LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt, Op. 112
A Compact Premonition
Beethoven's cantata Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage)—not to be confused with Mendelssohn's better known overture bearing the same title—was premiered in 1815, a year after European monarchs had sailed to Vienna for a Congress designed to reconfigure the post-Napoleonic world. The title comes from two poems by Goethe, whom Beethoven idolized and to whom he dedicated the piece.
A Welcome Turbulence
To understand Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, we must invert our modern associations of calm versus turbulent weather. For seamen in Beethoven's era (when ships had no steam or diesel power), calm was a harbinger of financial disaster and possible starvation, whereas a rising wind meant relief and success.
Goethe and his contemporaries depicted a calm sea as a somber omen, as Poe and Melville did later in the century. The "glassy smoothness" and "deathly calm" of Goethe's sea is evoked through Beethoven's sostenuto tempos and ambiguous, slow-changing harmonies. Once the wind kicks up and Aeolus the wind god "loosens his constricting bonds," the orchestra dramatically ascends and the tempo revs up to allegro vivace. Suddenly, "The heavens are lit up … The waves gather." The final explosion of the chorus picks up the giddiness of the text: "The distance draws near / Already I see the land!"
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.