Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125, “Choral” (1824) 65 minutes
Soprano, alto, tenor, and bass soloists, mixed chorus, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, and strings.
Beethoven’s Ninth and final Symphony (“Choral”) represents, on a number of levels, a summit of the immortal composer’s artistic life. The Ninth is by far the most epic of Beethoven’s Symphonies, both in terms of length and performing forces. The revolutionary introduction of vocal soloists and chorus in the finale was a bold masterstroke that forever expanded the potential of symphonic expression.
The text of the Symphony’s finale, based upon the 1785 Ode “To Joy” by the great German writer, Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), held a lifelong attraction for the composer. Likewise, Beethoven’s melodic setting of Schiller’s Ode in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth was the product of an extended genesis. A version of the melody first appears in a song Beethoven composed in the mid-1790s, entitled “Gegenliebe” (“Mutual Love”), based upon a poem by Gottfried August Bürger. An even more startling premonition of the Ninth Symphony may be found in Beethoven’s 1808 Fantasia in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, Opus 80. And the sublime writing for the vocal soloists and chorus in the final scene of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (1805, rev. 1806, 1814), looks forward to the finale of the Ninth.
Beethoven composed the Ninth Symphony during a period between the spring of 1823 and January 1824. As late as the summer of 1823, Beethoven considered ending his Symphony in traditional fashion with a purely instrumental fourth movement. Even after Beethoven made the final decision to employ Schiller’s text, the question remained of how to effect the appropriate transition to this new and daring path.
And then one day (according to the composer’s friend and biographer, Anton Schindler), Beethoven exclaimed: “I’ve got it, I’ve got it.” Beethoven had sketched the following words: “Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller.” This text was to be performed by the basses of the chorus, with the soprano then presenting Schiller’s Ode. Beethoven ultimately modified the above text to read: “O friends, no more these sounds! Let us sing songs that are more cheerful and full of joy!” Both these lines, and the beginning of Schiller’s Ode, are given to the solo bass vocalist.
The premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony took place at the Vienna Kärnthnerthor Theater on May 7, 1824. By this stage of Beethoven’s life, the composer’s hearing had deteriorated to such an extent that conducting the performance was out of the question. Instead, Michael Umlauf led the premiere. But all the while, Beethoven was at Umlauf’s side, attempting to direct the tempos for the various movements.
At the conclusion of the performance, the audience erupted with a spirited ovation. Karoline Unger was the contralto soloist at the premiere of the Beethoven Ninth. More than four decades later, she met with the British music writer, Sir George Grove. During that meeting, Unger described what happened at the May 7, 1824 concert:
The master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it at all and was not even sensible of the applause of the audience at the end of his great work, but continued standing with his back to the audience, and beating the time, till Fräulein Unger, who had sung the contralto part, turned him, or induced him to turn round and face the people, who were still clapping their hands, and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning round, and the sudden conviction thereby forced upon everybody that he had not done so before, because he could not hear what was going on, acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed, which was repeated again and again, and seemed as if it would never end.
The Ninth Symphony is in four movements. The first (Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso) opens with the furtive introduction of a two-note descending motif (pairs of descending notes provide the thematic nucleus for much of the Ninth Symphony), soon thundered fortissimo by the orchestra. The winds also hint at the immortal Ode “To Joy” theme with a dolce ascending and descending theme. The movement proceeds to a fierce resolution, capped by a final statement of the opening theme. The scherzo (Molto vivace; Presto; Molto vivace) appears as the Symphony’s second (rather than the traditional third) movement. Once again, a descending two-note motif, introduced the outset, provides the thematic nucleus. In the central trio, the winds introduce a flowing theme that is another precursor to the Ode “To Joy” melody. The beautiful slow-tempo movement (Adagio molto e cantabile) is based upon two themes, both derived from a descending two-note motif. In the finale (Presto) the principal themes from the first three movements return, only to be rejected in turn by the orchestra. Finally, the orchestra sings the immortal Ode “To Joy” melody. The bass soloist heralds the entrance of the vocal soloists and chorus. A series of variations on the melody culminates in the orchestra’s Prestissimo race to the finish.
Texts and Translations
Baritone Solo, Soloists and Chorus
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere
anstimmen und freudenvollere!
Oh friends, no more these sounds!
Let us sing songs that are more cheerful and full of joy!
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.
Joy, lovely divine spark,
Daughter of Elysium,
With fiery rapture,
We approach your sanctuary!
Your magic reunites,
What stern custom separated;
All men shall be brothers,
Under your gentle wings.
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.
Whoever has enjoyed the great fortune
Of being a friend to a friend,
Whoever has won a dear wife,
Join in our chorus of jubilation!
Yes, even if he has but one soul
On this earth to call his own!
And whoever has not, let him steal away
Tearfully and alone.
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!
Every creature drinks joy
At nature’s breast.
Everyone, good and bad
Follows in her rosy path.
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
And a friend, faithful until death;
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Tenor Solo and Chorus
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Gladly, as His suns fly
Through the mighty path of heaven,
So, brothers, run your course,
Joyfully, like a hero on his conquest.
(The first stanza is repeated)
Chorus and Soloists
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 überm Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for all the world!
Brother! Above this tent of stars
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you kneel, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, world?
Seek him above in the tent of stars!
Above the stars he must dwell.
English translation by Ken Meltzer
Notes by Ken Meltzer © 2019