by Jane Rausch
As critics have noted, a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 can never be an ordinary event because, with this masterpiece, Beethoven redefined the nature of symphonic ambition and carried to new heights the concept of what a symphony could be. With its “Ode to Joy”, a profound hymn to brotherhood and unity before God, the work expresses Beethoven’s personal philosophy more eloquently that anything else he composed. It is as inspiring in 2017 as when it first premiered in 1824, and the Ninth Symphony’s performance today seems an especially appropriate way for the HCS to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.
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Our concert begins, however, with another notable event, the premiere performance of Homeward Bound by Adrienne Albert, one of four works commissioned by the HCS to mark its fifty years of existence. With reference to her composition, Albert wrote in a note to Maestro Kidwell:
Homeward Bound for orchestra is a lyrical, sometimes angular, work that honors the fighting men and women who have risked their lives for our country. It begins with a rhythmic motif in the trombones and engages several WWII songs that will be of interest to both the musicians and the audience. The work is an homage to the brave young men and women who have fought so valiantly in the name of our country. Some come home whole; some come home in pieces; some come home in boxes. Homeward Bound salutes them all.
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The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (also known as “the Choral”) was Ludwig van Beethoven’s final complete symphony. It has remained one of the best-known works in classical music because it was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony.
Although many elements of the symphony date from 1822-23, sketches reveal that Beethoven was already drafting the beginning of the vast opening movement as early as 1816. The idea of incorporating Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” (written in 1785) came to the composer earlier still in 1793, well before he had composed his first symphony. Of the original poem’s 18 sections, he selected about half, rearranging and repeating stanzas to fit his own musical conception.
During the symphony’s first performance on May 7, 1824 in the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, Beethoven was completely deaf. As he stood on the stage beating time and turning pages of his score, Kapellmeister Michael Umlauf provided the real conducting for the evening. The Vienna Kärntnertor Theater orchestra and chorus were augmented by members of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and boy sopranos. The string section totaled 58 instruments: twenty-four violins, ten violas, twelve cellos, and twelve basses. The size of the wind section at the first performance is not clear, but the choir included approximately ninety voices. Legend has it that at the close of the fourth movement the applause was deafening to all except those truly deaf, and the alto soloist turned Beethoven around on his podium so that he could see the tribute his music had earned.
The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, is in sonata form without an exposition repeat. The opening theme, played pianissimo over string tremolos, resembles the sound of an orchestra tuning, but from within that musical limbo emerges a theme of power and clarity that later drives the entire movement. At the outset of the recapitulation section, the theme returns fortissimo in D major, rather than the opening’s D minor. The introduction also uses the mediant to tonic relationship, which further distorts the tonic key until, finally, the bassoon plays in its lowest possible register. To emphasize the funereal aspects of this massive conception, Beethoven introduces a chromatic theme in the lengthy coda: its half-step descents were no doubt recognizable to his contemporaries as a symbol of death.
This exhausting, relentlessly dramatic opening movement does not lead to a traditional slow movement, but instead to a manic Scherzo: Molto vivace – presto whose main theme is articulated by the timpani in the third (of four) rhythmic thrusts that make up the motif. The contrasting trio section is in D major and in duple time. The trio is the first time the trombones play in the movement. Following the trio, the second occurrence of the scherzo, unlike the first, plays through without any repetition, after which there is a brief reprise of the trio, and the movement ends with an abrupt coda.
The lyrical third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile – andante moderato – andante – adagio in B flat major, is a rapt and constantly searching adagio that grows from two related themes, one in B-flat and the other in D major. Both receive full variation treatment by one of the great masters of that form. The moods of this movement vacillate between serenity and aspiration to perhaps a higher spiritual state suggested by upwardly reaching violin figuration. The contrast between this reflective and warmly human movement and the energetic, preceding scherzo enhances the scope of the symphony ever further.
In the exhilarating choral finale, the key of D major finally triumphs over D minor, and the cellos and basses speak like human voices as they review the events of the previous movements and then dismiss them in favor the sublimely simple “Joy” theme. The remainder of the finale then becomes a series of extraordinary variations on this heart-stirring melody, sung by chorus, the solo quartet, and orchestra. A particularly striking variation comes early on: a jaunty military march in “Turkish style” featuring the tenor soloist. The other major theme of this huge finale is sung in unison by the tenors and basses. It opens an extended, awe-struck episode in which the chorus hails the love Father, creator of the universe, and concludes in a magnificent double fugue in combination with the “Ode to Joy” theme. At the end, Beethoven drives his voices almost beyond their capacities to express his glorious vision of a new world just beyond human reach.
The text is taken from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, with a few additional introductory words written specifically by Beethoven. The text and translation, without repeats, can be found below.
Ode to Joy … Text & Translation
The “Ode to Joy” text employed, and slightly modified, by Beethoven
was written by the German poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller in the summer of 1785. It was a celebratory poem addressing the unity of all mankind. (The italicized text denotes additional introductory text by Beethoven.)
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein;
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory!
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.