A conductor considering directing Beethoven’s 9th symphony can be compared to a chaplain planning a visit to the Vatican or a Muslim cleric visiting Mecca! It is a daunting task and a musical pilgrimage that every conductor must attempt at least once but hopefully many times in his or her career—a cleansing act of utmost beauty and spirituality.
Much of Beethoven’s message contained in Ode to Joy is a direct result of his time and place in history. Though he was born a commoner, Beethoven's musical skills and the power of his compositions allowed him to mingle among the upper crust. He held this class separation in particular disdain and was rebellious and disrespectful toward authority. From his young days witnessing political and cultural events like the French Revolution, Beethoven developed strong beliefs and principles aimed at the common good of mankind. Regarding the French Revolution, for example, he was thrilled to hear that Napoleon, supposedly an enlightened ruler, might come from France to free central and western Europe from the bonds of hereditary rule—so thrillled, in fact, that he originally dedicated his 3rd symphony to him. But when he heard news that Napoleon had renamed himself “His Imperial Majesty Napoleon the First, Emperor of the French,” Beethoven became violently angry, and ultimately renamed the symphony “Eroica,” or “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
In the end, Beethoven’s politics were the same that ended the stranglehold that the church and kings had on Europe for so many centuries, the same politics that framed the great documents that created the United States of America—the politics of freedom and democracy. His symphonies from the very first to the very last provided a landscape of ever-lasting struggle for progressive ideas, breaking rules and ignoring authorities as well as achieving peace, beauty, and meaning. This great task was beautifully accomplished through nine symphonies, seventeen string quartets, and thirty-two piano sonatas that changed the history of music for good.
One knows the 9th best by its monumental last movement based on Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.” In this movement Beethoven sets the scene for a journey never traveled before. It is a scene characterized by rejection of the old ways of doing things and a proposal for starting fresh and new—a stage on which to appeal to humanity to forget hatred and bigotry and to embrace love, brotherhood, and belief in the goodness of humanity.
Musically, Beethoven sets this stage by revisiting the thematic material from the previous movements of the 9th, one at a time, and rejecting it using the powerful musical oration technique of recitative—a human-like monologue written for the lower strings, as if God himself/herself was the messenger.
While the grand journey to this musical utopia is famously outlined in the final movement of the symphony, the other movements are critically important, too, in that they hold the overall structure of the monument like pillars to an ancient city. In my opinion, Beethoven actually starts the symphony with a different, darker version of the idea embodied in the Finale! The opening motif of three sets of descending notes in 4ths and 5ths provides what for me is the imagery of a burial! The burial of everything in the past. These descending figures played by the strings provide incredible imagery of this event set in front of a gradual sunrise presented by the winds in the background. This interpretation perhaps can be best supported by the coda at the end of the movement, which in reality is a hasty funeral march! The first movement therefore represents what Beethoven had been set to do in the final movement already: Bury the old ideas and move on!
But how do we move on? Where to go next?
Perhaps the answer lies in reexamining the past. Look at what made Beethoven who he was at the age of 55. This could provide the road map to the next two movements—the inner movements. The second movement of the symphony, the Scherzo, is perhaps a reminiscing of his moments of young carefree joy and uneasy happiness marked by intense awkwardness, reminding us of a child brought up in poverty who really never had a childhood—a happiness he wished to have had but never really got to know.
The third movement represents the brighter extreme of his life, exemplifying the hope, love, peace, and serenity that may have existed at times during his adulthood, yielding good memories of friendship, youth, health, and romance. These, in turn, rendered Beethoven a lover of humanity and equality, one who is now inscribed in this immortal way of speaking to humanity forever. MUSIC!
Interpreting what Beethoven might have had in his mind to create such an everlasting masterpiece is a privilege that one musician can convey to all those who experience the fulfillment of life through the arts, especially music. In my humble interpretation, Beethoven’s 9th is a seamless cycle made of ridding the world of the old and starting fresh. Just like nature itself.
- Bahman Saless
Join us for Beethoven 9 - May 5, 6, & 7 to celebrate brotherhood and unity.