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'].