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Beethoven Marathon: First and last
Beethoven’s first and last symphonies were composed almost exactly a quarter-century apart. Yet what a change over those 25 years! The First, written when Beethoven was in his late 20s and just coming to artistic maturity, looks backward: in this music he was striving to master symphonic form as Haydn and Mozart had developed it. The Ninth, composed when Beethoven was in his 50s, deaf, and only three years from death, is a visionary work. The first symphony to include the human voice, it offers a romantic vision of the brotherhood of all mankind, and for sheer grandeur of expression it has never been matched. These concerts, with which we usher in the New Year and launch an eight-concert Beethoven Marathon, make clear just how far the composer traveled in those 25 years.
Beethoven set out to accomplish very different things in these bookend symphonies. As a young man, he was intent on writing a symphony worthy of the examples of Mozart and of Beethoven’s teacher Haydn, who had just completed his own magnificent cycle of a hundred-plus symphonies. We think of Beethoven as a revolutionary composer, but the surprising thing about his First Symphony is how conservative it is. He writes for the classical orchestra of Haydn and Mozart, he sets it in the key of Mozart’s last symphony, the Jupiter, and he even “lifts” the main theme of his first movement from the opening of the Jupiter. There are no battles fought here, no grappling with darkness and struggling toward the light. The distinction of the First lies simply in its crisp energy and exuberant music-making.
The Ninth takes us into a different world entirely. The sheer size of the orchestra helps tell the tale: to the classical orchestra of his First Symphony, Beethoven now adds a piccolo, contrabassoon, two extra horns, three trombones, unusual percussion instruments and a much bigger string section, necessary to match the impact of the extra wind and percussion. This is an orchestra that sets out to make a grand sound, and it does. The First Symphony may have looked back and played it safe, but in the Ninth, Beethoven makes the symphony the platform for a vast music drama that sets out to make a utopian statement.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Opus 21
Beethoven begins his First Symphony with a slow introduction, just as Haydn often did, but Beethoven makes that opening a stinging discord in the “wrong” key of F major, then keeps us guessing before finally alighting on the home key of C major at the Allegro con brio. Beethoven specified that the second movement should be cantabile, and it does sing gracefully throughout; an original touch is his use of the timpani, often solo, as an accompanying instrument. Beethoven marked the third movement Menuetto, but it’s not a minuet—it’s a scherzo, the first of Beethoven’s many symphonic scherzos. The opening of the finale brings a nice witticism: after a great blast from the full orchestra, a rising scale emerges bit by bit, like a snake rising from its hole, and at the Allegro molto e con brio, that scale rockets upward to introduce the finale’s energetic main theme. Beethoven’s first symphonic effort concludes in a great blast of good-natured energy, as if he wanted to make quite clear that—as a symphonist—he had arrived.
Beethoven’s First Symphony found enthusiastic audiences; it was soon performed in Berlin, Breslau, Frankfurt, Dresden, Munich, Paris, and London. There is evidence that it may even have been performed in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1817 (had he known, Beethoven would likely have been delighted).
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings
"You make upon me the impression of a man who has several heads, several hearts and several souls."
- Haydn, on his student Beethoven
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125, Choral
Beethoven had planned to set Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude (Ode to Joy) to music as early as 1792, when he was 22, but that plan had to wait 30 years. The first performance of the Ninth took place in Vienna on May 7, 1824. Though he had been deaf for years, Beethoven sat on stage with the orchestra and tried to assist in the direction of the music. This occasion produced one of the classic Beethoven anecdotes. Unaware that the piece had ended, Beethoven continued to beat time and had to be turned around to be shown the applause that he could not hear—the realization that the music they had just heard had been written by a deaf man overwhelmed the audience.
The opening of the Allegro ma non troppo, quiet and harmonically uncertain, creates a sense of mystery and vast space. Bits of theme flit about in the murk, and out of these the main theme suddenly explodes to life and comes crashing downward. This has been universally compared to a streak of lightning, and surely that must have been Beethoven’s intention. The second movement is a scherzo built on a five-part fugue. The displaced attacks in the first phrase, which delighted the audience at the premiere, still retain their capacity to surprise. The Adagio molto e cantabile is in theme-and-variation form, but in the course of its composition Beethoven came up with a second theme, announced by the second violins and violas. He liked it so much that he could not bring himself to leave it out. And so the movement became a set of double variations on these two themes.
“more pleasing and more joyful”
After the serenity of the third movement, the finale erupts with a dissonant blast. Beethoven’s intention here was precise—he called this ugly opening noise a Schrecken-fanfare (“terror-fanfare”), and with it he wanted to shatter the mood of the Adagio and prepare his listeners for the weighty issues to follow. Then begins one of the most remarkable passages in music: in a long recitative, cellos and basses consider a fragment of each of the three previous movements and reject them all. Next, still by themselves, they sing the theme that will serve as the basis of the final movement. Again comes the strident opening blast, and now the baritone soloist puts into words what the cellos and basses have suggested: “Oh, friends, not these sounds! Rather let us sing something more pleasing and more joyful.”
That will come in Schiller’s text, with its exaltation of the fellowship of mankind and of a universe presided over by a just god. An die Freude was originally a drinking ode, and if the text is full of the spirit of brotherhood, it is also replete with praise for the glories of good drink. Beethoven cut all references to drink and retained those that speak directly to a utopian vision of human brotherhood. Musically, the last movement is a series of variations on its main theme, the music of each stanza varied to fit its text.
In a world that daily belies the utopian message of the Ninth Symphony, it may seem strange that this music continues to work its hold on our imagination. It is difficult for us to take the symphony’s vision of brotherhood seriously when each day’s headlines show us again the horrors of which man is capable. Perhaps the secret of its continuing appeal is that for the hour it takes us to hear the Ninth Symphony, the music reminds us not of what we too often are, but of what—at our best—we might be.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings, with soprano, mezzo, tenor and bass soloists and 4-part mixed chorus