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SYMPHONY NO.9 IN D MINOR, OP.125 ('CHORAL')

Sunday 5th June, 1930-2130
Camilla Nylund, Iris Vermillion, Jonas Kaufmann, Franz-Josef Selig
Gachinger Kantorei Stuttgart
Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra
Roger Norrington (conductor)

Wednesday 8th June, 0000-0700
June Anderson, Sarah Walker, Klaus Konig, Jan-Hendrik Rootering 
Various choirs, members of various orchestras
Leonard Bernstein (conductor)

1. Allegro ma no troppo, un poco maestoso
2. Molto vivace
3. Adagio molto e cantabile
4. Presto - Allegro ma non troppo - Vivace - Adagio cantabile - Allegro - Allegro moderato - Allegro
 
Beethoven’s symphony ‘with the final chorus on Schiller’s Ode to Joy’ had become a cultural icon within a generation of its premiere and has remained so ever since. Probably no other piece of music has provoked so many flights of critical fancy or had so many interpretations foisted upon it since its premiere, with the composer standing at the conductor’s elbow, in Vienna’s Kärntnerthor Theatre on 7 May 1824. Beethoven’s many supporters in the audience were loudly enthusiastic. There was spontaneous applause at the timpani entry in the Scherzo. And either at the end of this movement or at the end of the whole performance – reports are contradictory – Caroline Unger, the contralto soloist, tapped the deaf composer on the shoulder and turned him round so he could see the wild applause.

Not surprisingly, though, the symphony’s gigantic scale, elemental power and sheer diversity of material – above all in the finale, with its unprecedented amalgam of instruments and voices – also provoked bewilderment and hostility, especially in England, where it was first heard in March 1825 in a concert given by the Royal Philharmonic Society, which had in fact commissioned the work in 1817. Critics here attacked the symphony for its exorbitant length and what they heard as eccentricity, crudeness and arbitrariness. In Vienna Beethoven’s enormous prestige ensured a warmer – if not unmixed – critical reception; and while the finale was generally deemed too long and diffuse, several writers were quick to place the symphony, for all its revolutionary originality, within the classical tradition begun by Haydn and Mozart.
At the same time the seeds were sown for the Romantic view of the Ninth Symphony as autobiography. The tragic first movement was interpreted as Beethoven’s own heroic grappling with deafness and ‘destiny’; the next two movements embodied the composer’s quest for joy – through a display of raw, unbridled energy in the Scherzo, and through human love in the Adagio; while the finale depicted the euphoric fulfilment of that quest.

Then Wagner got in on the act. For him the symphony, beginning in the void and ending in a corybantic frenzy, was at once a representation of the Creation myth and a revelation that ‘every human soul is made for joy’. And, never one to miss a trick when it came to self-promotion, Wagner saw in the finale’s ‘rejection’ of purely instrumental music the prototype of his own aesthetic, whereby music is redeemed through the word ‘from its own peculiar element into the realm of universal art’.

In the wake of the revolutions of 1848 Beethoven’s symphony –  thanks again largely to Wagner – became politicised. The ‘Millionen’ of the finale were now the millions of free men and women proclaiming the gospel of happiness in a new civilisation. The plausible but unfounded notion took root that Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy (Freude)’ was a veiled ‘Ode to Freedom (Freiheit)’, with the key word altered for reasons of censorship. In Nazi Germany ‘all men shall become brothers’ was, of course, applied to Aryans alone; and the symphony became a monument to pan-Teutonic culture. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Ninth Symphony – with the substitution of Freiheit for Freude – was the only possible choice to celebrate the overthrow of Communism and the triumph of Western democracy.

Given the symphony’s ineluctable progression from darkness to light, and its finale hymning the Enlightenment’s belief in mankind’s infinite potential for good (Schiller’s poem was written in 1785, three decades before Metternich’s totalitarian censorship and secret police), such subjective or opportunistic interpretations were inevitable. As for the symphony as autobiography, few would deny that the finale is the most ecstatic expression of Beethoven’s ethical idealism and his belief in an all-loving deity (somewhat distorted in most English translations of Schiller’s poem, incidentally, which underplay its elements of paganism and humanism in favour of an orthodox Christianity). Even here, though, there seems to be something ironically incongruous in the sudden intrusion of the jaunty, demotic march, complete with ‘Turkish’ percussion and obscene grunts from the bassoons, after the heaven-storming cries of ‘vor Gott’. And while the remote, modally inflected chant at ‘Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt’ (‘Brothers, there above the firmament’) may be an authentic expression of religious awe – albeit, to some ears, flecked with a sense of doubt and emptiness – the naive, childlike music (with shades of Mozart’s The Magic Flute) after the soloists’ entry at ‘Freude, Tochter aus Elysium’ in the coda perhaps suggests a nostalgia for ideals that were irrevocably lost by 1824.

What is irrefutable is the symphony’s mighty tonal architecture, founded on the gradual victory of the tonic major over the tonic minor. In the first movement D major is first glimpsed at the beginning of the development, after a return to the nebulous opening has led us to expect a repeat of the exposition. The development itself is actually the least dynamic part of the movement, exploiting fragments of the main theme to whimsical or pathetic ends, and moving at leisure through a narrow spectrum of tonalities. But the catastrophe comes with the recapitulation, which explodes out of nowhere with the main theme fortissimo in D major in its unstable first inversion – ‘instead of a distant nebula we see the heavens on fire’ was Tovey’s characterisation of this apocalyptic moment, where the tonic major, perhaps for the first time in music, becomes an alien, dissonant intrusion. It is almost a relief when D minor is restored; and for the rest of the recapitulation D major is ambiguously shadowed with the minor. The huge coda offers a brief gleam of D major in a famous horn solo – one of the first ideas Beethoven jotted down for the symphony. But it ends in an implacable D minor, with the wind wailing over an ostinato chromatic figure in the strings – traditionally a metaphor for lamentation and death.

Surprisingly to us, perhaps, early critics heard playfulness, ‘roguish comedy’ and ‘the wildest mischief’ in the Scherzo, a movement combining a complex sonata structure with extended stretches of fugato. More recent writers have emphasised the music’s gargantuan upsurge of cosmic energy after the tragic close of the first movement, though there is also an element of rough burlesque in the timpani disruptions and abrupt metrical manipulations.

The luminous pastoral Trio introduces an unsullied D major for the first time in the symphony: the first stage in a tonal and spiritual process that will culminate in the orgy of D major at the end of the finale. In the third movement, action yields to music of profound contemplation and inwardness. As in the slow movements of the Fifth Symphony and the A minor Quartet, Op. 132, the structure is based on the alternation and variation of two themes: a lofty, hymn-like Adagio in B flat (the most important secondary tonality in the first movement), and a warmer, more fluid Andante heard first in D major – another important staging-post in the symphony’s tonal progression – and then in G major.

The rebarbative ‘terror fanfare’ (Wagner’s description) that launches the finale combines the triads of D minor and B flat major, the most important tonal centres in the symphony so far. Fragments of the previous movements, brushed aside in snatches of recitative, lead to the birth of the ‘Joy’ theme – a melody of quintessential lyric simplicity – and the establishment of D major. This is briefly disrupted by the recurrence of the fanfare, now made still more dissonant. But after the bass soloist liberates the symphony into song, D minor is henceforth banished in a vast, unique structure that marries elements of sonata form (with the ‘Turkish’ march, significantly in B flat, as the second-subject group and the following orchestral fugue as development), concerto and rondo with a series of nine variations on the ‘Joy’ theme. There is also a suggestion of a four-movement structure: introduction and first movement (to ‘und der Cherub steht vor Gott’); Scherzo (the 6/8 ‘Turkish’ march and the following fugue); slow movement, beginning in G major at ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’ – the mysterious spiritual core of the movement; and a finale initiated by the double choral fugue combining the ‘Seid umschlungen’ subject with the ‘Joy’ theme. Whether or not Beethoven could, by 1824, believe unreservedly in Schiller’s vision, the whole movement remains at once a magnificent synthesis of classical formal structures and the most overwhelming expression of affirmative idealism in all music.

Richard Wigmore © BBC

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