Friday, July 22, 2011

Ode to Joy/Beethoven's 9th Symphony

Beethoven's 9th Symphony is that rare piece of classical music that can be found anywhere; the Die Hard movies, the Muppet Studio, and the fingers of just about any seven-year-old that proudly announces "I can play the piano!"  And, if you will forgive this bit of editorializing, it deserves every bit of recognition it gets.  Premiered in 1824 after a six-year composition period by Ludwig von Beethoven, it is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, and was unprecedented in almost every way.

Beethoven sees.  And he does not approve.
Ludwig von Beethoven was born in December, 1770 to a musical family in Bonn, Germany.  Ludwig's father, seeing his early talent, began to groom him to be the next child prodigy in the vein of Mozart, but this never really panned out in Beethoven Sr's favor (potentially due to Senior's burgeoning alcoholism).

After moving to Vienna in the early 1790s, Ludwig began to study under Joseph Haydn.  This is, as we call it in the business, a big deal.  Haydn was one of the most beloved composers of his era, and was widely considered to be the father of the symphony (which is, of course, rather important to this post).  Unfortunately, Beethoven and Haydn did not get along so well (though Beethoven's famously stormy demeanor did not truly manifest itself until much later in his life), and though Beethoven respected Haydn a great deal, their professional relationship was brief.

Beethoven's first symphony was premiered in 1800, when the composer was thirty years old.  The history of the symphony, much like most histories, is long and quite convoluted, so for our purposes we will distill the term to this:  it is a four-movement orchestral work that is generally divided like so.

1.  An opening, usually allegro (quickly and brightly)
2. A slow movement
3. A minuet with trio or scherzo (another quick movement)
4.  An allegro or rondo (in which a primary theme alternates with one or more other themes)

And he's looking right back.
Beethoven, of course, came and messed everything up, which then gave other composers to mess things up even further (I'm looking at you, Mahler).

First, Beethoven's 9th symphony was the longest symphony at that point.  It was so long, in fact, that when the CD was being created, it is said that a 1951 recording of the symphony that clocked in at 74 minutes became the standard length of the CD.  This story is, as all good ones are, disputed.

Second, the final symphony used a choir and a setting of a 1785 poem by Friedrich Schiller called Ode to Joy.  This gave composers such as Mahler the license to use singers and choirs in his symphonies as well (and often to wonderful effect, if I do say so myself).

In terms of the music itself, the final theme of the symphony is actually quite interesting.  The romantic notion of originality did not yet apply to Beethoven (though he is often considered the first Romantic composer...), and so he was free to borrow from himself - a technique he used quite often.  The Ode to Joy theme - perhaps the most recognizable melody in the world - can be traced back to 1795, in an unassuming lied (which is simply "song" in German) called "Gegenliebe," or "Requited Love."  It then shows up again in 1808 in his Choral Fantasie, which can be heard in this video from 4:40 on (as played by the phenomenally talented Hélène Grimaud):

There is a famous story tied to the premiere of the 9th Symphony that is well-attributed enough that it is rarely disputed.  When Beethoven conducted the symphony, he was so deaf that the performers only looked to him for the tempo cues.  As such, they finished the piece before he was done conducting it.  As the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, packed to capacity, began to cheer wildly, Beethoven continued to conduct, and one of the soloists had to turn him around so he could see the adoring crowd.

The words of the poem speak of universal brotherhood:

Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

All men become brothers,
where your gentle wing rests.

It was with this spirit that the EU adopted the Ode to Joy as their official anthem, and - if I may be so bold - it is a spirit that we could all stand to see a bit more.

Further listening:
Like Beethoven with singing?  Try "Mir ist so wunderbar" from Fidelio

Like symphonies with singing?  Try the 5th movement from Mahler's 3rd symphony:

Like whiny indie pop with a side of Beethoven?  Try "Road to Joy" by Bright Eyes:

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