The Beethoven symphonies are central to the life of musicians and audiences. Over the course of these nine masterpieces, Beethoven evolved not just his own music, but revolutionized all of music in a way and at a pace hitherto unprecedented. From the classical strains of his first to the universal themes of his last, there is not a single note out of place, not a single bar wasted, not a single idea unexplored. He challenges the orchestra to be its best. He demands rigour and attention of performers and listeners alike. And why? In order to express, through the abstract language of music, the most fundamental and tangible shared emotions of humankind. Joy, passion, warmth, mourning, hope, loss, melancholy, peace, victory, struggle, solidarity, desperation, reverence, simplicity... I cannot think of a state of mind that is not in one way or another expressed through this music.
As we begin our 50th anniversary season, we also begin our next artistic chapter in a reinvigorated Southam Hall with its glorious new shell and acoustic. I can conceive of no better way to explore every inch of this new space than with a fresh take on this most complete and all-encompassing of symphonic cycles. It is my great privilege to share this new stage with the incomparable musicians of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, who will interpret and form every note of this cycle with passion, detail, verve and love. And it is our great pleasure to share this musical Everest, this cornerstone of artistic output, with you, our dear audience. For 50 years, you have listened and responded. For 50 years, you have been instrumental in thousands of performances in this space. We are deeply grateful to you for that. Here’s to the new season, to the new hall and to a bright future for this wonderful, wonderful orchestra!
“A symphony should be like the world; it must embrace everything,” declared Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s dictum does not describe every symphony, of course, but Beethoven’s Ninth (“THE Ninth”) serves to embody this ideal to a degree scarcely equaled by any other symphony. In its grandeur, elemental power, cosmic scope and affirmation of the universal human spirit, the Ninth embraces a world of emotional expression ranging from deep pathos to exultant joy, from demonic fury to seraphic tranquility, from motoric energy to beatific stasis. The span of this almost 70-minute work seems to depict a vast structure forming “before our ears,” with the opening moments as coming “out of the void,” as former Cleveland Orchestra annotator Klaus G. Roy described the opening moments. “Fragments begin to cohere; thematic atoms and molecules form larger structures. To most listeners, the same sense of awe, wonder and mystery that accompanies contemplation of the starry night applies to the Ninth.”
A performance of Beethoven’s Ninth carries with it an aura of festival excitement, but such was not always the case. Nor did it have the almost universal acclaim we accord it today. The main stumbling block was, surprisingly enough, the very movement that enjoys almost “pop” status today, with its “Ode to Joy” theme. Fifty years after the symphony’s premiere, which took place in Vienna in 1824, Georges Bizet wrote that Parisian audiences still couldn’t understand it. Verdi was baffled by the vocal passages. In 1899, the Boston critic Philip Hale could only write of “the unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune,” and ask, “Is not the worship paid this Symphony mere fetishism?”
Controversy raged (and even today, still simmers) over whether the Ninth was a supreme stroke of genius, a glorious mistake, or an outright blunder. Beethoven had shown interest in setting Schiller’s “An die Freude” (written in 1785) as early as 1793, and had sketched a song to the text in 1798. It was not until 1822 that he considered incorporating “An die Freude” into the finale of his symphony. Yet even the following summer he was still thinking about an instrumental finale. The theme for this rejected movement was later used in the last movement of the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132. Many listeners regarded the composition as three-fourths absolute music and one-fourth cantata; others as a “higher, perfect, inevitable unity.” The prevailing view today holds that the finale does indeed form the logical culmination of the previous movements. Sir Donald Tovey expresses it thus: “There is no part of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony which does not become clearer to us for assuming that the choral finale is right.” In much the same vein, Marion Scott saw the finale as “providing that quality which was to Beethoven one thing without which all else was incomplete.”
Twelve years separated the completion of Beethoven’s final symphony from the Eighth (1812). Ideas, sketches and fragments had coalesced over a period of many years, but work commenced in earnest only in 1822. The symphony was finished in early 1824 and the premiere took place on May 7 of that year. The performance of this wildly original music of daunting difficulty, with just two rehearsals, could not have been very satisfactory. Yet the audience was profoundly moved. This event occasioned the famous, true story that biographers love to recount: On stage, Beethoven had been following the performance with his copy of the score. After the last notes, the audience erupted into applause, but Beethoven, totally deaf, was still engrossed in the imagined sounds of the music. One of the singers had to touch his sleeve and turn him around to acknowledge this applause in honour of the world’s greatest living composer.
Having definitely decided to incorporate “An die Freude” into his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven struggled greatly to find the proper way to introduce the vocal element into an otherwise purely instrumental symphony. His solution consisted of an instrumental introduction in which brief references to the three previous movements are peremptorily rejected by a recitative-like passage for cellos and basses. This “recitative” presents the musical material for the first vocal entry from the bass-baritone, who proclaims, “Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us sing of more pleasant and joyful things,” whereupon the famous theme, formerly played by the orchestra, is now sung (“Freude, schöner Götterfunken...”). This theme, of almost naïve simplicity, caused Beethoven no end of difficulty. Dozens of variants are found in his Sketchbooks, leading to the final, perfected form he retained.
The symphony’s opening is one of the most famous in the repertoire. Barely a moment is required for the listener to recognize that mood of hushed expectancy, created by the sound of stark fifths in the horns, the strange rustling in the lower strings, and the violins’ thematic fragments that soon coalesce into a mighty unison outburst for the full orchestra. Though laid out in sonata form (exposition – development – recapitulation – coda), the movement contains a wealth of thematic ideas, and is far too complex to discuss in terms of the traditional contrasting first and second themes. The principle of continuous growth pervades instead, with much of the musical material distinguished by its rhythmic rather than melodic interest. The development section involves a lengthy working out of the principal theme (the initial unison outburst). The approach of the recapitulation is signaled by two immense, terrifying statements of the principal theme in D major over rumbling timpani. Leo Treitler writes of the “horrifying brightness that the major mode can have. It is, all in all, the shock of being now pulled into the opening with great force, instead of having it wash over us.” The movement ends in an apocalyptic vision.
For the first and only time, Beethoven precedes the slow movement of a symphony with the Scherzo, a plan Bruckner was to follow seventy years later in his own Ninth, also in D minor. As music of relentless, driving power, the Scherzo is unsurpassed. This huge structure consists of a sonata-form scherzo with two important themes. But like the first movement, this is anything but a conventional sonata form. The rhythmic pattern hammered out in the opening bars and its characteristic octave drop pervade the fugally developed first theme, in addition to becoming the accompaniment pattern to the robust and joyous second theme heard in the unison woodwinds. The central Trio section brings much-needed relief – a breath of fresh air and sunlight. Brighter colours, the major mode and more transparent textures all serve to contrast the Trio with the demonic power of the Scherzo, which is then repeated in full.
The Adagio movement, one of the most sublime ever written, stands in stark contrast to the propulsive energy and forbidding grimness of the previous movements. Two lyrical and well-contrasted themes of transcendent beauty are alternately elaborated in a double variation form. A mood of quiet exaltation and profound peace reigns by the closing pages, only to be shattered by one of the most horrendous outbursts in all music.
After the finale’s long instrumental antecedent (discussed above) is finished, the movement unfolds in free variation form. Beginning with the bass soloist’s first stanza, the “Ode to Joy” moves through a series of highly varied treatments: twice for solo vocal quartet (followed by choral response); a march featuring instruments the Viennese associated with “Turkish” music – triangle, bass drum, piccolo – with tenor solo; an elaborate orchestral fugue answered by a mighty choral affirmation of the “Ode to Joy”; a stately new theme beginning with “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” (Andante maestoso), initially for male chorus and trombones, which in the following section (Allegro energico) combines with the “Ode to Joy” in a great double fugue; a spirited vocal quartet introduced by skittering violins, and joined later by full chorus. This leads to the famous cadenza for the soloists, where the operatic implications of voices joining orchestra are fully exploited. Each soloist climbs to the top of his or her range. In a final burst of frenzied joy, the Ninth ends in the realm of Elysium, light years removed from the cares and toils of daily life.
The Beethoven scholar Maynard Solomon, in an address in Detroit some years ago, summed up the import of Beethoven’s Ninth in these words: “Beethoven’s life and his art can be envisaged as a search for Elysium, for ’one day of pure joy,’ for fraternal and familial harmony, as well as for a just and enlightened social order. With the ’Ode to Joy’ of the Ninth Symphony that search found its symbolic fulfillment.
“Beethoven’s Ninth has been perceived by later generations as an unsurpassable model of affirmative culture, a culture which, by its beauty and idealism, some believe, anesthetizes the anguish and the terror of modern life, thereby standing in the way of a realistic perception of society… If we lose the dream of the Ninth Symphony, there may remain no counterpoise against the engulfing terrors of civilization, nothing to set against Auschwitz and Vietnam as a paradigm of humanity’s potentialities.”
By Robert Markow
Mario Bernardi led the NAC Orchestra’s first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1974, with singers Jeanette Zarou, Gloria Doubleday, Tibor Kelen and Joseph Rouleau taking the solo parts. Last September the ensemble gave their most recent interpretation of this work under the baton of Alexander Shelley, with Ambur Braid, Lauren Segal, John Tessier and Phillip Addis as the soloists.