As I recollect my recent experience of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in Koerner Hall, I find it quite complicated to communicate the enormity of the experience using conventional language means. My search for words can be explained by the mystery that surrounds the great composer and his last symphony, the ambiguity that the Ninth has aroused in scholarly literature and the public perception, and the unearthly feeling of the composer’s message slipping away into infeasibility when listening to live performance of the Ninth.
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Tafelmusik has gone further in their attempt to explore and reveal what Beethoven had contrived and prequeled the Ninth with a cappella choral works that served as a divine overture to Beethoven’s panoptic genius. In the following paper, I am going to render an account of my experience with a live performance of the Ninth Symphony, as well as the ground for including the a cappella chorales into the program and make an attempt at analyzing the implications of the performance style.
The concert program featured four works, three of which were shorter a cappella compositions by Rheinberger, Brahms, and a modern Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan, leaving the second half of the concert to Beethoven’s Ninth. The works by Beethoven, Rheinberger, and Brahms belong to 19th century while Ryan’s work was written in 2015 and only premiered on February 41. The styles of the works preceding the Ninth are chorales, which might have served as a tribute to Beethoven’s most widely-known symphony.
The Ninth was an unprecedented case of a renowned composer deploying voices in a symphony2. “Warum ist das Licht gegeben” by Brahms, “Abendlied” by Rheinberger, and the Ninth Symphony were created by German artists, although these works are an indispensable part of universal musical legacy. “Valediction,” which is yet to establish itself as one, was not only the most recent but also the only work in the concert that was written by a Canadian.
Rheinberger’s “Abendlied” belongs to the composer’s “Three spiritual songs,” which is a short work for choir. The text of the work directly cites St. Luke 24:29, particularly the episode featuring the Messiah and His disciples3. Rheinberger might have changed the meaning and essence of the Scripture, specifically by taking the line out of context; on the other hand, judging by the musical characteristics, it was the words that have spoken to him.
The “Abendlied” is followed by a still more ambiguous Brahms’ work which has raised much scholarly controversy regarding the composer’s religious disposition4. “Warum ist das Licht gegeben” encompasses the sufferings of Job and, simultaneously, the Lutheran motives of the righteousness of God. The “why” question is transcendent through the text as well as the music, leading the listener to the Lutheran anthem of joy in death5; such association is clearly a tribute to Beethoven’s Ninth. Finally, “Valediction” is based upon the poem by Norma West Linder, featuring the narrative of the fragility of life and the might and glory of death through the symbolist images of flowers6.
Such precedence to the great Ninth Symphony virtually leads the listener into the “Ode to Joy” featuring the fourth movement. The “Ode” by Schiller, slightly modified by Beethoven, is the climax following the long prelude and a compilation of the symbols of God, life, death, joy, love, flowers, unity, and cosmos, which intertwine in the poetic magnificence.
Thus, the program of the concert considers some of the symbols and meanings that can be attributed to the Ninth Symphony. The Symphony is multidimensional, deploying a range of symbols via the text of the chorale and the melodious imagery. Although the composer’s intentions cannot be fully unriddled, the program cleverly ties the stark imagery, turning the concert into a glorious hymn of existence. The power of the Absolute, which Beethoven himself has regarded as a subject of utmost importance, is underlying yet overarching.
It is worth considering that by the time the Ninth Symphony was written, Beethoven has lost the best part of his hearing, which is why he could sense the power of inevitability like no other7. The program consisting of Rheinberger’s, Brahms’, and Ryan’s works, thus, has its reasons which can be singled out upon some follow-up study. Reviving the Ninth required a decent tribute to Beethoven’s genius, which the program provided.
Interestingly, the print version of the program contains a single clue to what the meaning of the concert is. A historical insight into the Symphony is provided to enhance the listener’s understanding of the composer’s situation at the time, particularly his deafness and the time it took him to finish the Symphony. It is stated that the Ninth Symphony has long been exploited, and many sideways meanings have been assigned to the great creation. The Presbyterian hymn, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and later – the German Olympic Games have used the Symphony, attributed it with the symbols of freedom or devoting it to the Absolute alone. The brochure suggests that the listeners forget about the symbols abuse, hinting at the initial intentions that the composer had regarding this symphony.
As to my personal experience, the performance was quite different from what I had expected. Firstly, the three choral works preceding the Symphony filled the atmosphere with the vocal images of unearthliness and quiet energy. Afterward, the Symphony itself was performed so as to expose the nuances. The repetitive motives brought out by the basses in the fourth movement sounded like a recitative, an in-between untraveled patter that the listener rather expects from an oratorial verse. The recitative of the basses did not have any words, of course. In the fourth movement, particularly, they sounded as if to reject the motives introduced earlier.
The greatest contribution that the Tafelmusik Orchestra had added to the Ninth, in my opinion, is the theme of Joy: the way it was performed, it produced the impression of the very process of creation, as if Beethoven himself was crooning the motive under his breath.
Upon preliminary reading with regard to the Symphony, I was prepared to hear a hymn of unity and brotherhood, the symbolic meaning so frequently assigned to Beethoven’s work. It was the brochure that made my mind deviate from this preconception and rely on the hearing solely. Featuring the works by Brahms and Rheinberger, as well as a marvelous creation of the modern composer, the program seemed to take a stance not quite conforming to what the public generally thinks of the Ninth Symphony. The follow-up reading that I have made cleared everything up to the point of nearly-understanding. I use the word “nearly” because I still think the fullness of meaning that Beethoven attributed to his creation can hardly be comprehended today. What can be done is getting as near to the genius as possible.
Thus, subsequent readings have partially opened my eyes to what the great musical utterance probably implied, and whoever created the program seems to share such a viewpoint. It can be argued that there is more to the Ninth than the idea of brotherhood and unity as designed by Schiller and reconceptualized by Beethoven. Among other things, the numerous sketches of the Symphony made by the composer in different periods of his life speak for the great diversity of what was subsumed.
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Considering that the work was used, and exploited, in a wide array of areas and occasions, from Marxists to Protestant Church to Nazi hymns to “Clockwork Orange,” the riddle of the Symphony appears all the more unsolvable. The only guideline comes in the form of Schiller’s Ode – but then, it can be asked what it was that Schiller meant that inspired Beethoven. The seemingly solid suggestion of the Symphony’s meaning is, thus, fractured into subsequent questions.
Was it the references to Hellenic heroism that determined Beethoven’s choice of the words for the chorale? Was it the power of the Absolute? Was it friendship and brotherhood, religious awe, heroism, and unity, or the libertine bacchanalian imagery that appealed to him? The diversity of interpretations can hint that the sphynx has no universal answer to all these questions. I stick to the point that by writing it the composer unleashed the power that his feelings had over him and transformed the inner into the universal, which just about sums up the Romanticist idea of freedom. The meaning of the Symphony can be, thus, regarded as the meaning that each individual listener attributes to it.
Beethoven’s personality and life circumstances, as well as his philosophy and religious stance, have undoubtedly laid an imprint on his creation. Nevertheless, the meaning that the composer intended to put into his creation is nowhere to be elicited from except the thoughts that the Symphony provokes.
To me, the concert has appeared a decent and intelligent version of what the meaning is. The concert taken as a whole can be regarded as a versatile, and at the same time utterly personal analysis of what the strongest power of existence might be, as per Beethoven. The message of the concert, as I see it, is that there are entities that have the humanity under control. The notions of God, death, unity, and joy are intertwined, demonstrating the complicity of existence, showing that the universal order of things is somewhat more puissant and exhaustive than we imagine. The premiere performance of “Valediction” by Jeffrey Ryan was very much to the point, at that.
Given that the work was created in 2015, there is a sub-message of the statics of the universal order. The Baroque may give way to the Romantic that, in turn, is followed by experimentalists, minimalists, and modern classicists but the power that is watching from behind the curtain of existence remains the same. The agreement over what the powers are may never reach consensus but judging by the Ninth Symphony, Ludwig van Beethoven has come very near to the truth, leaving the glorious offspring of his mind for the subsequent generations to conceptualize and overthink.
Cooper, Barry. Beethoven. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Beller-McKenna, Daniel. “The Great ‘Warum?’: Job, Christ, and Bach in a Brahms Motet.” 19th-Century Music 19, no. 3 (1996): 231-251.
Markfromireland. “J.G. Rheinberger: Abendlied – Dresdner Kreuzchor.” Saturday Chorale. Web.
Molina, Marcela. “The Use of Chorale in the Motets of Johannes Brahms: Plurality of Musical Languages.” PhD diss., The University of Arizona, 2013.
“Valediction.” Jeffrey Ryan: Composer. Web.
Vincent, Michael. “Tafelmusik and Bruno Weil expose inner workings of Beethoven’s Ninth: review.” Toronto Star. Web.
- Michael Vincent, “Tafelmusik and Bruno Weil expose inner workings of Beethoven’s Ninth: review,” Toronto Star. Web.
- Barry Cooper, Beethoven (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 280-295.
- Markfromireland, “J.G. Rheinberger: Abendlied – Dresdner Kreuzchor,” Saturday Chorale. Web.
- Daniel Beller-McKenna, “The Great ‘Warum?’: Job, Christ, and Bach in a Brahms Motet,” 19th-Century Music 19, no. 3 (1996): 231-232.
- Marcela Molina, “The Use of Chorale in the Motets of Johannes Brahms: Plurality of Musical Languages,” (PhD diss., The University of Arizona, 2013), 15-16.
- “Valediction,” Jeffrey Ryan: Composer. Web.
- Barry Cooper, Beethoven (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 78.