Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

It is thanks to Beethoven that any composer who has written eight symphonies, and is in a position to consider embarking upon a ninth, finds themselves staring down a giant.

By 1818, all of the unique hallmarks of Beethoven’s late life were present. He had started using ear-trumpets designed by Maelzel, whose metronome he also endorsed. He had stopped making appearances as a soloist, as he was unable to hear well enough even to tell when his piano was out of tune. When the ear-trumpet was insufficient, he relied on conversation books to communicate, which survive as records of his daily life and opinions on music. He was also frequently angry and unkempt; Goethe, whom Beethoven idolized, received a letter from his friend Carl Zelter around this time informing him that general opinion in Vienna was that Beethoven was a lunatic. Beethoven was well aware of his reputation. “Do not be misled by the Viennese, who think me crazy,” he wrote to Wilhelm Christian Muller. “If a sincere, independent opinion escapes me, as it often does, they think me mad.”

If his deafness cast him out from both normal social and musical society, it was also the emancipation that allowed him to view human society from the outside and express a more perfect version of it. The Ninth symphony is a refusal to allow the political, personal and humanistic disappointments of Beethoven’s lifetime to dampen the vision of an Enlightenment ideal of society, and it was one that was a lifetime in the making. Beethoven was introduced to the work of Friedrich Schiller in his early twenties, and actually set the poem known today as Ode to Joy as one of a set of songs in the early 1800s. The earlier Ode to Joy has disappeared– unsurprising, since Schiller’s play The Robbers was banned by the censor in Vienna for being “immoral and dangerous.” The young Beethoven needed to temper his ideology for the sake of society. The old Beethoven did not.

Beethoven started thinking seriously about the symphony in 1818. He was still in an early stage when he received a commission for a symphony from the Philharmonic Society of London in 1822, for which he spent the next two years completing it. When it was premiered in 1824, it was obvious that there had never been anything like it: the orchestra was so large that it required the combined forces of two of Vienna’s professional ensembles, plus a collection of capable local amateurs.

The first movement of the Ninth is the longest of any of Beethoven’s opening movements. Its second movement is a scherzo containing a five-voice fugue, and its third a startlingly tender Adagio. The final movement is nearly a symphony in itself. It begins with a slow introduction which makes reference to all of the previous movements. It then launches into a military march that emulates a Turkish Janissary band– to the Viennese ear, a commentary on the feud between the Habsburg and the Ottomans. Schiller’s text, a celebration of the brotherhood of man and the love of God, joins the first two sections with a slow “movement” and a final fugue.

Beethoven was deaf enough that his conducting the complicated work was out of the question– but so was his not conducting. So the orchestra did what they always do when the conductor can’t be trusted: they pretended to watch the conductor while actually following someone else. In this case the true leader was Michael Umlauf, the choir director. By the end, Beethoven was several bars off from Umlauf and the orchestra, and continued conducting past the final bar; Carolina Unger, who sang the contralto part, took him by the arm and turned him around to face the audience and receive five ovations and a sea of waving handkerchiefs so that he could see, instead of hear, the impact of his music on the world. With the “curse of the ninth” hanging over the musical world– in addition to Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák and Mahler all died in the process of writing their tenth symphonies– Beethoven’s is the Ninth Symphony that every composer’s Ninth has been measured against ever since.