Why Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is more than an Ode to Joy
In 1824 a rather elderly and dishevelled Beethoven took to the stage at the Theater am Kärntnertor to conduct the premiere of his Ninth symphony.
It is the same piece that audiences will hear performed at the Royal Opera House Muscat on December 8 – but the circumstances could not have been more different.
Firstly, Beethoven was profoundly deaf. The “real” conducting duties were left to Michael Umlauf – the theatre’s Kapellmeister – who stood next to him beating time for the orchestra, or so the story goes.
Then there was the composition itself. Today, all the world knows the Ode to Joy, the sublime song that appears in the final movement to drive the symphony to its rousing conclusion.
But in 1824, that first Viennese audience was in uncharted territory. Here was a symphony in which the orchestra had ballooned to include four operatic soloists and a full choir. Its character was by turns stormy, triumphant and playful – sometimes to the point of being menacing. There were several discordant moments.
And then there was the length – with more than 60 minutes of music, it was a mountain of a symphony, a titan that dwarfed everything that had gone before.
All the ingredients were there for an unmitigated failure of immense, embarrassing proportions. And yet, it was not.
The audience loved it. They jumped to their feet and cheered with rapturous delight. So deaf was the composer, he failed to hear the thunderous applause and had to be tapped on the shoulder by Caroline Unger, the contralto soloist, to face the adoring crowd.
It is a suitably powerful story for such a life-affirming symphony. Yet in some ways, the composer’s genius idea to round off his symphony with such a deceptively simple, catchy tune has perhaps also been the work’s great undoing. It has, to a great extent, gone on to eclipse the symphony as a whole. And when divorced from it, the Ode to Joy has mutated into something dangerously close to muzak.
It was adopted as the anthem of the European Union, to be rattled off during official occasions. Countries as diverse as Japan and Germany have adopted it as the traditional song to usher in the new year.
It made an appearance in The Beatles’ 1965 movie Help (sung by Ringo, no less), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and the Bruce Willis action movie Die Hard (1988). It even became the tinny theme tune to 1990s computer game Civilisation.
Is this detached usage what Beethoven had in mind? Probably not. In his symphony, the Ode to Joy arrives at the end of an amazingly complex journey. The symphony’s first movement emerges from the strangest whisperings – which some liken to the primordial soup – and follows a path that encompasses everything it took some of Beethoven’s earlier symphonies four movements to get through.
Next follows a jittery scherzo – normally the third movement – followed by an Adagio that swells and tugs at the heart for nearly 16 minutes. As a listener you are already overwhelmed when the fourth movement crashes open with a series of quotes from the previous three that are soon swept aside with the Ode to Joy.
At first it is simple – an unadorned melody in the cellos and double bass. It is taken up by the rest of the orchestra and rises to a crescendo, bit by bit, before the bass soloist dramatically steps in and ushers in the choir to sing the theme.
The mood continues to develop, echoing the grand rise and fall of an oratorio as the quartet of operatic soloists play against the power of the full choir.
Naturally, when the conclusion arrives, it is rousing, triumphant and enormous.
But what does it all mean? And how does the Ode to Joy fit into the giant jigsaw puzzle?
Is it a celebration of the brotherhood of man? Or was it written as a two-fingered salute to the repressive political environment of Europe after the Congress of Vienna, as Harvey Sachs suggested in his book The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824?
Perhaps this is the ultimate genius of the work. On its own, the Ode to Joy plays the part of a heroic foot soldier. But taken as a whole, the symphony is far more complex and confusing. Like a rainbow, it appears before us, bold, bright and real – yet we can never truly find its source.
Nicholas Cook puts it well: “Of all the works in the mainstream repertory of western music, the Ninth Symphony seems the most like a construction of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the values, hopes and fears of those who seek to understand and explain it.”
It is for this reason that this symphony arguably remains the greatest ever written.
It still has the power and theatricality to stun audiences, confound them and leave them shaking.
So do not let that dodgy rendition of Ode to Joy on New Year’s Eve last year make you think otherwise.
• Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be performed by RAI National Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Choir at the Royal Opera House Muscat on December 8. Tickets from 5 Omani Rials (Dh47) from www.rohmuscat.org.om