Length: c. 65 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (cymbals, triangle, bass drum), strings, solo quartet, and chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 9, 1926, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
About this Piece
Beethoven lived in a revolutionary era. His music also overturned the rules and boundaries of previous orders, and it created fresh paradigms that have influenced the arts ever since. Beethoven has become a representative symbol of the individual genius pushing limits, the artist-as-rebel.
An astonishingly radical new work for its time, the Ninth Symphony certainly supports that defiant loner image of Beethoven. Yet paradoxically it celebrates the unity of humanity with a vast, all-inclusive embrace.
The basic arc of the piece is from chaos and struggle to serenity and jubilation. That mirrors the course of its creation. Friedrich Schiller published his ode An die Freude (To Joy) in 1785, and Beethoven was much moved by this ecstatic vision. The young composer may have tried to set it to music even before he left his hometown of Bonn in 1792, and he made at least two other attempts to grapple with the poem before 1817, when the Philharmonic Society of London invited him to visit that winter, bringing with him two new symphonies.
As a result, Beethoven started writing about plans and ideas for two symphonies, one in D minor, the other with a choral slow movement. These two works began to merge into one in 1822, when the correspondence with the Philharmonic Society finally turned into an accepted commission. Beethoven worked steadily at this grand project throughout 1823, completing it in March 1824. The work finally had its premiere in Vienna on May 7, 1824, the famous concert at which the now-deaf composer had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause he could no longer hear.
The Ninth Symphony opens in hushed anticipation, from which an elementally simple theme soon erupts violently. The dynamic energy and scope of the ideas in this movement suggest creation myths to many, or scientific theories such as the Big Bang.
Beethoven changed the usual order of symphonic movements here, placing a Scherzo next. A scherzo is typically a dancing, often humorous movement with a contrasting middle section. Beethoven‘s dark Scherzo is relentlessly concentrated, its insistence intensified by fugal imitation. The contrast is supplied by a graceful hymn that suggests the ultimate joy of the finale.
The slow movement (Adagio) is the peaceful balance to the preceding furies. Beethoven develops two themes to increasing levels of yearning through sophisticated variations.
The introduction of voices in the finale is Beethoven’s most obvious innovation, although he had models in French revolutionary symphonies, and it is still an electrifying moment when the baritone first sings. Chaos returns at the beginning of the movement, from which Beethoven recalls the main themes of the preceding movements, before the baritone calls for new tunes. The composer’s decades-in-the-making setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy – which he freely cut and reordered – emerges at last as an immense and triumphant set of variations, expressing our highest aspirations with music of life-affirming exaltation. — John Henken