Repertoire

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

1. Allegro ma non troppo

2. Molto vivace

3. Adagio molto e cantabile

4. Presto

Completed in 1824, by which time Beethoven was completely deaf, his Ninth Symphony is one of the best-known works of the Western classical repertoire. Musicologist Edward Downes described it as “one of the greatest achievements of the human spirit”. The words were taken from Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy”, with additions made by the composer himself.

Many ideas in this symphony were new and original, but the addition of voices was probably the most startling. It had an incalculable influence on later composers, such as Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler and it marked a new era in the history of music.

The premiere in Vienna, on 7 May 1824, was officially conducted by Kapellmeister Michael Umlauf after only two rehearsals. Beethoven was also on stage, conducting, although the beat the orchestra followed was Umlauf’s! Beethoven couldn’t hear the reaction at the end of the performance. It was only when one of the soloists turned him round that he could see the public were applauding wildly and gave five standing ovations.

The path of the Ninth Symphony is a journey from darkness to light, from tragedy to joy.

The beginning of the symphony, with its barren open fifths played mysteriously in string tremolos, has been described by some commentators as representing the creation of the universe, as the theme gradually emerges from fragments swirling in what seems an amorphous, primeval state. (Others have mischievously suggested the sounds so resemble an orchestra tuning that this was the true inspiration!). The horns hint at the future disclosure of the “Ode to Joy” theme, but the movement concludes dramatically with an apocalyptic coda, ending on a climactic point, without a feeling of resolution.

For the only time in Beethoven’s symphonies, the Scherzo is placed as the second movement. In a rousing D minor, the movement begins with a falling octave motion. It then proceeds as a fast march leading to the development section’s famous metric play between three and four, reinforced by the timpani. A loud recapitulation prepares the way for the trio portion which again foreshadows the ultimate “Ode to Joy” melody.

The Adagio, placed before the finale for maximum dramatic effect, is a magnificent set of variations. The slow movement’s song-like character gently anticipates the introduction of voices in the final movement, with the hymn-like melody of the main theme again bearing a close resemblance to the “Ode to Joy” tune. An interesting detail of the scoring is the prominent solo given to the fourth horn – apparently the sole local possessor of one of the earliest valve horns, without which the solo would be almost impossible to play.

The finale is like nothing else in symphonic music. Scored for four soloists, full chorus and orchestra, it is extremely long and highly complex – almost a symphony in miniature - with its own introduction, scherzo-like section, adagio and a grand finale.

The finale begins with a terrible jarring dissonance, which Wagner admiringly called the Schreckensfanfare – a fanfare of terror. A few bars of each of the previous movements’ themes are played, and rejected dramatically in recitative by the cellos and basses. Then, the first fragment of the “Ode to Joy” theme is greeted in a bright D-major. The Ode to Joy begins quietly, again in the cellos and basses, is joined by several countermelodies (including a particularly striking one in the bassoon), and gradually builds up into the whole orchestra. The recitative returns dramatically, this time given a voice and words by the baritone soloist: “Oh, friends, not these tones! Let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds!”. This paves the way for the jubilant choral and orchestral exposition of “Ode to Joy”. But it doesn’t stop there. There is a virtuosic cadenza for the four soloists, classical variations, a military band - complete with cymbals, triangle and big bass drum - to accompany the tenor’s “Like a hero to victory”, majestic slow meditations, culminating in a gigantic double fugue and a joyful choral exultation.

Programme notes for BHSO performance, May 2012
Written by Heather Lawrence
Bassoon

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