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Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

Beethoven returned to symphonic composition after a decade of intellectual crisis and challenge ending in the creative outburst of 1822–23 that produced the Diabelli Variations and the Missa solemnis as well as the Ninth. The hiatus meant that he would need to reconcile the evolution of his compositional technique with the certain public expectation of yet another in what had been a series of triumphs. In the years since the Eighth Symphony he had achieved a new lyricism and simplicity, even a certain intimacy of discourse.

But with the Ninth there is a sense of return to the heroism of the past, to what Joseph Kerman and Alan Tyson (in The New Grove) have called the “symphony ideal”—that is, those notions of process and working out, of struggle and resolution that characterize the Third and Fifth Symphonies. The turf seems familiar as Beethoven confronts matters of size, cyclicity, progress, and the articulation of his personal vision of universal brotherhood. The Ninth was far the longest symphony thus far composed, and it calls for one of the largest performing forces in the Viennese repertoire.    

Beethoven has written three great and lengthy, symphonic movements –a fierce sonata, a driving scherzo, and a pair of pastoral themes and their variations –cast in more or less conventional forms, then balanced them with an extraordinary finale in which sonata, variation, and fugal styles all intermingle. The main thematic material of the first movement erupts, volcano-like, from the almost primordial perfection of the open fifths in the strings and horn. There is some contrastive, lyrical material here, but by and large the turbulent elements hold sway. Beethoven’s vacillation between the keys of the first and second theme (D minor and Bb major) is such that what you sense most is the tension between them; when the climax is reached at the point of recapitulation, the tonic chord is an astonishing D major, with its F sharp strongly emphasized.

The scherzo, opening with a superb flourish in the timpani, is vast of dimension, with an extravagant inner repeat scheme and tense phrase groupings that shift into triple pulses just as you are beginning to be comfortable with the quadruple. The B-flat tonality pulls at the prevailing D minor here, too, but the trio is in a D major of welcome passivity and in equally welcome duple meter. The scherzo returns with all its repeats intact, and in view of the way things have gone there is some reason to expect a second full statement of the equally massive trio, Seventh Symphony-fashion. But there is only a reminiscence of the trio, cut short by the final pounding cadence.

The importance of the tonal duplicities Beethoven has nourished thus far becomes clearest of all in the adagio, where two different passages are successively varied, one in B-flat, the other in D major, this second major mode seeming to demonstrate that the turmoil of the first two movements has begun to recede. Note the solo work for fourth horn in the B-flat sections, decorating each swell to climax.

The explosion at the beginning of the fourth movement—there should be little, if any, pause—leads to recitative-like material in the cellos and basses; these recitatives introduce recollections of the main material from the other movements and finally the main themes of this movement. The explosion recurs, this time to introduce the baritone soloist with the recitative; he banishes the “stressful sounds” that have come before and introduces the more joyful strains of Schiller’s apostrophe. The chorus enters at last, and to the singers is given the first substantial modulation thus far. The new section turns out to be a Turkish march in 6/8, complete with bass drum, cymbals, and triangle. Gradually this evolves into an orchestral scherzo, developmental in character, and another statement of the hymn tune.

Suddenly the forward motion stops, and the men’s voices join in hymnodic unison. Here is the central text, from Beethoven’s point of view: Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Humanity, argue Beethoven and Schiller, must see in the heavens the promise of brotherhood for all mankind. The musical allusions become more complex, for the last section combines the chorale tune and the ode to joy, revealing that they are counterpoints one of the other. To the orchestra alone is left the distinction of bringing the colossal movement to its end—a movement, moreover, for which no single explanation of structure will quite suffice.

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