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Volume 8, Issue 2: Historia

Freude, Schöner Götterfunken

Chris Schlect

The concert took place at seven o'clock on the evening of May 7, 1824 -- opening night. After the performance, Anton Schindler and Joseph Huttenbrenner escorted the exhausted maestro to his home. Schindler then handed him the box-office report, and the maestro collaspsed when he saw it. His escorts lifted him onto a sofa, and remained at his side well into the night. He spoke only to refuse their offers of food and drink. The two withdrew when they noticed, in Schindler's own words, "that Morpheus had gently closed his eyes." His servants found him there the next morning, still sleeping in the suit he had worn to the concert-hall the night before. 1

The maestro hadn't conducted an orchestra in performance for more than a decade. But that evening, at the Imperial Royal Court Opera Theater in Vienna, a full house witnessed Ludwig van Beethoven assist in the direction of the greatest symphony ever composed. (The orchestra didn't follow Beethoven's animated directing, for he was then completely deaf, but rather the direction of Kapellmeister Umlauf, at whose side Beethoven flailed ineffectually.) This was the premier of the ninth, and last, symphony to come from his creative hand: op. 125.
Since its first performance, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has enjoyed prominence in the concert repertoire. Every quarter of civilization has, at some time or other, adopted it as a theme. To a Japanese December it has become what Handel's Messiah is in the West. For example, December 1991 saw at least 162 performances of the Ninth in Japan. One 1985 performance in Tokyo featured multiple orchestras and a choir of more than five thousand voices -- to commemorate the opening of a new Sumo wrestling palace. The freude theme also figured prominently in the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Winter Olympics. The scherzo was used by NBC as the theme for the Huntley-Brinkley newscast. The finale played triumphantly, though ignobly, as the credits rolled for the movie Die Hard . Worse yet, Michael Jackson included a minute-long segment of the finale in "Will You Be There" on his album Dangerous . (He was sued for millions on behalf of the Cleveland Symphony for stealing maestro Szell's interpretation.) The Ninth was performed in Berlin in 1942 to celebrate Hitler's birthday (pomp was the Fuhrer's forte ). Leonard Bernstein chose the masterpiece to celebrate the reunion of Berlin after the famous wall was razed; Bernstein conducted this Christmas Day, 1989, performance for a worldwide broadcast. Ironically, just six months earlier, the students in Beijing's Tiananmen Square blared the finale from loudspeakers in their ill-fated stand against a repressive Chinese regime. What is this piece that has so captured the civilized world?
The origin of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony came as early as 1792, the year the young German went to Vienna. He became enraptured by Friedrich von Schiller's poem "An die Freude" ("To Joy"; 1785). The young Beethoven, already reknowned as a virtuoso pianist, resolved to set it to music. But before doing so, he would alter the whole world of music even more profoundly than Napoleon Bonaparte would change European politics.
Beethoven's first eight symphonies captivated Europe. His first two (1800 and 1802) exalted him to the level of his great predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. His third symphony ( Eroica , 1803), however, was "one of those rare works which can be said to have created a musical revolution single-handed. 2With it Beethoven won new critics and new admirers and startled everyone. Tremendously complex, and twice the length of any Mozart or Haydn symphony, some thought it mad; others, genius. Beethoven considered titling the work Bonaparte , but settled for a dedication to Napoleon: "to honor the memory of a great man." But when news reached Vienna that the little dictator had crowned himself emperor, Beethoven "seized the score, tore out the title page, and cursing the 'new tyrant,' flung it on the floor." 3The third was followed by the graceful fourth symphony (1807), far more winsome -- Schumann deemed it "a slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants." 4 Of course, the latter Nordic giant was the explosive fifth symphony (1808), whose entire first movement is constructed around one four-note idea. The famous opening notes are the most suspenseful notes in all music. The sixth, or pastoral , symphony debuted alongside the fifth. Beethoven noted it to be "recollections of life in the country"; so it is, with its imitation of birds singing and its unforgettable, terrifying thunder. Indeed, by now both terror and deep peace were trademarks of Beethoven's symphonies. These trademarks met in the funerary second movement of his seventh symphony (1812), which encored at its premiere performance. This droning A-minor is the finest, most solemn moment of quietude in all symphony. The conventions of Mozart and Haydn went out with Beethoven's seventh, left behind to lesser mortals. It was soon followed by the eighth (1812), one of the shortest, and no doubt the wittiest of Beethoven's symponies. It was wildly popular -- justly so -- at its premiere and has always enjoyed a prominent place in the concert repertoire.
Beethoven's first eight symphonies appeared over a span of thirteen years, and they transformed music. But the world would have to wait a decade to hear his next symphony, and unlike the first eight, Beethoven would never hear a note of it. His hearing had been deteriorating for years, and by 1816 he was stone deaf. Nonetheless, the prospect of a commission from the Philharmonic Society of London prompted the maestro to begin work on a symphony in D-minor in 1817. The project took flight when the commission was secured in 1822. He agreed to a measly 50 pounds but didn't care; he just needed an excuse to give his time to it. On the occasion he remarked to a pupil, "If only I were not that poor Beethoven, I would compose for Europe's greatest artists for free . . . But even if nothing else in the world is granted him, Beethoven can, thank God, compose." 5 The coming year's work would prove this a sizable understatement.
The Ninth Symphony's opening murmur leaves the listener suspended, unable at first to even decipher the key. In the beginning, the Ninth is formless and void; then a hovering voice speaks D-minor into existence. The movement proceeds with ocean waves of tension and relaxation, quiet and loud. The boldness of the first movement demands a reprieve of adagio , but instead comes a high-velocity scherzo , the second movement. A reviewer of the first performance wrote of the scherzo , "The wildest mischief plays its wicked game . . . All the instruments compete in the banter, and a brilliant march in the major mode gives an unusual exhilaration to the contrastingi section." 6 Kettledrums, calculated to startle, evoked spontaneous ovations from the first audience in Vienna. (Even today, those who attend a good performance of the Ninth will note the applause heighten when the timpanist takes his turn to bow.) During one of the ovations, vocal soloist Caroline Unger turned Beethoven's attention to the applause, for his deafness had made him oblivious to it. When the third movement comes, finally, finally , the listener's ear is granted sweet rest. The other-worldly adagio was well-described by another 1824 observer as "a most profound song, full of warmth, and flowing in heavenly melancholy." 7 The adagio gives reprieve to the tired ear, which unknowingly must be alert for the approaching fourth movement. The third closes with serenity.
The choir, which had been seated and silent for the first three movements, rises to its feet. All four soloists take their places before the choir. The conductor lifts his baton, stilling audience, orchestra, choir, and soloists. All brass and woodwinds are up, bows are fixed to strings, and the timpanist's mallets stand at attention. The down-thrust of the conductor's arms ignites an explosive fourth movement.
Every piece joins the opening fanfare. Then the movement settles to a pleasant recitative, followed by a recollection of the principal themes of the first three movements. The winds breathe their last of this at m. 91, and the basses take over for the solemn introduction of the freude (joy) theme. After a 24-measure exposition, the basses pass the theme to cellos and violas, now with bassoon and bass support: freude grows. Next, the first violins take over the theme, and the seconds contribute more accompaniment. Then, magnificently, all the winds join in at m. 164 and freude is carried by trumpets! This would be enough; the composer has met his commission. But the best still waits; the vocalists have not yet spoken
A bass soloist steps out at m. 208 to sing Beethoven's introduction to Schiller's poem: "O friends, not these sounds! Rather let us turn to sounds more pleasant and more joyful." Then, " freude !" he booms; " freude !" answers the regiment of basses behind. Then the vocalist takes up Schiller's words, "Joy, beauteous spark of the gods, daughter of Elysium . . . "; soon the entire choir joins in. The theme soars to a lofty height, and then descends to make way for the famous "Turkish march" of mm. 343-374. The march sets out with a mesmerizing, pulsating bassoon, contrabassoon, and bass drum. A horn and clarinet join in, followed by cymbals and triangle. The cadence moves ahead. Then, marching in step, woodwinds construct a light variation of the freude theme. (Beethoven's genius is seen nowhere more plainly than in his variations on themes.) Finally, a tenor enters the march and sings a new stanza of Schiller's poem; later the choir joins him.
Now a dazzling instrumental breaks in. It starts busy, but unwinds to simple, nighttime quiet. All that speaks is a lonely horn, laboriously pulsing out the cadence of the dying march. What follows at m. 543 is the finest moment of symphony -- the finest moment of all music. Over the dying horn, soft, teasing strings announce the sudden invasion of choir in full voice, with all horns, strings, and woodwinds, together singing out joy -- Schiller's joy:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum
. 8
Many Protestants are familiar with Henry Van Dyke's Victorian attempt to hymnodize this moment with his oft-sung "Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee." Van Dyke's poem is pretty, but does not even approach Schiller's An Die Freude in skill of construction, beauty of imagery, and especially in euphony. Its terrestrial similes ("Hearts unfold like flow'rs before Thee") and romantic metaphors ("Melt the clouds of sin and sadness") are far beneath the sublime, lofty other-worldliness of Schiller's verse. Tragically, Van Dyke's subject is so much more worthy of praise than Schiller's! And worse still, extracting the freude theme out of Beethoven's Ninth removes it from the context that the maestro created for it, with brilliant recitatives, introductions, and variations. Using Beethoven's theme as a hymn tune for Van Dyke's verse reduces it to a mere ditty compared to the original. Martin Luther set Christian lyrics to nice little songs and made them glorious; Van Dyke set his lyrics to a grand symphony and reduced it to a nice little song.
The fourth movement continues through an array of fulfilling variations on freude . Especially stunning are the high-A that the choir's sopranos hold for thirteen measures in "seid umschlungen," and the fast-as-possible tempo of the chorus' concluding words.
Hear the Ninth. It thunders out above Achilleus' paean; it is the ten thousand's cry thalatta! thalatta! at the sea; of monuments it is Cheops' pyramid. More than this, it is truly freude, schöner Götterfunken.

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