Up to that point in the Ninth, you could say, Beethoven gives us a normal Beethoven symphony: a stirring, dramatic first movement; a boisterous scherzo movement; a gorgeously songful third movement. And then, for the fourth and final movement, he breaks the mold and brings in a chorus and vocal soloists to sing the poem “To Joy” by his contemporary, the German poet Friedrich Schiller. What is that doing in a symphony? If Beethoven wanted to put music to that poem (as he apparently first thought of doing three decades before he wrote this symphony), why didn’t he do that in a separate cantata? Why have singers onstage, hanging over most of the symphony as they wait to deliver their Important Message? Or do the three earlier movements connect somehow to the music and idea of the Ode to Joy?
Beethoven had certainly written symphonies before (notably the Eroica and the Fifth) in which there was a dramatic or narrative thread connecting a couple of the movements to each other, and one (the Pastorale) in which a poetic theme bound the whole work together. If we look for that kind of thread in the Ninth, it is easiest to find it connecting the sense of struggle in the first movement to the theme of joy in the fourth. That struggle, which critics have interpreted in political, psychological, or cosmic terms, is worked out musically in the wave of sound that rises from the mysteriously inchoate opening sonority of the symphony and emerges into the theme that the whole orchestra thunders out a few seconds later; the process then repeats immediately in different harmonies. We could understand this opening, in other words, as enacting the struggle to create. The creating then continues in a wealth of themes, suggesting fertility more than struggle. These are mixed with several returns to the opening drama: one in which the inchoate opening leads elsewhere, one in which the inchoate opening returns with even more terrifying power than the theme itself, and a last one in which the inchoate opening is replaced by a funeral march that leads into the most forceful of all statements of the theme, at which the music stops dead in its tracks.
Next comes the dance movement. In Beethoven’s lifetime this movement, traditionally a minuet, was tending to tempos too fast for dancing and was getting to be known as a scherzo (Italian for joke); sometimes it was a site for musical high jinks. Beethoven in fact starts the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony with a practical joke. The strings play dum-ba-dum [pause], dum-ba-dum [pause], and the third dum-ba-dum is to be played by the whole orchestra. But the players seem to have decided to delay that third dum-ba-dum without telling the timpanist, faking him out, since he is the only one to come in at what feels like the right time. The jollity continues, with the timpanist occasionally interjecting that telltale motive and with some awkward cut-offs along the way. As in the Pastorale Symphony Beethoven is having fun with the idea of a rustic dance band.
The third movement, like the Scherzo, resists slipping too readily into a role in a narrative between the Struggle of the first movement and the Joy of the fourth. This is in a sense a conventional classical slow movement, in which we hear an alternation between two beautiful melodies in different keys, both of them varied as they alternate. What that formal description cannot convey is the extraordinary gracefulness of the music. As the variations proceed, the first melody sheds its original stillness and assumes some of the lilt of the second melody. The variations move the first melody in quicker and quicker notes, as variations will do, but the music never loses its lilt. The image of Beethoven as the composer of fate-defying power should not keep us from appreciating his gift for holding us transfixed by a quiet melody as he endlessly elaborates it.
So now the singers all assemble on the stage and we are ready for the Ode to Joy, but we don’t yet have a clear sense of how the three first movements should have prepared us for that. Beethoven has one answer ready for us, played out in a little drama. The wind instruments of the orchestra erupt in a mighty howl, which Richard Wagner called a “fanfare of horror.” The string basses (cellos and double basses) reply with what in opera would be called a recitative: a line of speech in song. But here there are no words, so we can’t tell what the basses would say, if they could speak. Another howl from the winds; another line of recitative from the basses. Next we hear recollections of the themes of the first three movements, each followed by wordless recitative from the basses. At this point a new theme is heard, played by winds. Unsurprisingly, it is a hint of the Ode to Joy theme. The string basses now move to a different role, stating that theme in full. A tune played by those bass instruments without accompaniment makes a rather gawky effect, which may only make us wonder in this case what the tune could be telling us. Instead of learning, we hear three variations of the theme, each more richly orchestrated than the last, as if to suggest three more verses of the song. The last extends into . . . a new version of the orchestral howl! And then, finally, we hear a singer.
It is the solitary voice of the baritone soloist, singing in recitative, as the string basses have been doing, but with words: “O friends, not these sounds! Rather, let us turn to sounds more pleasant and more joyful.” These words are Beethoven’s, not yet Schiller’s. What do they mean? No more of the howl? Yes, certainly, but that was not much to ask. No more of the themes we have just heard? Hardly, since they include the Ode to Joy, which we are going to hear for the rest of the symphony. No more just of the themes of the earlier movements? It would be a risky move for Beethoven to have created those first three movements just as fall guys for the fourth. No more music without voices? That’s what Wagner wanted to believe was the future path of music, but Beethoven clearly didn’t think that; he spent his remaining years writing string quartets. Maybe the simplest explanation for these words is that Beethoven has cooked up this whole rather overblown drama at the beginning of the fourth movement as a way of rationalizing his insertion of a choral ode into a symphony. Fortunately, the insertion is well worth the trouble.
As in the orchestral rendering of the Ode to Joy, the vocal version we now hear consists of several verses, each set more elaborately than the last. But this time we are hearing successive stanzas of Schiller’s poem. In the first two stanzas (baritone solo) Schiller celebrates joy in Enlightened, almost Masonic, terms, as a Classical goddess whose sanctuary we enter “intoxicated by fire,” where her magic turns all men into brothers. The second musical verse (quartet of soloists, joined by chorus) defines brotherhood as sharing one’s soul with a true friend or a pleasing wife. The third (quartet, then chorus) extends the realm of joy to the whole animal kingdom (even the lowly worm feels the joy of desire) and to the cherub standing before God. At this image Beethoven breaks out of the confines of his melody into a passage of spine-tingling majesty.
Now he transforms his melody into a military march, with all the percussion sounds (triangle, cymbals, bass drum) of the Ottoman sultan’s Janissary band. The joy we are now asked to feel is the joy of a hero running his course toward victory. By now Beethoven is picking and choosing from the verses and choruses of Schiller’s poem. He returns to the first stanzas of the poem with a gloriously straightforward statement of the Ode to Joy theme, and then has the men of the chorus introduce the lines “Receive this embrace, you millions!” to a pompous new theme. Addressing the millions obviously requires Beethoven to paint in bold strokes, so when the lines ask “Do you fall prostrate, you millions?” and answer that the Creator “must surely dwell above the stars,” he lets us hear those stars pulsing in the heavens.
From now on we are rehearing the same stanzas and lines and single words that we have heard before, but the same music keeps unfolding in new configurations. We hear the paired groups of the choir sing the words and melodies of the first stanza and the second chorus simultaneously.We hear the paired voices of the soloists sing the opening words of the poem to new melodies.We hear the pace of the music slow down twice so that first the chorus and then the soloists can indulge in a little operatic embellishmentAnd we hear everyone onstage race to an exhilarating ending.Beethoven’s music in this finale, like Schiller’s ode, describes many kinds of joy. But as at the beginning of the symphony, we may well feel that for Beethoven at least they all come together in the joy of creating.
Notes by James Parakilas