Monday, April 6, 2009

Premiere of the 9th Symphony, Karnthnerther Theatre, Vienna; May 7, 1824

For obvious reasons, Beethoven could not conduct, but he was encouraged to mount the podium with Michael Umlauf and set the tempo for all four movements.

It was his downbeat, therefore, that produced the most revolutionary sound in symphonic history: a long, hovering, almost inaudible bare fifth on A, seemingly static but full of storm.

High over this cloud layer, like reflections of distant lightening, a series of broken fifths dropped pianissimo and very slowly. They repeated themselves, no louder but more often, while the hovering fifth prevented any sense of acceleration. Odd wind instruments joined the general drone on A (was the whole universe tuning up?), then, unexpectedly and quite off the beat, a low bassoon sounded D. At once, still without any crescendo, the sense of space filling the hall gained extra dimension. This was not a symphony in A, but an epic in D.

Now the broken fifths began to proliferate wildly, the drone swelled to a roar, and a huge theme built of all the elements crashed down fortissimo. Beethoven's Ninth was under way, and for the rest of the century, symphonic composers would struggle in vain to write anything that sounded bigger.

Accounts differ as to when, exactly, the following happened: either after the scherzo (with its shock drum solo, throwing the 'flashing' theme off-beat) or after the choral finale (with its climatic double fugue praising Joy and embracing Millions). At whichever moment, while the audience erupted with delight, Beethoven stood with his back to the hall, absorbed in the score before him. One of the soloists, the teenage soprano Caroline Unger, had to take him gently by the sleeve of his coat and turn him around so that he could see the tumult.

Never in my life', Schindler wrote in his conversation book afterward, 'did I hear such frenetic and yet cordial applause'. The symphony was in fact interrupted four times by rapturous demonstrations, until the city police commissioner had to call for order.

Only the imperial box remained silent, for the good reason that it was empty. Ten years before, at the premiere of Der glorreiche Augenblick , Beethoven had been the toast of European royalty. He was now, in perhaps the strangest turn of his career, a hero of the people. The Ninth Symphony's success was extraordinary (a repeat performance had to be scedualed) and not the least because in it Beethoven managed without intellectual condescension to strike the populist note. Connoisseurs could revere its contrapuntal and formal complexities, and details such as the long appoggiatura on C in the theme of the slow movement, poignant almost beyond bearing. But the Millionen felt themselves addressed in the compulsively singable, anthem-like tune of the finale, and the fivefold invocation of 'all humanity' at the end.

Beethoven the artist had discharged his last public work, commissioned by a society and petitioned for by a delegation. He was now free, in the summer of 1824, to do what he had wanted to do ever since undertaking the "Razumovsky" Quartets: devote himself entirely to music's most cerebral medium."[ that is Opus 127,130,131, 132 & 133, the string Quartets 'generally agreed to represent the summit of instrumental music in the West'].

-Edmund Morris-


  1. The Ninth

    Deafness kept Beethoven from ever hearing a note of his Ninth Symphony, and death kept him from hearing of his masterpiece's adventures and misadventures.

    Bismarck proclaimed the Ninth and inspiration for the German race, Bakunin heard it as the music of anarchy, Engels declared it would become the hymn of humanity, and Lenin thought it more revolutionary than "The Internationale."

    Von Karajan conducted it for the Nazis, and years later he used it to consecrate the unity of free Europe,

    The Ninth accompanied Japanese kamikazes who died for their emperor, as well as the soldiers who gave their lives fighting against all empires.

    It was sung by those resisting the German blitzkrieg, and hummed by Hitler himself, who in a rare attack of modesty said that Beethoven was the true fuhrer.

    Paul Robeson sang it against racism, and the racists of South Africa used it as the soundtrack of their apartheid propaganda.

    To the strains of the Ninth, the Berlin Wall went up in 1961.

    To the strains of the Ninth, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

    -Eduardo Galeano in "Mirrors"-

  2. A sublime noise penetrated the Kärntnertortheater that evening in Vienna.

    Heroism, youth, and the magnificence of life were ardently awakened.

    Now the Adagio had concluded and the Finale had begun–

    “Gladly, just as his suns hurtle through the glorious universe,

    so you, brothers, should run your course, run your course,

    joyfully, like a radiant conquering hero, overthrowing your mortal handicaps!”

    Symbols and drums decorated the choral tune Beethoven had contrived.

    I smiled at the stone deaf conductor on the podium:

    his exaggerated gestures floundered, impervious to the music’s driving pulse.

    High-spirited applause, and an exuberant round of “wunderschöning” and “prachtvolleying”.


    Paraphrases from the novel Howard’s End by E.M. Forster and the poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller.