In Japan, an estimable guidebook informs us, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the end-of-the-year music of choice, even ahead of “Auld Lang Syne” in public affection. “Concert performances are held everywhere,” we are told, “and many amateur singers look forward to singing in these choruses. This can probably be a phenomenon peculiar to Japan.”
I would hope so. Considering the implacable demands the choral writing in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony imposes upon its singers — the curdling chromatic lines for tenors at the start, the sopranos cranked up for 10 throat-stretching bars of repeated high A’s later on — a worldwide outbreak of amateur-society Ninths around New Year’s Day (or any other time) could only result in an epidemic of nosebleeds. Shed a tear, furthermore, for the agony visited upon parents of all those amateur singers shanghaied into attending in this avalanche of holiday Ninths. They sit there for nearly 50 minutes of Beethoven’s fist-shaking orchestral music before their loved ones onstage ever get to open their mouths for Beethoven’s famous tune. Is that any way to share the joys of the New Year’s holiday? (Strange, isn’t it, how many of classical music’s Top 10 — Messiah, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Beethoven Ninth, say — derive their fame from episodes that take up only a tiny percentage of their full length.)
Yet the Ninth deserves its place in the pantheon of music’s most honored icons. Its appearance on an orchestra’s schedule is almost always as a special event: the start of the season — as with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend — or a reflection of a larger event. A year ago, having been accorded honorary sacredness for the day, it shared the Hollywood Bowl stage with the Dalai Lama in the “Festival of Sacred Music.” Its mighty brass served as Joshua’s trumpets to help blow down the Berlin Wall, with a new text for the vocal forces in the finale concocted by a latter-day Joshua, Leonard Bernstein.
At the movies it has underscored one hero’s madness (in A Clockwork Orange) and another hero’s victory over terrorists (in Die Hard). It may be one of music’s great liberating forces, but it has been an intimidating force as well. Anton Bruckner died working on his Ninth Symphony. Gustav Mahler, music’s most illustrious hypochondriac, was so terrified of embarking on his own Ninth Symphony that he tried to bamboozle the gods by giving it another name — The Song of the Earth. Its shadow even falls upon modern audio technology: The planners of the compact disc, so the story goes, took an 80-minute Wilhelm Furtwängler recording of the Ninth as the optimum length for the new product. (Be glad it wasn’t the Benjamin Zander recording, which clocks in at 58.)
Beethoven, the Man Who Freed Music . . . Beethoven and the Voice of God . . . Beethoven, Life of a Conqueror . . . The bookshelves bulge with salivating adulations. Anyone familiar with Bach’s St. Matthew or St. John Passion, the Messiah or Mozart’s Don Giovanni might question the notion that music lay in some kind of bondage awaiting Beethoven’s liberating hand. Even so, just the contrast between the real-life antisocial alcoholic Beethoven and the genius Beethoven whose inner voices penetrated his deafness and produced the Ninth Symphony — and its eight predecessors (plus quartets, sonatas, etc.) — has raised a monumental accumulation of fact and fantasy that must needs resound in larger-than-life language: thus, “liberator,” “messiah,” “conqueror.” Now approaching its own two-century mark, the Beethoven foofaraw remains grander and noisier than a comparable encrustation around any other figure in the arts before or since (Elvis possibly excepted). An early surviving review describes the Second Symphony as “a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon.” It dates from 1804, and we might as well hail its uncredited Viennese author as the founder of a Beethoven industry that has continued uninterrupted ever since.
None of the above is meant, of course, as belittlement; even when winnowed out from the centuries of superheated music-appreciationese, the Ninth is one of those imponderable acts of daring that light up the artistic landscape all too seldom, sharing the top shelf with such other imponderables as Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection, Shakespeare’s King Lear and, yes, Beethoven’s own Eroica. A liberating force? That can be argued; yet I don’t know another work of art that so vigorously flings open a window of possibility for all the art that was to follow. The greatest testimony to the stature of the Beethoven Ninth resounds in the galaxy of later works, some of them masterpieces and some not, whose direction was clearly affected by occurrences in this work.
Start at the beginning. According to the Classical ideal, exemplified in 104 different ways by that many Haydn symphonies, or 41 ways by Mozart, a proper symphonic first movement begins with a clear and memorable theme in a clearly defined key. Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony hits you immediately with the F-majorness of its first grand, swinging tune. The Ninth, however, starts on a distant planet: a faint throbbing that could be in any number of keys, with a theme that takes shape somewhere out in space, one note at a time. Long after Beethoven, that way of starting a big piece of music — out in Nowhere-land, mystery-drenched, rumbling into shape only gradually — became entrenched in the language of high Romanticism: most of Mahler, all of Bruckner, Wagner’s Ring.
Beethoven’s first theme is its own kind of miracle. It crashes in on you, out of the mists of uncertainty, like the Titanic’s iceberg, massive and gruff. Later, it splits apart in wondrous ways: now halting and melancholy, now a horn solo like a distant benediction. Midway in the first movement, its fragments knock against one another and, with terrific energy, coalesce once more in a recapitulation both sardonic and triumphant. The interweave of counterpoints — close at hand, in the middle distance and afar — is staggering; time and again you have to remind yourself that all this incredible detail is the fashioning of a mortal totally and tragically deaf. At the movement’s end, Beethoven’s incomparable theme pulls itself once more out of a mumbling, eerie blackness and hurls itself against us, against the gods.
In that multilayered, deliriously pregnant theme, so classic and so suggestive, lies the first of the Ninth’s many greatnesses. During its creation, Beethoven toyed with another last movement, a purely orchestral “tragedy” that later became the finale of the A-minor String Quartet. The epic challenges of the first movement, he eventually realized, and their continuation in the demon dances of the second movement and the fragile serenities of the third, demanded another kind of resolution. While the chorus still cools its heels onstage, another fierce battle rages in the orchestra as, among themselves, the players review, discuss and reject everything they have performed in the last 50 or so minutes. It’s a strange drama; confronted with, and having rejected, the fragmented reminders of the symphony’s terrific opening, the demonic scherzo and the seraphic slow movement, the orchestra falls in instead behind the simple, folkish D-major tune that, to many admirers, is the Beethoven Ninth, the way the “Tonight We Love” tune is the Tchaikovsky Concerto.
“Enough of this,” the solo baritone proclaims (in words by Beethoven himself), and everybody joins in a final 20 minutes of joyous, declarative, tonsil-wrecking working out of the sweet little tune. By itself this final movement — the most famous part of the Beethoven Ninth, the part all the folks have been waiting for — is an overcomposed, clumsy essay in variation technique whose most delicious moment happens when the music stops — the colossal fart from the contrabassoon out of darkness, just before the tenor solo, after the chorus has yelled itself hoarse in the first of several climactic anticlimaxes.
If this finale deserves exceptional acclaim, it has been so ordained by what came before. In those first three movements, longer by themselves than any of Beethoven’s earlier complete symphonies, a challenge has been thrown down: to what must then happen to bring this one work safely home, and to the directions music might take in its future. Both ways, the challenge has been handsomely met.