LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, “Choral” (1824)
Writing about a cultural icon like Beethoven’s last symphony is a little like tackling a discussion about the pyramids. The work is so familiar, so monumental, so awe-inspiring that words seem irrelevant and puny. Then try to imagine what it was like at the premiere of the Ninth in Vienna on May 7, 1824. For those in attendance it must have been a shock. Though he was almost completely deaf, Beethoven provided the tempo at the beginning of each movement (but orchestra, soloists, and chorus followed the beat provided by Michael Umlauf, music director of the Imperial Theater). Beethoven had already pushed the boundaries of the symphonic genre, starting with the “Eroica,” freighting it with deep meaning and emotion never heard before; but no one had ever included vocal soloists or choral writing in a symphony. When the performance was over, reports George Marek in his Beethoven biography, it was the alto soloist Caroline Unger who “plucked [the composer] by the sleeve and gently turned him around toward the audience. When he saw what was going on, he bowed, and when the audience realized that he had heard nothing of their previous expression of enthusiasm, they redoubled it. He had to bow again and again.” Beethoven hadn’t composed a symphony for a decade, and now this transcendent work stood apart from what had gone before. And yet it still embodies the ideals we associate with his music, expressed more grandly and more beautifully than ever: the triumph over adversity, the journey from anguish to joy, from conflict to harmony, epitomized in Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” the text Beethoven set in the final movement (and which seems to have supplanted the more customary subtitle of the Ninth, “Choral”). Its poetry rings out in exultation, celebrating a world united in brotherhood and friendship—in the awe-inspiring presence of a loving Father who dwells beyond the stars—while the music’s nobility, majesty, optimism, and euphoric harmonies enfold us in a sublime embrace.