A guide to Beethoven's Symphony No. 9
We delve into the impacts and motives behind Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
Kärnthnerthor Theatre, Vienna, 7 May 1824
The Ninth was Beethoven's first symphony for more than a decade, though at least one of its elements had originated much earlier: a letter written as far back as 1793 advised of the composer's intention to set Friedrich Schiller's 'Ode to Joy', while a tiny sketch dated to 1798 makes use of some of its words. Similar fragments of the text were worked on during 1812 in connection with a piece that would become the Namensfeier Overture.
The earliest sketch containing music that would actually appear in the Ninth dates from 1815, when the opening idea of the scherzo occurs as a fugue subject. A commission for a new symphony from the Philharmonic Society in London in 1817 provided further impetus; pages dated to this period contain ideas that were later worked up into the first movement. More serious work was done in 1822 with a sketch outlining the melody to which the opening of Schiller's Ode would eventually be sung.
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Such examples are typical of the processes by which Beethoven arrived at his completed compositions. They also make clear that the highly original conception of the Ninth - not only in terms of the surprising intervention of vocal forces to transform the finale of the work virtually into a cantata, but also in the sheer vastness of the whole, in which Beethoven expanded the time-scale of the symphony beyond that even of the Eroica - was arrived at only after much consideration.
If the originality of Beethoven's conception scarcely needs stressing, nor does its impact on later composers. Symphonists from Mendelssohn to Mahler, Shostakovich and Britten learned that the inclusion of a text could direct the listener's attention towards a programmatic or philosophical intention. Wagner, too, saw the combination of notes and words in the Ninth as seminal to his own conception of music drama, and for that reason celebrated the laying of the foundation stone of his new theatre at Bayreuth in 1872 with a performance of it under his own baton.
In wider and indeed the widest circles, the Ninth Symphony continues to make an unprecedented impact. To whatever extent one thinks it appropriate that the main idea of the finale has become celebrated in our day as the anthem of the European Union, or (far more dubiously) as the musical accompaniment to the marketing of a whole range of commercial products, consciousness of this fragment of Beethoven's epic creation could scarcely be more widespread. It reflects the fact that the rich and complex humanism of this symphony, and indeed of the entire Beethovenian heritage, has never been so widely valued - as well, perhaps, as so needed - as it is at the present time.
Benefiting (as many recent recordings do) from Jonathan Del Mar's edition of the score, one of the finest modern versions of the Ninth Symphony finds conductor Osmo Vänskä and his Minnesota Orchestra on their tautest form in a 2006 account, notable for its keen focus on detail, its intelligent and sensitive handling of tempo relationships, and its overall organic integrity.
Juntunen, Karnéus, Norman, Davies; Minnesota Chorale & Orchestra/Vänskä
BIS BISSACD 1616
Words by George Hall. This article first appeared in the December 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine.