by Andrew Filmer
Legend has it that by the time Beethoven premiered his Ninth Symphony in 1824, he had become totally deaf, and he conducted hearing the notes only his head, providing the clearest symbolism of how a composer communicates his music to an audience. The story also goes that he missed sections of his own music, but that his orchestra musicians led by their concertmaster found a way to make their maestro’s music happen. At the close of the fourth movement, the applause was deafening to all except those already deaf, and the alto had to turn Beethoven around on his podium so that he could see the tribute his music had earned.
The significance of Beethoven’s Ninth centers much on the choice of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy which he took as the lyrical base of his symphony. Caryl Clark notes that Beethoven truly believed in the message of the poem, even when in the society of his day partisanship overtook unity:
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Your magic power unites what strict custom has divided;
All men [will] become brothers
where your gentle wing rests.
“Beethoven continued to believe in this dream, long after it had become unfashionable,” wrote Clark. This faith rings true today: as a symbol of brotherhood, an arrangement of the opus has become the anthem of today’s European Union. It was famously performed to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the ‘Ode to Joy’ for that day becoming the ‘Ode to Freedom’. Albeit a contested issue, Thomas Kelly remarks that the standard length of all CDs today – 74 minutes – was chosen specifically because it would be able to incorporate a full recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
The standing held by this work is not only because of the words Beethoven chose to elevate – it was also the musical role this particular symphony played. Erich Hertzmann noted: “Many lines lead up to him; many lead away from him… Beethoven occupies a position of the greatest significance in the history of music: he completes one epoch and begins another.”
The Ninth Symphony was one of those groundbreaking events. Jan Swafford pointed out the elements that bring a sense of mystery to the symphony: the indecisive, antithetical “everything heroes aren’t” first movement, the unusual placing of the energy of the second movement followed by the calm of the third, and finally the dissonant entry of the joyous last movement, which Richard Wagner called the “terror fanfare”. Swafford concludes that it is this mystery which leads us to the Ninth just as others are led to the Mona Lisa: “Nobody has figured out what Beethoven meant by all this. The result has been that every age and ideology has simply claimed the music for its own. Communists, Catholics, lefties, and reactionaries have joined in the chorus.”
It is this ability to have a work that everyone in the hall – performers and listeners alike – can shape that makes the Ninth Symphony timeless. Galia Hanoch-Roe concurs:
“Freedom of choice is inherent in the musical work, and even Beethoven’s Ninth, moral, sublime and humanitarian as it is, contains aggressiveness and impulsiveness, and thus allows a choice for each to hear or see it as one wishes. The same Ninth encloses in its musical and textual elements an ode to humanitarian brotherly love alongside violent and aggressive messages, and the complete person is allowed a choice in the meaning it furnishes.”
The opening notes of the Ninth Symphony leave out the essential third scale-degree, making us wonder for a moment if a major or minor key is in store. From the very start, it lets imagination meet halfway between the audience and the musicians, just as Beethoven had intended as he stepped onto the podium more than a century and a half ago.