LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36
A Happy Symphony from a Terrible Time
The Second is one of Beethoven's happiest symphonies, but he wrote it during a time of morbid anxiety. The first symptoms of his deafness had appeared during his composition of the symphony at Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna. During this period, he wrote the famous "Heiligenstadt Testament," an outpouring of despair sent to his brothers that hinted at suicide. "What a humiliation," he wrote, "when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or when someone heard the shepherd sing, and again, I heard nothing. Such occurrences brought me to the verge of despair."
Whether Beethoven worked these grim feelings out through the writing of this "testament" or through the composition of the symphony, we cannot know. In any case, the symphony itself—a burst of unrestrained exuberance—is free of them. Only later, in autobiographical works such as the Fifth and Ninth, would Beethoven make his darkest emotions an intrinsic part of his art.
About the Music
On the surface, the early Second would appear to be as far from the late, experimental Ninth as could be imagined. Yet there is an exhilarating moment near the end of the opening movement, when the music suddenly soars through a series of modulations, that transport it out of the 18th-century and into a new world of boldness and freedom.
The Second looks forward in other ways as well. Its dance movement is so piquant that Beethoven abandoned the 18th-century minuet label from the Haydn-Mozart model and called it a Scherzo. As Berlioz eloquently pointed out, the Larghetto was a new kind of slow music "not treated in the manner of the First Symphony. It is not composed of a theme worked out in canonic imitations, but is a pure and direct song that at first is simply sung by the strings and then embroidered with rare elements by means of light and flowing figures … It is a ravishing picture of innocent pleasure, scarcely shadowed by a few melancholy elements."
A New Path
Berlioz went on to describe this supremely joyful work as "smiling throughout." Beethoven's contemporaries, however, were not smiling. Conducted by Beethoven and premiered in 1803 along with the Third Piano Concerto and the oratorio Christus am Ölberge, the symphony received mixed reviews at best, including the infamous pan by a Leipzig critic (quoted in virtually all lexicons of musical invective) who called the scintillating finale "a repulsive monster, a wounded, tail-lashing serpent, dealing wild and furious blows as it stiffens into its death agony at the end." The most frequent description of Beethoven's music during this period, even by some of his admirers, was "bizarre."
Nonetheless, the box office for this triple-header was handsome, and Beethoven, despite medical and critical setbacks, was undeterred. "I am only a little satisfied with my previous works," he said. "From today I will take a new path."
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony forever changed the character and direction of symphonic music. When it premiered in 1824, Beethoven's admirers and detractors were either awed or appalled in far greater measure than they expected. Battle lines were quickly drawn. Was this a visionary masterpiece or the final cacophony of an eccentric deaf person? The Romantics and Wagnerites subsequently embraced the Ninth as their holy grail, but the daring structure and epic complexity of the Ninth continued to generate controversy well into the next century. George Bernard Shaw reported that in his youth, the Ninth was "regarded as too long and perversely ugly and difficult," an attitude that changed only slowly.
After substantially enlarging the traditional conception of what constituted a symphony with the "Eroica," Fifth, and "Pastoral," Beethoven made a final leap with the Ninth that surpassed all the others. The integration of a chorus and vocal soloists into a symphony was the most startling innovation, but much else about the work—its structure, sensibility, emotional range, harmonic experimentation, and sheer size—were new as well. The Romantic symphonies and tone poems of Berlioz and Liszt could not have been written without the Ninth, nor could the mystical choral symphonies of Mahler, Scriabin, Ives, and Szymanowski.
The purely orchestral sections of the symphony are nearly as innovative as the finale. The first two movements convey an elemental vastness—the opening Allegro hurling the listener into a bottomless abyss, the huge Molto vivace scherzo (Beethoven's longest) unleashing relentless rhythms that are only temporarily reined in by the earthiness of its trio.
As for the Adagio-like the finale, a monumental set of variations-it seems less a conventional slow movement song than a microscopic examination of the meaning of melody; it is one of the purist examples of the rarified spirituality in Beethoven's late style. In the finale, which opens with an unprecedented discord of terror and chaos, Beethoven gradually works his way through fragments of the preceding movements, toward a hard-earned embrace of love and concord.
As Donald Francis Tovey pointed out, even the first bars of the Ninth changed music forever: "Of all passages in a work of art, the first subject … of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has had the deepest and widest influence on later music. Nearly all modern music … assumes that the best way to indicate a large scale of design is to begin with some mysteriously attractive humming sounds, from which rhythmic fragments gradually attach themselves and combine to build up a climax." Since Tovey wrote these lines in 1935, his thesis has been bolstered by the openings of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, as well as works by Henze, Mennin, Lutosławski, and numerous others.
Some now regard this opening as Beethoven's ironic comment on his own deafness, a primal depiction of sound being born from the void of silence. Beethoven was indeed completely deaf by the time he started the Ninth in 1822, as he was when he wrote his late piano sonatas, quartets, and the Missa solemnis-works regarded by his friends as supreme specimens of pure imagination and by his enemies as hideous perpetrations of "modern music."
A Bizarre Premiere
Beethoven was billed as the conductor for the Ninth Symphony's Vienna premiere, and though he did appear on the stage and beat time as he turned the pages of his score, the music was actually conducted by the concertmaster-who instructed the orchestra to disregard anything Beethoven told them to do. This odd sight (along with scant rehearsal time and the unprecedented complexities of the music) surely contributed to the work receiving mixed reviews at the premiere and terrible box office results at a second performance 16 days later.
An Inspiration for Writers
Aside from Beethoven's Fifth, the Ninth is perhaps the most written-about of all symphonies. Beginning with Berlioz, the Romantics used it as an occasion for rhapsodic musings. For Schumann, the Ninth seemed to incorporate "all the branches of poetry. The first movement is epic, the second comic, the third lyric, and the last drama, a composite of all." Wagner saw the Ninth shaping "all the sorrows, joys, and yearnings of [Beethoven's] life into an unprecedented artwork," the greatest moment being the choral finale, where "with the anguished cry of one wakening from a nightmare, [Beethoven] speaks that actual Word whose ideal sense is none other than: 'Man, despite all, is good!'"
The work has inspired droller commentary as well. Although he regarded the Ninth as greater "than all the other eight put together," George Bernard Shaw bemoaned the number of concertgoers who came to the symphony "not to enjoy themselves, but to improve themselves"—for Shaw, the ultimate horror. The worst offender was the literary man, who came to "complete his culture … I always pity him as he sits there, bothered and exhausted, wondering how soon the choir will begin to sing those verses which are the only part of the analytic program of which he can make head or tail, and hardly able to believe that the conductor can be serious in keeping the band noodling on for 45 mortal minutes before the singers get to business."
Indeed, the choral finale, based on a condensed version of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," has until recently been a focal point for controversy. Dissenters used Beethoven's own ambivalence over the finale—typically, he wondered whether the whole idea had been a blunder—against him, complaining that the movement was painfully out of place as well as unsingable. (The latter objection often proves all too true.) As late as 1929, music critic Philip Hale would flee Boston's Symphony Hall before the finale, grumbling that it was "better to leave the hall with the memory of the Adagio than to depart with the vocal hurry-scurry and shouting of the final measure assailing ears and nerves."
From the Beautiful to the Sublime
Today, listeners have little problem with Beethoven's vision of universal human solidarity expressed through a fusion of symphonic and vocal writing. (Maestro Gardiner points out that even Beethoven's earlier symphonies use orchestrations of French propaganda songs to project his embrace of revolutionary democratic ideals.) The free-form variations on "Ode to Joy" come across to modern ears as a stirring culmination, a humanizing of the vast, impersonal forces set loose in the earlier movements. If, as Wagner put it, the Ninth represents music's movement from the Beautiful to the Sublime (Beauty meaning elegant symmetry, Sublimity meaning awe and wonder), then the finale is what gives that sublimity its voice.
A Mythological Status
The uplift of the "Ode to Joy" is now an indelible part of our culture, so much so that Stanley Kubrick, in A Clockwork Orange, was able to evoke profound unease simply by inverting its meaning. Appropriations of this famous section range from the inspiring to the unspeakable, including Leonard Bernstein's celebration of the bringing down of the Berlin Wall, Hitler's celebration of his birthday, and endless perpetrations by pop and disco arrangers.
Indeed, the Ninth has been part of our cultural mythology since its birth. The best story is still the first: After assisting the conductor at the Vienna premiere, Beethoven had to be turned around by the soprano soloist to acknowledge applause that became suddenly subdued as the audience was confronted firsthand with his deafness-an apt and awesome final curtain for an artist who more than any other relied on his inner ear.