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As I See It... (9 August, 2005)

9 August, 2005

The Ninth Symphony - in D Minor Opus No. 125, was performed for the first time on May 7, 1824, at the Karntnerthor Theater in Vienna. ‘Herr Ludwig van Beethoven,’ said the official announcement of the concert, ‘will himself participate in the general direction.’ Beethoven had finished the symphony three months before, and the conclusion of the task had cheered his spirits, so that he might once again have been seen on his promenades in Vienna, greeting his friends and acquaintances, and ‘gazing into the shop-windows through eyeglasses which dangled at the end of a black ribbon.’

Between the completion of the First Symphony and the final scoring of the Ninth, a quarter of a century had elapsed, and Beethoven, having produced one masterpiece after another during that period, fraught with anguish and peace in unequal proportions, now felt that perhaps he should be content with his latest unique achievement in the symphonic form.

The Vienna concert of May 7, 1824, was scheduled to begin at seven o’clock, and the Grand Symphony with Solo and Chorus Voices entering in the Finale on Schiller’s Ode to Joy, was the third item on the programme. Prices of admission were ‘as usual.’ The Imperial Family was late. They were engaged in laying a cornerstone for some grandiose building somewhere. Therefore the imperial box was empty at first. With this exception, the theater was full. Beethoven was present on the stage, dressed in a “black dress-coat, white neckerchief, and waistcoat, black silk stockings, and shoes with buckles.”

The 9th Symphony made a profound impression, and there were enthusiastic demonstrations by the audience. Michael Umlauf conducted, and Schuppanzigh was the concert master. Beethoven sat in the middle of the orchestra, following the performance with his score. The Conversation Book preserves a report which runs as follows : “Never in my life did I hear such frenetic yet correct applause… when the ovation broke out in cries for the fifith time, the Police Commissioner who was present, shouted : Silence!”

Three successive bursts of clapping were the rule for the Imperial Family, and Beethoven got five. No wonder the police were annoyed. (Let us hope the memory of this incident brought some consolation to Beethoven two and a half years later, when the King of Prussia palmed off on him a doubtful diamond ring, in return for the Ninth Symphony.)

To all the excitement, Beethoven, deaf and engrossed in his score, was pathetically oblivious. The tale of the incident that followed has become one of the classic Beethoven anecdotes, but it is so touching and dramatic that it bears unlimited repetition. Sir George Grove, the historian of music, thus relates it, as it was told to him in 1859 by Fraulein Unger, who had sung the alto part in the quartet : “The master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it at all, and was not even sensible of the applause of the audience at the end of his great work, but continued standing with his back to the audience and beating time, till Fraulein Unger turned him, or induced him to turn and face the enraptured gathering, who were still clapping their hands and giving way to the uncontrollable expressions of pleasure. His turning about, and the sudden conviction thereby, forced on everybody that he had not done so before because he could not hear what was going on, acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed.”

Beethoven had been contemplating the extraordinary notion of concluding a symphony with a full chorus. He made sketches of this idea, and finally produced a charming work entitled Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra in C Minor, Opus No.80. I came across, quite by chance, an LP of a superb performance of this startling work, with Leonard Bernstein as conductor and soloist, with the New York Philharmonic. Maybe it’s on a CD now. It was uncanny how the “Joy” motif was first introduced. Listen to it!

Many lovers of the 9th insist on its metaphysical qualities. It is quite true that Beethoven was a master of evolving theories, and he loved the conceptions of equality and freedom with forbidding passion. He never got over it when Napoleon, his ideal hero, became a ruthless dictator. Perception of his endless innovation, is perhaps a key to a proper understanding of his music. The best way to appreciate the development of Beethoven’s musical idiom and his inimitable style, is to make a profound study of his piano sonatas and string quartets. This I have been able, more or less, to achieve.

Richard Wagner once confessed that everything he knew about musical composition he had learned from a constant study of, and reference to, the Ninth Symphony! The Season at Bayreuth always commenced with a dedicated performance of this masterwork!

In recent times, the Symphony has, to my mind, been somehow disrespected by its ‘commercial’ adoption to commemorate certain national and international occasions, which seem to me to be in direct opposition to the glory of manhood and comradeship which Schiller’s Ode raises to the skies, and ties man in an indissoluble bond with Nature.

The format of the symphony is formal enough. But, instead of the usual 3 movements, in the Mozartian tradition, it harks back to Haydn, and has 4! They are : 1. Allegro ma non troppo (Spirited, but not too much so). 2. Molto vivace (Full of vigour). 3. Adagio molto cantabile (Mellow and singable). 4. Presto (Fast). The Choral Finale.

It was inevitable that in the course of his vast reading Beethoven would immerse himself in the poetry of the great playwright and poet, Johann Christoph Frederick Schiller. This genius, and close friend of Goethe, dominated the cultural scene in Germany. Though trained as a lawyer, and having served in the military, he gravitated to Weimar, to perfect his art, and gained renown. The Hymn to Joy stands out in the galaxy of his immortal poems.

Pythagoras believed and taught that the universe came about through the concourse of musical sounds, resulting in Eternal Harmony.

John Dryden, in A Song for St Cecelia’s Day put it succinctly and with sweet finality,

From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.

Schiller’s Hymn opens with :

Joy, thou source of light immortal,
Daughter of Elysium,
Touched with fire, to the portal
Of thy radiant shrine we come.
Thy pure magic frees all others
Held in Custom’s rigid rings;
Men throughout the world are brothers
In the haven of thy wings.

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