Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beethoven's Symphony 9 in D Minor (Choral) Op. 125

I've written how Beethoven brought to western music the idea that musical compositions should be vehicles of self-expression. Musical forms are used when they serve that purpose, or altered when they did not.

Called the most important and significant musical work of the 19th century, Beethoven completed his ninth symphony more than a decade after his popular eighth symphony. By this time, he was completely deaf in one ear, and was clinically deaf. But the genesis of this work went back all the way to the late 18th century, when he toyed with the idea of setting the poem An die Freude ("Ode to Joy"). The poem shows up from time to time in his journals. These dates come from Robert Greenberg, who tells us that it was the 1803 version of the poem that is finally used.

But, to start off, the first three movements portray the conflict between the tragic key of D minor, and the heroic theme of B-flat major. D major will also play a role as well. Beethoven will use themes from earlier movements as part of the the development section of later movements. This is especially true for the fourth movement.

While it is the fourth movement is the most famous, an appreciation of the earlier movements enhance enjoyment of the last. The first movement is a very large piece of music. It begins with the playing of two notes that could be the notes to either a major or minor chord, hence there's an ambiguity asto what key is being played. Soon, however, the key conflicts begin between major and minor keys. During this movement, a hint of the Ode to Joy will be played.

The second movement begins as the first one ends, in D minor. In this scherzo, the time signature will change in the trio section.

The third movement has some of the most beautiful, lyrical music in all of Beethoven's symphonies. It just gets shadowed by the fourth movement.

The fourth movement has a bit of drama. A loud, crashing dissonance is followed by a "hero" who comes in on the low strings. A series of themes from earlier movements follow, interspersed by rejection of the "hero". It isn't until the orchestra suggests the Ode to Joy (in German, Freude) that the hero finds a desirable theme. But the hero gets cut off by the repeat of the opening crash. Once played, there's a brief pause until a baritone barks out "Freude!, and begins to sing part of the poem. The theme gets a lot of play, as Beethoven sets nine of the eighteen stanzas of the ode. There is a chorus, which from here on out sings along with the orchestra.

Having a chorus in a symphony was new to western music, and forever cemented the principle that music should be self-expressive. If a chorus is needed to make a musical statement, then one is included. (Later composers, such as Gustav Mahler, would also use a chorus).

Listening to this work over the last week, I finally found myself understanding just what Beethoven was trying to put to music. What started out as a back-and-forth winds and low strings in the last movement became an expression of emotion that I can't quite name. Perhaps one part is the struggle Beethoven suffered having lost his hearing, while having his life-role being a composer. But a complex piece like this lends itself to discovery with each playing.

At the end of the premier of the symphony, the audience jumped to its feet and roared its approval. As Beethoven had been sitting in a part of the theater with his back to the audience, he had no idea of the ovation for his work. Someone had to turn him around so he could see the crowd.


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