Symphony Saturday

Finishing up with Beethoven this week, we have…the Ninth.

Last week, I referred to an old debate as to which was the greatest of Beethoven’s symphonies, the Seventh or the Ninth. The best case for the Seventh, it seems to me, lies in a look at the work and nothing else. When one considers the influence of each particular work, though, the Ninth really takes flight. It is a work that loomed incredibly large in the musical imagination of the entire Western world for most of the 19th century. Beethoven’s Ninth an amazing example of a game-changing work, opening the realm of symphonic music to epic heights beyond even what Beethoven himself had done in the Third. It opened the world of symphonic music to the human voice, and it firmly placed the symphonic world into that of the political. Beethoven’s Seventh may be the more perfect work in terms of its own quality, but the Ninth? With the Ninth, Ludwig van Beethoven cast a shadow which fell over nearly every musician for the next hundred years.

As for the music itself? If it has a flaw that I can detect, speaking purely personally, I always find my attention flagging just a bit during the slow movement. But that’s about it; other than that, I am nearly always caught up anew in this symphony’s amazing sweep every time I come to it.

The first movement starts with a hushed tremolo in the strings, which is followed by a descending motif that will later form the backbone of the entire movement. What’s fascinating here is the way Beethoven does not establish his tonality at first; he omits the third of the chord, which happens to tell us if we are listening to major or minor. This type of delayed effect will play out throughout the entire symphony, in different ways, even as the first movement goes on to ebb and flow through some of the most wonderfully stormy music I’ve ever heard.

Next comes the scherzo, which opens with four thunderous blasts of the motif that will run its course (including one by the timpani). Beethoven’s scherzi always have a relentless feel to their unstopping momentum, even when he changes meter and takes us into a lighter, sunnier world for a brief time.

The third movement always loses me just a bit toward the end, which I’m not sure is even Beethoven’s fault; a lot of conductors tend to take it so slow that the movement’s architecture takes a very devoted musical attention span to perceive it as a set of variations winds its way through two separate, and achingly beautiful melodies. Even so, I always find myself returning as the movement starts to come to its close. Beethoven has a supreme knack for drawing me back in.

And then there is the finale, which again starts off with a stormy figure before giving three fascinating looks back at what has gone before. The orchestra samples each of the earlier movements, only to have each summarily rejected by the low strings in a kind of musical dialog. Then there is an amazing passage in which the woodwinds hint at a fourth theme, a new melody we haven’t heard yet, and the low strings interrupt again. But the winds try again, and are again interrupted, and a kind of by-play takes place before the low strings stormily usher in a moment of silence before playing one of the most famous melodies in musical history.

What happens next is…I’m not sure I know enough superlatives for it, actually. It’s the same melody, heard first in the low strings. It’s hushed and mysterious; it seems to have no character at all, just a tentative musical thought. But then the violas come in and play the tune again, with the bassoons offering a countermelody that sounds like an improvisation. (I have to think that this passage ranks among the very favorite musical moments for bassoonists.) The tune sounds sunnier now, even optimistic, and then the violins arrive and the tune becomes one of astonishing beauty. Three statements of the exact same tune, three different characters, just because of the instrumentation.

And Beethoven isn’t done yet, because now he gives the theme to the entire orchestra. It’s one of music’s grandest statements of humanity that I think even likely possible.

What’s next? The chorus and soloists, who lead the proceedings through a series of variations on that glorious tune, sometimes soft and meditative, other times in such a way as to allow the sun to break through the clouds by its own force of will. I love how the first order of business is another straight statement of the “Ode to Joy” tune, this time adding the vocal soloists one at a time, alternating with the chorus in full glory until it all arrives at a magnificent chord that seems to hang there, in the heavens, unchanging, forever. This is followed by a section featuring the tenor soloist that sounds like drum-and-fife — but as usual, with Beethoven, there is so much more going on than that.

I could spend a dozen blog posts and more, perhaps, doing nothing but detailing my favorite moments from Beethoven’s Ninth. It’s a work that has never once seemed tired to me, a work that rewards constant return and reengagement. There’s a reason why this work dominated musical thought for a century after its composition, and why it has endured for as long as it has. Put it this way: there is a legend, which may or may not be true, that in the 1970s, when electronics companies were trying to come to an agreement as to the standard length of play of the music on the new compact disc, the figure of 74 minutes was finally agreed upon in part because that’s how long a typical performance of Beethoven’s Ninth is.

Another word about Daniel Barenboim and his amazing group of young performers. Making ensemble might be the single human pursuit that most demands, and rewards, precision teamwork. With all due respect to football and other team sports, the team only has to act as one during each play. Imagine a football game where a single play went fifteen minutes or more, and where you can never talk to the next person — you just have to know what they’re doing and when they’ll be doing it, and you have to have unshakable faith and knowledge that they will do it right, just as they have to have the same faith that you will, too. These musicians play with as much passion and precision as just about any serious, professional orchestra in the world. Watch as Maestro Barenboim conducts: there are times when he doesn’t have to conduct at all, when his arms stop and he simply stands there, knowing that his young musicians have come together into a single entity that, for just a second or two, doesn’t need him at all. That’s when you know the conductor has done things right.

Next week we’ll do something shorter — much shorter. Here’s Beethoven’s Ninth.

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