has said so much–this would be impossible to top, right? And yet, Beethoven does so, flipping the script and deferring the traditional slow second movement. With a motif that nearly as recognizable as the four-note motif that opens his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven unleashes a scherzo of incredible power. This movement is about Earthly Pleasure. Typically placed as the third movement, the scherzo evolved out of the minuet, so is supposed to be at least notionally a dance. But this is no light dance–the frenetic energy and angst of the first movement gets even more intense here, no more so than in the famous four attacks that open the movement. This motif is a black comment on the serene opening of the first movement. There, the descending tones were peaceful and undisturbed; here, they are jagged and threatening. The opening motif evolves into the first theme, which is really an echo of sorts of the principal theme of the first movement. But there is no doubt that we are firmly in D Minor this time around, as the timpani, given a solo of sorts, is tuned to F. Beethoven thus links these two movements together, harmonically, and rhythmically. The theme evolves into a fugue, which leads to the first climax, a wild and uncontrolled dance that reminds me of a 90s era mosh pit. And by the time you can get a handle on what is going on, Beethoven flips the script, moving to C Major and unleashing another frantic dance. Following a transition, the fugue repeats, allowing Beethoven to show off. The theme had been originally presented in four beats, now it returns in a rhythm of three beats. Then the fugue returns to four beats, but becomes more complex, overlapping every two bars. This is superior stuff, a master at play. The main theme returns, more terrible than before, leading to wild celebration alternating between D Major and D Minor.
The trio, the second half of a scherzo movement–opens with a simple country dance. This theme recalls the B Flat Major theme of the first movement, while prefiguring the pastoral idyl of the next movement. And just as we’ve settled into this pure and simple music, as the scherzo returns with a fury. The movement ends with a joke (scherzo of course means joke in Italian)–just as it appears that Beethoven is about repeat the trio, he pulls the rug out and the entire movement comes to a crashing stop. Again, the movement ends with unharmonized Ds. But this time around, Beethoven has tuned our ears to D Major–something hopeful this way comes?
Hope comes in the form of a “sublimely beautiful” adagio. I will confess that, beautiful though it may be, my finger more often than not starts slipping to the skip track button here. This movement just slows everything down just as I’m ready for it to take off. But if I’ve learned anything over the last several weeks diving into Beethoven’s music it is this: He knows best. So what is Beethoven getting at? Why this languid slow movement?
Let’s recap what brought us to this point. In the first movement, Beethoven presents a epic struggle with the fundamental questions of existence. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life (the universe–everything!)? You can hear Beethoven raging against his faith, against divine Providence, against fate in this monumental movement. The second, while more playful, retains that sense of a man shaking his fist at the universe. And by the time we’ve reached the abrubt ending to the second movement, we’re about half an hour in. Simply put, Beethoven is exhausted. The orchestra is exhausted. The audience is exhausted. We are all emotionally drained.
Here in the third movement, Beethoven stops shaking his fist at the world. He’s poured out his emotions to us for 30 minutes and now, at long last, music’s great angry man appears to have accepted his fate. This–Beethoven’s great chorale–is nothing less than acceptance of the world by a man who is close to the end of his life. He’s done fighting. The choice of a chorale (a harmonized hymn) is surprising–this is the first time that Beethoven has used this form in one of his symphonies. Perhaps Beethoven is recalling the Lutheran tradition here, or perhaps he’s simply making fun of the chorus, which has been on stage for over half an hour without anything to do while calling our attention to the dozens of singers sitting on stage.
Structurally, the third movement is composed as a double theme and variation. The first theme (B Flat Major) seems to waft along at its own pace, disappearing into nothingness. This recalls the second more peaceful theme of the first movement, again tying the symphony together harmonically. A second theme (D Major–the other primary hopeful key in the symphony) emerges at a faster tempo, leading to the first variation on Theme A, the first variation on Theme B (in G Major), before arriving at the second variation of Theme A in the significant key of E Flat Major. And this is where Beethoven starts to go off on his own, ignoring the bounds of theme and variation. Beethoven elongates the A Theme and the choice of key darkens the mood. The pizzicato from the second variation of the B Theme reoccurs, questioning whether the two themes have merged. The music becomes nearly black and the despair of the first movement threatens to return, but the A Theme returns (perhaps with traces of Theme B) in a joyful, floating dance. A loud intervention–a fanfare of brass–is heard but ignored as the A Theme dance returns. But the brass will not be denied. The fanfare returns, even more insistent than before. And yet, the A Theme returns, leaving that dramatic chord hanging in the air, unresolved.
And, just as the A Theme threatens to take the music away into the ether, Beethoven brings us crashing back down to earth with terrifying intensity. The fourth movement, the most famous movement in all of symphonic music, has started. Wagner called this the Schreckensfanfare–the “horror fanfare”. It is, without question, supremely dissonant and shocking. How does Beethoven produce this effect–and why? Unpacking the music reveals that it is a chord that combines the two primary keys of the first movement–D Minor and B-Flat Major. This is conflict on a massive scale.
The low strings emerge, seemingly insistent on saying something. The orchestra recalls the opening of the first movement, but the low strings interrupt the theme, rejecting it. In doing so, Beethoven rejects his despair–that is not the Answer. The orchestra then offers up the fugue from the second movement, but the low strings reject that theme also. Earthly Pleasure isn’t the Answer either. Then Theme A from the third movement reappears but is also rejected. This is just too tender and languid–our souls need lifting. We are looking for something else. The orchestra suggests a new simple, yet easily recognizeable melody in D Major. And this new melody is accepted by the low strings. We have found the Answer.
A few words about this theme. First, as I noted several weeks ago, Beethoven borrowed this idea from Mozart–listen starting about 0:55 in the below.
Beethoven loved this theme. He used it first in an early song called Gegenliebe–listen to the below starting at 2:55:
And, again, in his Choral Fantasy–skip to 5:20 in the below:
Beethoven builds his great theme slowly. First come the basses. Then the other strings, the woodwinds, and, finally brass and timpani. The music revolves around the interval of a fifth–recalling the open fifths that open the symphony (it was D Major, after all). And careful inspection of the score reveals numerous instances where Beethoven has been prefiguring this theme in fragments, unknown to us. Those idyllic passages from the first three movements (the B Flat Major theme in the first movement, the opening theme of the trio in the second movement, Theme A of the third movement)? They are all related and all lead up to this moment when Beethoven pulls back the curtain. Beethoven has been training our ears to accept this theme too as the natural culmination of the symphony–it is as if Beethoven wants us to recognize that we all knew the Answer all along.
But just as glory appears to break out, the Schreckensfanfare returns and the music seems to be headed back into the muck. After a pause (pauses are so important in Beethoven!), a lone bass-baritone rises from the chorus and puts a stop to the gloom and despair:
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
These are Beethoven’s words:
O friends, not these tones!
Let us intone more pleasant ones.
More filled with joy.
And thus begins the Ode to Joy. There is so much to say about the remarkable fourth movement, but some things should be experienced first and analyzed second. Here, Beethoven resolves the conflict between his three principle keys in favor of the key of triumph, D Major. He unites the entire symphony, harmonically, rhythmically, and, for the first time, melodically. He calls upon the most secular of music (the Turkish march) and the most sacred (a hymn based on Palestrina). Into this musical vortex, all ideas are being consumed. There are no more questions. Only the Answer.
At the conclusion of the symphony, the orchestra races out in front (Beethoven notes “as fast as possible”), leaving the chorus behind. It is as if Beethoven is racing out ahead, leading us all to a better world. As one critic summarized:
That final movement itself is then an enactment of a victory for humanity, as individuals come together in joy and love: a community of choir, vocal soloists, and musicians that isn’t led by great men or even by God, but rather is built on the bonds between “brothers” of Schiller’s poem, as this new, true heroism of humanity creates its own destiny and fashions the world in which Beethoven wanted to live. That world symbolically includes geographical and ethnic diversities just as it encompasses the secular and sacred, in the Turkish music that interrupts the finale and with which the whole symphony noisily, joyously, overwhelmingly ends; as well as its virtuosic counterpoint, its sensuous polyphony and its cantata-like – but terrifyingly challenging – choral writing.Tom Service, The Guardian
The power of Beethoven’s music and his message of unity, peace and hope for all mankind has not dimmed across the centuries. It is the official anthem of the European Union. Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall—a concert that featured musicians not only from West and East Germany, but also from each of the four occupying powers of the US, France, Britain and Russia. The Ninth is performed every year in the penultimate concert of the BBC Proms, the greatest of all music festivals. It is performed annually across Japan every New Year.
I could fill an entire book with inspiring quotes about the Ninth, but I think it really does speak for itself. Schiller’s original German is more poetic, I like to think that this part of the Ode is Beethoven’s final message to us:
Whoever has succeeded in the great attempt,
To be a friend’s friend,
Whoever has won a lovely woman,
Add his to the jubilation!
Yes, and also whoever has just one soul
To call his own in this world!
And he who never managed it should slink
Weeping from this union!
All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breasts.
All the Just, all the Evil
Follow her trail of roses.
Kisses she gave us and grapevines,
A friend, proven in death.
Ecstasy was given to the worm
And the cherub stands before God.
Gladly, as His suns fly
through the heavens’ grand plan
Go on, brothers, your way,
Joyful, like a hero to victory.
And that is The Answer. In his last public appearance, Ludwig van Beethoven took only one character more than Deep Thought to provide the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.
The Answer is Joy.
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, “Choral”, Op. 125:
On May 7, 1824, Beethoven premiered the Ninth in Vienna. It was a typically fraught affair. Frustrated by Rossini’s success, Beethoven had threatened to premiere the new symphony in Berlin before being convinced to remain in Vienna. Securing a hall and performers was also challenging, and Beethoven had to settle for a group of amateurs who really weren’t up to the task. It didn’t matter. Beethoven’s fans turned out in droves, some being carried in on their deathbeds. One last time to see the master in the flesh.
Much has been made of Caroline Unger, the alto making her debut that night, tugging on Beethoven’s sleeve when the performance was over to turn him around towards the cheering crowd. It’s a nice story and one that is likely true. But there is another detail about this concert that often goes overlooked. The Ninth wasn’t the only work on the program that night. Beethoven also debuted some music that Viennese audiences hadn’t heard before. Three “hymns”, as they were billed, were performed right before the Ninth. In reality, they were the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei of the Missa Solemnis. If Beethoven was going to provide the Answer, he was sure that everyone first heard the Question.