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.
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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.