by Michael Liss
If you love classical music, there is a place in your imagination that takes you back 192 years, to May 7, 1824, and puts you at one of the most extraordinary moments in musical history—the first public performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
You want to be there. You want to see Beethoven himself raise his hands for the first downbeat, that odd woosh that then unfolds almost like an orchestra tuning up. You want to hear those crisp, slashing sounds as it moves through the second movement, and swirling cloud of notes, floating above you, that is the third. But the payoff comes in the fourth, when Beethoven surpasses himself, first trying, and then rejecting, the themes of the first three to resolve by joining instrumental beauty to vocal, fused in the pure elation of Schiller's “Ode to Joy. “
If you were there, you would do as every other person in attendance did—leap to your feet and roar your approval. And you would be witness to the most dramatic, even shattering moment in music history—when one of soloists, Caroline Unger, gently turns the ailing, unhearing Beethoven to receive their adoration.
As the historian (and musicologist) Edmund Morris recounts in “Beethoven, the Universal Composer,” if there was any silence in the house, it could have only come from the Imperial Box, which was empty. Beethoven, a man underwritten for decades by the aristocratic and wealthy, had begun to edge away from them, and they from him. The Ninth is not only revolutionary in its form, it is perhaps the first large-scale truly democratic work. With one 74-minute effort, Beethoven created an entirely new vocabulary, one that not only spoke of a stateless universal brotherhood, but in form and delivery, frees the individual to participate to the extent of his abilities.
To put Beethoven in better context, it's useful to place him, and two of the great composers before him, Bach and Mozart, in “political-musical” time, or perhaps more accurately, “political-musical-economic” time.
Bach was born in 1685, in a world touched by the Enlightenment, but only in those corners illumination could enter. The dominant forces were the aristocracy and the Church, and for a serious musician, that is where employment and commissions were found. Bach wrote hundreds of pieces of sacred music, and to put it as bluntly as possible, that was his job. Bach's greatness lay in his absolute mastery of a more formal style, one that was often applied to the devotional. Although he could be wonderfully innovative in using counterpoint and employing fugues, his music emphasized a certain schematic obedience—obedience to form, obedience to a greater (higher) power, and also obedience to the hierarchy that supported that power. Bach doesn't often demand your emotional involvement, except in a very channeled way—awe and reverence in the B Minor Mass or the St. Matthew Passion. But often, what he does best to the modern ear is to create a mindfulness, that, at its apex, achieves what Glenn Gould, in discussing his recordings of the Goldberg Variations, called “A State of Wonder.”
Mozart, who lived in the latter part of the 18th Century, and composed as the style was evolving from the Baroque to the Classical Era, was also dependent on the patronage of rich and powerful people. The child prodigy Wolfgang was hauled across Europe to perform and compose for royalty, and as an adult, they held the key to his economic stability. Mozart never had enough, and there weren't many Church or Court jobs that could hold his prodigious talents and his eccentricities, so he began to seek out a wider following. In the 1780s, he moved to Vienna, often staging public concerts in halls, hotels and restaurants as both a performer and composer. He could compose the sacred when he wanted to (his Mass in C Minor is wrenching), but his output straddled the classes both in form and in message. His technical proficiency was every bit as staggering as Bach's, yet Mozart often wrote “hummable” music—accessible, open, fun. And, in operas like Marriage of Figaro, he played out for his audiences the struggles between the classes without too much of a sting—he is not a seditionist. The servants Susanna and Figaro successfully scheme to avoid Count Almavira's lecherous designs, but they do it with good humored guile, not outright revolt. In the (happy) end, servants are still servants, and Counts are still Counts, and the world's order is restored.
The Beethoven experience was radically different, reflective not only of the man himself but the era he lived through. Beethoven still sought the favor of the elites (some of whom even had their own private orchestras), but the certainties of the world were evaporating. His lifespan (1770-1827) stretched from the stasis of aristocratic rule, through the upheaval of the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna, and the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy.
What Beethoven witnessed was the beginning of a fundamental change in the way ordinary people, not just the economic and intellectual elites, thought about the relationship between the individual and the state. The absolutism of monarchy, and the iron hold of religion, was giving way to a disorder, sometimes advancing individual liberties, sometimes just disruptive and even frightening. Across the ocean, Americans had thrown off the Crown, and were engaging what George Washington called the “Great Experiment.” Europe took a different path and the nobility reassembled themselves after Wellington's victory at Waterloo. But the first wave of Napoleon's Grande Armée had brought with them ideas about liberté, égalité, fraternité that left, in the common man, deep impressions and unsatisfied yearnings.
In the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven gives voice to some of these. He finds a structure and a musical language that elevates the individual beyond being just a congregant or a subject. Humanity has inherent value, whether as expressed alone, or as part of a universal brotherhood. Identity is no longer grounded in who you obey, rather, it is who you are. This is not to say that Beethoven is a political theorist taking an opportunity to blast the established order. Rather, he amplifies the content of Schiller's poem to articulate his own internal voice, and, by extension, gives others the opportunity to express theirs.
To really appreciate what Beethoven achieves, particularly in the fourth movement, listen with a score, or, if you are as challenged as I am by the blizzard of staffs, clefs, and black dots, find the website for the Music Animation Machine, and listen as you watch a graphical representation. I promise, you won't experience this music the same way again. (See video at the end of this article, below.)
The fourth movement opens with this wonderful “bwaaah,” the dissonant/at another tempo 8-12 schrecklichkeit thema—literally an “ugly theme.” It is immediately followed by the brass and tympani galloping off, and then pulling up short, as if at a cliff's edge. Then the double bass and cello only, to give it weight, and another bwaaah, and then back and forth, as the orchestra assays, and decisively discards, the themes of the second and third movements.
Beethoven's considering, and spurning, his own compositions of the first three movements is central to his conception, and obvious to the listener. But when you watch it unfold graphically, what jumps out at you is his remarkable restraint in deploying all his instruments and primary themes. The violas don't come in until the fourth minute, the violins until the beginning of the fifth, and the first human voice until the late in the seventh. Even then, Beethoven makes us wait for Schiller's “Ode to Joy” as the baritone soloist completes the rejection of the past— “Oh friends, not these tones! Let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds!“
If Beethoven had, from this point forward, just wedded his comparatively simple basic melody line in the “Ode to Joy” section to his chorus, he would still have achieved something different and noteworthy. Composers simply did not merge orchestral and vocal talents in a single work. Yet, there is more. Keep your eyes on the score. Look at how Beethoven blends sound once the choral part begins—look, and hear, the subtleties beyond its pure power. See how often he allows individual voices, vocal and instrumental, either by themselves or in sections, to speak independently of the main theme, not just in support of it. And see how he stretches the performers, demands of them real technical proficiency. These little snippets announce themselves, then go off on their own for a handful of notes, yet somehow seem to fit, either adding density or offering lift. The Ninth has an internal logic that relies on a disciplined risk-taking—risks with dissonance, risks going outside of accepted mores, risks that the performers can deliver his vision, and risks of the intellectual construct itself that talks about universal brotherhood instead of obedience to the accepted order.
But, there is one further risk Beethoven takes, and masters. That is risk of the chaos that can ensue when too many are given an opportunity to be heard too distinctly. It is the risk when top-down authoritarianism (after all, that's what composers do) gives way to a subtler form of design—replacing steel bands with a spider's web.
If you have ever watched a chorus consisting of conservatory solo vocal-performance majors, or even a group of solo instrumentalists sitting down together for the first time to work on a quintet, you would get an inkling of the potential challenges. Solo performing is not the same as working in a group. Unless they have experience sublimating their individual voices, you might find something counterintuitive: the sum of their voices are often less than the values of the parts.
The same also applies to combining genres (i. e. classic/academic style with more contemporary/popular sounds or even folk-tunes). Haydn, who was universally respected in his time and could take some license, did some of this. Mozart, in his terrific Clarinet Concerto in A Major, composed just before he died, unleashes his soloist in a way that can make you wonder whether Gershwin had it in mind when he was composing “Rhapsody in Blue.” Still, it can be a high-wire act—one misstep can cheapen or even infantilize the piece, and perhaps just as seriously, disappoint one's patrons.
So, for the composer, every inclination is to act as an absolute monarch—to stick to form, and to tamp down individuality to provide a tight, smooth sound that reassures. It is an elemental risk of the movement towards democracy—that too many different styles, too many distinct voices produce discord instead of beauty.
With the Ninth, Beethoven vaults over the obstacles. He detaches himself from his economic patrons—hence the empty Imperial Box. He frees his performers. He mixes genres. He reaches for something beyond the formalism of Bach, even the musical innovation and tactical subversiveness of Mozart, and erects the bridge between the emotionally cooler Classical period and the intensity of the Romantic. His is the first to fuse the orchestral and choral sound in a symphony. Nineteenth Century composers followed his lead, notably Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Mahler. Others began experimenting with Beethoven's innovations in internal dynamics—Wagner, Schumann, Chopin. Brahms wrote his First Symphony (without a chorus) as a response to Beethoven's structures and archetypes articulated in the Ninth.
Yet, for all of that, there is still something special about this work, something that connects people on an emotional level, that keeps it from being just a warhorse of the classical music oeuvre. Beethoven is a magician. He's taken Schiller's words and opened them up, given them a pulse that everyone can hear and join in—orchestra, chorus, soloists, and audience.
How does he do it? What elevates the Ninth to its unique place? What makes it music without borders, brought Leonard Bernstein to East Berlin to perform it with a multinational chorus and orchestra to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, caused it to be adopted as an anthem for what is now the European Union?
Its glory, I suggest, is not the product of a single man's genius, but his willingness to embrace the efforts and passion and talent of the many. Beethoven trusts his own inner compass, but he shows trust in his performers, allowing and even empowering them to be heard.
In that he demonstrates the great promise of democracy: to be included is to be enfranchised, to be enfranchised is to gain shared ownership.
It's Beethoven's Ninth, but it is everyone's music.