Program notes for March 25, 2018 "Just" Beethoven's 9th Concert
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is, without a doubt, one of the absolutely best known names in classical music; even among non-listeners his name, along with Mozart and Bach comprise the 'short short list' nearly everyone has heard of. In Beethoven's case, the musical "short list" contains maybe only the idiomatic four note motive from the Symphony No. 5 and the "Ode to Joy" from this concert's Symphony No. 9, "Choral" Symphony. However, in the great composer's life, it has been said that his greatest fame and personal joy predates this masterpiece. His Seventh Symphony and "Wellington's Victory" were both played to raucous applause at the Congress of Vienna in 1815; he was courted, feted and extolled everywhere as a genius. However, Beethoven's personal tragedy was imminent. His hearing, which had been steadily declining since 1800, increased rapidly and his last public appearance was in the same year, 1815. Then his younger brother Karl died, leaving Beethoven as guardian to a rather sickly and directionless nephew, a task which Beethoven did not enjoy and, truthfully was not very good at, leading him into years of litigation against the child's somewhat lazy and opportunistic mother. In fact, Beethoven spent so much time and energy worrying about the boy that his flow of composition practically ceased for some years. His ideas for what was to become the Ninth Symphony began to appear before 1817, but it was only in 1822 that Beethoven started to work seriously at it. (The Symphony No. 8, while a very fine work in its own right never received the same adulation as did the Seventh or the Ninth) By this time, even an ear horn did him no good. Communication with him could only be achieved by writing messages on a slate. His friends were appalled by the discordant and perpetually out of tune condition of his piano, and were terribly saddened by his playing for them of soft passages, when no sound at all would be produced. Beethoven's choice a choral last movement came late in the process of composition. Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" had long been on his mind, however, dating in a literary way back to his youth in Bonn, and musically from a failed attempt at an overture in 1812. The Ninth Symphony was completed in the autumn of 1823 and the first performance took place on May 7th, 1824, in the Vienna's Karntnertor-theatre. Beethoven, still sitting directly behind the conductor at the end, was gently turned around to face the audience, so he could see the ovation that he could not hear.
The first movement of the Ninth Symphony is often considered the best single movement in all of Beethoven's symphonic output. It has a depth and breadth of vision and treatment unequaled to that time and the mid-sections contain startling original harmonic progressions. Beethoven basically used his same musical techniques only his message changed. The second movement, the scherzo, is remarkable for its rhythmic drive, and for its sudden eruptions into a kind of violence. The variety of tone color and texture in the orchestration in this movement is all the more remarkable for being the end product of a long set of experimentations in previous works, most of which Beethoven could not hear properly, if at all. The third movement is one of those slow movements of Beethoven that feels simultaneously rapturous and serene with touches of sadness that evolves ever so slowly. The last movement erupts with a surprisingly dissonant fanfare and a long recitative in the cellos, interrupted by quotations from the three previous movements. A distant version of the "Ode to Joy" theme slowly draws closer, then, after another dissonant blast, the Baritone soloist begins with introductory words by Beethoven himself. The main text is from Schiller's "Ode to Joy"; throughout the movement, the text is repeated and reordered in many ways. Beethoven's music achieves a new transcendent state of exultation, through all the interwoven choruses, solos and orchestral passages, which have served as the model for practically all later composers writing for chorus and orchestra. The texts of the finale are as follows: