• Symphony No. 9

    The Ninth Symphony may be one of the most familiar and beloved works in the entire classical canon, but it is worth remembering just how strange and even troubling this music is. From the outset, something seems amiss. The opening portrait of an inchoate world purposefully confuses listeners, because the falling intervals fail to define a key. As musicologist Leo Treitler wryly observed, the symphony divides the world in two: those who know it’s in D minor, and those who don’t. The movement then unfolds as a traditional sonata-allegro with a final coda. The development feigns a repeat of the exposition, but the main theme never arrives. Eventually a sudden crescendo introduces the recapitulation.

    The second movement scherzo is likewise in sonata form, heard twice as bookends to a central trio, and the third is a complicated set of double variations whose form proves easier to analyze than to hear. Perfectly audible is the unusually difficult, chromatic solo for the fourth French horn. The finale defied all musical logic to date, being at once a set of variations (on the “Joy” theme, nine in all), a cantata (non-dramatic vocal work accompanied by orchestra), a symphony within a symphony (following the four-movement design of the Ninth as a whole), a sonata form with double exposition (thus akin to a concerto), and even an opera and an oratorio (with the instrumental recitative at the opening).

    The “Ode to Joy” has generally been interpreted as a hymn to humanity, a utopian vision of universal goodwill, even freedom and liberty. (Bernstein famously changed “Freude” [joy] to “Freiheit” [freedom] in the performance commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the association dates back to a novella of 1838.) But this paean to the people runs up against the strangest moment in the whole symphony. In the middle of the movement, following three instrumental and three vocal variations, the “Joy” theme transforms into a Turkish march, a style of military music featuring winds and percussion inspired by Turkish janissaries. All solemnity and dignity drains away, yielding to the carnivalesque. Other unnerving twists and turns unsettle the familiar hymn and frustrate any attempt to arrive at a single interpretation. As we intently study the symphony, it—like the Mona Lisa—stares back at us, keeping its secrets to itself.

    The symphony premiered in Vienna at 7 PM on May 7, 1824. The performance was apparently shoddy (“When they could not reach the high notes as written,” one critic recounted, “the sopranos simply did not sing.”), and Beethoven himself might have noticed. Although the stereotypical picture paints of the composer conducting his Ninth Symphony unable to hear a single note, recent research suggests that he retained some residual hearing until the end of his life.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Born in Bonn in 1770, the son of a court musician, Ludwig van Beethoven himself joined the orchestra at age 13, first as a keyboardist and later a violist. In 1792, he went to Vienna to make his career as a pianist and composer; there he studied for a time with Haydn, dedicating his first published work—the three piano trios, Op. 1—to his teacher. Beginning in 1800, his emotional and psychological outlook was clouded by the onset of deafness, and it appears that he contemplated suicide. By 1815, he was almost completely deaf and relied on his inner ear to guide him in composing. He never married and, at the end, lived an isolated existence, communicating to his friends and visitors only in writing. Beethoven died in 1827 at age 57.

    In an 1852 study of the composer’s life and work, Wilhelm von Lenz divided his oeuvre—including nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets—into three stylistic periods. These were the “formative” (educational years), the “heroic” (around the French Revolution), and the “transcendent” late works, perhaps most notably the Ninth Symphony. This biographical, historical, and stylistic schema has persisted to the present.
    • Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 90

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    • Franz Schubert's
      Die schöne Müllerin

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    • Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 6


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  • Videos produced and edited by Hilan Warshaw for Carnegie Hall
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