Sunday, April 23, 2017

BEETHOVEN'S ODE TO JOY

Ode to Joy
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
Vincent P. de Luise, M.D. 

This essay was written as Program Notes for the April 22, 2017 performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony, the Symphony in d minor, Op 125, "Choral, by the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, the Connecticut Choral Society, the New Jersey Choral Society Camerata and the Naugatuck Valley Community College Choir, under the direction of Maestro Leif Bjaland.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
by Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller (1823)


Ludwig van Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the “Choral,” is one of the greatest artistic achievements of western civilization. It is a celebration of hope and joy, a transcendent masterpiece crafted by a composer who could not hear his magisterial creation. It is an extraordinary, monumental, complex, and powerful work that continues to challenge musicians, soloists, choruses, and listeners, as it celebrates the most wondrous shared dreams of humanity, of community, of happiness, of freedom, together “beneath the starry realm.”

Beethoven first began to notice hearing loss in 1796, at the age of 26; he would live with progressive deafness for thirty more years. In 1802, he wrote an anguished letter to his brothers, Carl and Johann, the manifesto known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter that he never sent, telling them of the despair he felt at this painfully ironic turn of events, that he of all people was going deaf ! deaf !, and explaining in heart-wrenching detail what this would mean for him. How was he going to perform as a pianist? to conduct? How was he going to practice his Art? Resolute and defiant, he would do so, bringing to bear his indefatigable work ethic and indomitable spirit against that implacable enemy, deafness.

What is the relationship between illness and creativity? Beethoven’s genius birthed Romanticism. He blew wide open the door that Mozart had earlier knocked on. The year was 1805; the composition was his third symphony, “Eroica” (“Heroic”). Yet, it was Beethoven’s deafness after 1819 that led him into a new and private sound world, a tonal universe totally in his mind. Within that solitary and lonely space, Beethoven composed an extraordinary corpus of music that took Romanticism into another realm. Would posterity have had this majestic ninth symphony, the sublime Missa Solemnis, the ineffable late string quartets and piano sonatas, in the melodic and harmonic form we know them, had Beethoven had normal hearing? Beethoven's spirituality also played a role in these final, greatest and most remarkable compositions. Genius is often the result of an artist overcoming a life challenge, vanquishing their demons. Beethoven fought illness throughout his life, and triumphed. As you listen, watch and are uplifted this evening, think about Beethoven’s mind, his spirit, his courage, his Art. 

The genesis of the ninth symphony began early in Beethoven's life. In 1790, he began setting to music a 1786 poem and drinking song by Friedrich Schiller, an die Freude (" to Joy"). His 1795 Lied (german art song), Gegenliebe ("Returned Love"), already contained the motif that he would later employ as the Ode to Joy theme. In 1808, Beethoven wrote a groundbreaking composition for piano, orchestra and chorus, the Choral Fantasia, whose theme is also reminiscent of the Ode to Joy. Beethoven himself acknowledged the kinship of the two works; he described the ninth symphony's last movement as a "setting of the words of Schiller's immortal Lied, an die Freude, in the same way as my pianoforte fantasia with chorus, but on a far grander scale." The Ode to Joy motif can be found earlier, in Mozart's Misericordias Domini of 1775; however, it is highly unlikely that Beethoven ever heard the work or saw the autograph. Rather, it is a form of "convergent musical evolution" which lef Mozart and Beethoven independently to conceive the melody, which speaks to its simplicity and universality.

The Philarmonic Society of London had commissioned the ninth symphony in 1817. Beethoven worked on it intermittently for years, while battling constant intestinal maladies, completing the score in 1824, only after he had finished composing the massive Diabelli Variations (dedicated to his "Immortal Beloved, likely Antonie Brentano), and the Missa Solemnis

Upset at how he perceived the Viennese had treated him (Beethoven was always famously upset at something), he had wanted to premiere the work in Berlin or London, but a group of thirty influential friends and musical colleagues petitioned him, “the one man of all men who we all recognize as the foremost of living men,” to have it performed first in Vienna.  Immensely flattered, he relented. So it was that on May 7, 1824, in the Theater am Karntnertor, the ninth symphony was premiered, along with the overture, “The Consecration of the House”, and a section from the Missa Solemnis. It was Beethoven’s first on-stage appearance in twelve years.  The hall was packed with an enthusiastic and expectant crowd; however, his aristocratic patrons were mostly absent, either by hacving passed away or, those few who were alivem having stopped financially supporting him by then. Though michael Umlauf conducted, Beethoven was invited to be present on stage to give the tempos for each movement.  

The violinist Joseph Böhm recalled that "Beethoven stood before the podium and gesticulated furiously before each movement. At times he rose, at other times he shrank to the ground, moving as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself, and sing for the whole chorus. The musicians minded his rhythm alone while playing.” Wild applause followed both the scherzo and after the final majestic choral finale. Beethoven remained facing the orchestra, leafing through the score and beating time, unaware of the impact and unable to hear the ovation. The alto Caroline Unger had to tap him on the shoulder and help turn him around to face the ecstatic, rapturous audience.

The symphony begins in tonal limbo, as if the orchestra is tuning to an amorphous and wandering A major chord, sound emerging from silence. Gradually, it modulates to the tonic of d minor, and then in the recapitulation, morphs into a powerful D major.  The second movement is a sprightly scherzo and trio, one of many brilliant Beethovenian innovations (scherzos historically were slotted as third movements).  The ensuing Adagio becomes the third movement - spacious, leisurely, and dramatically placed to maximize the effect of the finale. The musicologist Charles Rosen comments that the last movement is a symphony in itself: “its first movement" introduces a theme with variations, appearing first in the cellos and basses, then echoed by vocal soloists and chorus; the “second movement” is a scherzo in military style with Turkish influences (echoing Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail); the “third movement” is a lyrical reverie; and the “fourth movement” is a fugue on the themes of the previous movements.”  Beethoven being Beethoven, he changed some of Schiller’s lyrics to reflect his own views on freedom and brotherhood.  The memorable Ode to Joy theme is universal in its immediacy and melodic beauty:


Beethoven’s ninth set the bar for all future composers: Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler paid homage to it. While the Nobel Prize author Romain Rolland wrote that the Ode to Joy is a paean to the brotherhood of all peoples, the theme was also misappropriated by the Nazis and the Rhodesian supremacist government, and during the Cultural Revolution in China, it was used as an example of class struggle. Despite this, it lives on today as the anthem of the European Union, and in concert halls, and on radio stations, LPs and CDs throughout the world, The autograph of the score, in the Berlin State Library, was the first musical composition in the United Nations Memory of the World Heritage list.   

Beethoven, the humanist; Beethoven, the victor over constant struggle; Beethoven, the exceptionalist; Beethoven, the universal composer;  
Beethoven, for eternity.                                                                                                                                                                                                           
Ars longa!  © 2017 Vincent P. de Luise MD

2 comments:

  1. Beautiful and elegant as the Ode to joy itself.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow! Awesome! Much Obliged Sir!

    ReplyDelete