The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 9

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Paul J. Horsley

For all its status as a revolutionary leap forward in the symphonic genre, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is also a work whose innovations are defined by its very reverence for Classical traditions. Its first movement, for example, is bold and startling precisely because of the way that that it jars our expectations of sonata form. Its "anti-scherzo" is like an apotheosis of the 18th century's square scherzo-trio form; it uses our knowledge of the ancient structure to create a dark romp whose ironic humor strives toward Shakespearian heights. Both the Adagio and the famous choral finale adhere to a theme-and-variations procedure just closely enough to lend coherence to what might seem unwieldy to the ear of an ordinary listener. Indeed, this very inclusiveness could be seen as an egalitarian statement—that despite the work's unprecedented extremes of complexity and expression, it should still be palatable to any given listener. That message is very much in the spirit of the Schiller poem used in the finale: All Men become brothers under Joy's gentle wings.

As early as the 1790s, Beethoven had contemplated a musical setting of Friedrich Schiller's An die Freude, a controversial poem that he had read as a teenager shortly after its publication in 1786. Much later, in 1812, Beethoven began jotting down ideas for a setting of the poem during the composition of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies —though with no idea yet of incorporating it into a symphony. Musical material for the Ninth had begun to appear in the composer's sketchbooks as early as 1815, with substantial drafts for the scherzo movement in place by 1818.
But the Ninth Symphony could not have happened until Beethoven worked through a sort of compositional crisis that began around 1816 and led to what is today regarded as his "late style." This was resolved partly through the solo sonatas of the intervening years, works like the Hammerklavier for piano which approached sonata form on an unprecedented scale, and assimilated variation and fugue in a protean manner that would ultimately help define his late style. Almost completely deaf by this time, Beethoven found himself increasingly unfettered by the limitations of the sound world, and this may have contributed to this startling new music that tested the limits of comprehension.

Nevertheless the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis represented a return to a more populist and coherent style, perhaps a byproduct of his increasing fame in Vienna. When he completed the Ninth in February 1824, a group of his friends drafted a letter urging Beethoven to put on a concert containing it and the Missa Solemnis. This famous performance of May 7, 1824 — best known for the story of the soloist who had to turn the deaf Beethoven around so that he could see the thunderous applause that he could not hear — was the greatest concert triumph of his career.
The Ninth became a benchmark for composers immediately, and to some extent it still is. It was perhaps the first step toward the gigantization of the symphony, a process culminating in Gustav Mahler's concept of the symphony as something that should "embrace the whole universe." Mahler and Bruckner are not the only composers who have imitated the opening of the first movement (Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso), which seems to grow organically out of nothingness with open fifths and fourths in the strings so that the fortissimo theme itself, finally emerging as if from a dream, comes as a great shock. This is topped, though, by the startling climax at the beginning of the movement's recapitulation, whose long-delayed return to the tonic key builds tension to an almost unbearable level.

The second movement, Molto vivace, comes complete with fugal passages and a virtually full-blown sonata structure within the scherzo section alone. The lyrical slow movement (Adagio molto e cantabile) is overt in its use of the theme-and-variations procedure, employing the subtlest and most florid elaborations of the simple tune.

The finale begins with a musical summary of the previous three movements, "citing" a few bars of each movement's theme as if to remind us of what has gone before. The first presentation of the Ode theme begins quietly in the cellos and double basses and ends with a triumphant strain for the full orchestra. With a return to the strident opening chord the bass soloist sings the introductory lines recitative-style — these are Beethoven's words, not Schiller's — stating his intention to sweep away all this "ordinary" music so that it can be replaced with "more joyful tones." The variations proper begin, taking us through an enormous variety of solo, choral, and dance-like textures. There's even a military band to accompany the tenor's "Like a hero to victory!" (Beethoven has omitted the poem's explicitly political lines and its overt references to drinking, retaining only the portions addressing brotherhood and human kindness.) As Charles Rosen has ingeniously described, this march is essentially a scherzo movement in a large-scale sonata structure that has been imposed upon the variations. "The ideals of the sonata style enabled Beethoven to endow a set of variations with the grandeur of a symphonic finale," Rosen writes. "With the Ninth Symphony, the variation set is completely transformed into the most massive of finales, one that is itself a four-movement work in miniature."

Today the Ninth remains a central part of our culture, in popular (and often quite unflattering) uses of it in films such as A Clockwork Orange and Die Hard and in its frequent use at occasions of great joy, such as that at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Though some have found Schiller's view of universal brotherhood naïvely idealistic in the face of modern horrors, the Ninth has remained relevant chiefly because of the beauty and power of its music. Few works use the formal and textural elements of Classicism more daringly; few works in Western music have exerted more influence on subsequent composers. Liszt arranged it for solo piano, and Wagner made a piano version that retained the choir and vocal soloists. Mahler re-orchestrated it, adding brass and winds. Others have emulated it, re-envisioned it, revered it, and even built up superstitions about what might happen if they write more than nine symphonies of their own.

In this sense the Ninth became a seed for renewal, a generative force that propelled the Classical symphony into the Romantic era and beyond. "Be embraced, Ye millions," concludes the finale, "above the starry canopy there must dwell a loving Father." Here several elements of Beethoven's life and nature unite: not only his belief in God and the brotherhood of mankind, but also his lifelong father-complex. He never resolved his subliminal search for a paternal figure, and he botched his attempt to be "father" to his nephew. But with works such as the Ninth he did become a sort of musical father-figure for the ages. For without the Ninth there would be no Mendelssohn or Schubert, no Schumann or Bruckner or Mahler, no Sibelius or Rochberg or Rouse. The Ninth's undying ability to speak to millions and its eternally renewable spiritual and musical energy will continue to ensure its importance for many generations.



O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen
und freundenvollere!

O friends, no more these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische dein Heiligtum.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided;
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein,
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seine Jubel ein!
Ja – wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund.

Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our songs of praise,
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.

Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur,
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihre Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod,
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.

All creatures drink of joy
At nature's breast
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift
She gives us kisses and the fruit of the vine.
A tried friend to the end
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!

Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch das Himmels prächt'gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig wie ein Held zum Siegen.

Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on their courses
Through the splendour of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race
As a hero going to conquest.

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder – überm Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such ihn überm Sternenzelt,
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.

You millions, I embrace you
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek him in the heavens,
Above the stars must He dwell.


The violin played by Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, made by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1870-71, is on loan to the National Symphony Orchestra through the generosity of the Music Division of the Library of Congress.