Programme note to follow
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 9 in D minor, Op 125 (1824)
Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
Molto vivace - Presto - Tempo I
Adagio molto e cantabile – Andante moderato
Finale: Ode to Joy
Beethoven’s ninth and last (or last completed) symphony was never called 'The Choral' by its composer, even though that was the name by which generations of music-lovers came to know it. Beethoven himself preferred the longer and more accurate title, Symphony with final chorus on Schiller’s Ode to Joy, but today that would seem too much of a mouthful. In fact, to call it simply 'The Ninth”'is sufficient to imply whose ninth is being referred to. It was the prototype of all the other great ninth symphonies - Schubert’s, Dvorák’s, Bruckner’s, Mahler’s - which followed.
Fragments of what would become Beethoven’s biggest, most complex and ambitiously orchestrated symphony had been in his mind for years. As a boy in Bonn and young man in Vienna, he already knew Schiller’s Ode to Joy. A startling foretaste of the symphony’s opening theme can be found, in the same key, in the introduction to his Second Symphony, written in 1802. The Choral Fantasia in 1808 displayed the finale of the Ninth in embryonic form. A fugue subject, jotted in his notebook in 1815, found its way into the work’s scherzo. The sound of military bands, heard by Beethoven during his walks in the Viennese Prater, is reflected in the zing-boom of cymbals and drums in one episode of the finale.
Not until 1823, however, did composition of the Ninth begin in earnest. His plan to write a purely orchestral finale, employing material later transferred to the A minor String Quartet, was swept aside by the masterstroke which was the Ode to Joy. To a friend, Beethoven reputedly exclaimed, “I’ve got it”. By May 1824, the work was ready for its premiere in Vienna’s Karntnertor Theatre. The deaf composer conducted it, or at any rate set the tempi, while a deputy held the performance together. Franz Schubert, aged 27, was in the audience.
The epic scale of the symphony, which Wagner would later find so inspirational, is immediately suggested by the gradual mobilising and establishing of the first movement’s main theme. The volcanic recapitulation, which erupts with an intensity never heard before in symphonic music, shows how far Beethoven was now prepared to take symphonic form, and the sonorously funereal coda confirms the grandeur of this score.
The succeeding scherzo, with its galvanising kettledrums, sustains the work’s vast momentum. Not even the rustic trio section can slow things down - indeed the pace grows even faster - and only the arrival of the slow movement ultimately brings a sense of peace. With its two gloriously alternating themes and its atmosphere of hushed tenderness, the music could almost belong to one of Beethoven’s last string quartets, which perhaps shows why his original ideas for the finale were so easily transferred to one of these works.
But the blaring, pounding discords of the finale’s opening fanfare, bursting in on the serenity of the adagio, reassert the symphony’s sweeping sense of orchestral drama and suspense. What is happening here? There are terse exclamations from the strings, suggestive of operatic recitative. There are brief quotations from the three preceding movements, followed by a hint of something different - the theme of what will become the Ode to Joy.
The music is now finally on track. The hymnlike theme, which has become modern Europe’s great unifying international anthem, is gradually unfurled and welcomed by a man’s solo voice. The vocal portion of the finale has arrived, proclaiming Schiller’s ode in the Beethovenian guise of a set of variations. These incorporate, with the resourcefulness of Beethoven at the height of his powers, a heroic march, a double fugue, an ecstatic slow section with the men’s voices underpinned by trombones, a tribute to God (this was the period of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis), an exquisite cadenza for the solo quartet and a coda frenzied in its climactic outpouring of joy.
© Conrad Wilson
The Season opens with one revolutionary work and closes with another. A gilded cast of singers joins the SCO for Beethoven’s exhilarating final symphony. From its first mysterious bars to its closing shout of joy, you can hear the sound of Beethoven creating the future of music.