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Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a marvel of woven sound, bringing together all the power and harmony of orchestra and voices to celebrate freedom. This symphony has engendered more controversy than any other of Beethoven’s works. There is no doubt as to its beauty and power, and the Ode to Joy is so memorable that it is recognized worldwide by people who never listen to classical music.
The controversy was whether or not it was intended as a praise to Napoleon Bonaparte or not. The name was changed several times. Beethoven was undoubtedly very disappointed that Napoleon Bonaparte had turned out to be an ordinary man after all, giving in to personal ambition and declaring himself the Emperor of France. He was actually asked to compose a symphony for the coronation celebration, and he seems to have refused.
However, the name Bonaparte was penned on the manuscript (or penciled) after all when it was finished. It is interesting to note that Beethoven, like most other composers of his time, was dependent upon sponsors for his living, since, unlike visual arts, people seldom actually paid for musical compositions. So it can be expected that some of the dedications and names were given to curry favor with those who could help his career.
It must have been hard for Beethoven to take money from patrons and have to please them. He was a proud and idealistic man. However, there is no doubt that the Ninth Symphony was a celebration of freedom and an end to the war. However, when Napoleon decided to crown himself emperor of France, Beethoven was enraged. The entire first part was changed and we shall never know what the original was like. Beethoven had to be persuated to finish it at all. The structure of the symphony is very thematic, but he uses competing elements almost like he is recreating a war. This is especially obvious in the vocal quartets.
The beginning of this symphony is a section with very strong brass and percussion that stops and is followed by almost ominous strings on a slow, low-pitched lyrical section. This is then capped with more brass and percussion and more even lower pitched strings going down the scale to a deep long note which ends again in trumpets and drums. Then the woodwinds take over and are again followed by low pitched lyrical, but somber strings.
Woodwinds alternate with strings again with a light quick part on the woodwinds followed by more heave strings moving again to woodwinds and back to somber strings until the first notes of Ode to Joy are heard on the woodwinds, punctuated by brass and underscored by heavy slow strings. It is this pattern of alternating between two very different section of the orchestra and two very different themes that creates the impression of struggle.
Finally, a very quiet string section follows, leading gently to the beginning of the Ode to Joy, then reprising once with more melodious blends and full strings with oboe. This part really reminds the listener of what Napoleon said of his effects upon people, “I was the sun that crosses the equator as it describes the eclipse; as soon as I entered each man’s clime, I kindled hope, I was blessed, I was adores, but soon as I left it, I no longer was understood and contrary sentiments replaced the old ones. (Cite the Solomon article here) The beginning phrases are tossed back and forth between beauty and power, possibly symbolizing this dual nature of the public. It also reminds one of the actual nature of heroism, which is born when ordinary people are raised to extraordinary levels by circumstance.
The Symphony was entitled Eroica, and this could be simply a term to note that it was a celebration of heroism. Beethoven considered his titles and dedications very carefully. The dedications were often used for political, social or just personal reasons, but the titles gave insight into the theme and emotional content of the music. Will (2002) made a comment which intrigued me, and I had to check it out. “The Eroica more closely resembles The Seven Last Words; if Christ, whose utterances begin as fully formed melodies that are thereafter varied, does not therefore make the celebrated journey toward wholeness that Beethoven’s grand Uomo does, his identity coheres in a similar way.
Thematic resemblances give the impression that every twist and turn in the implied plot, every emotional vicissitude, affects a single body.” (Will 210) If he is talking about the Ode to Joy, which some call the Ode to Freedom, I can understand this, since the notes and the syllables in the original Hebrew are alike. It even follows the same repetition of phrases as in the recorded last words of Christ. Tyson agreed with the religious interpretation, pointing out the story of the arrest of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. These themes certainly seem to be there, but one cannot discount the social themes of struggle for freedom wither.
The first round of the thematic Ode to Joy is played by very quiet low pitched strings, followed by fuller strings with the oboe playing a contrasting melody that blends perfectly. It is repeated once more with strings only until the sound swells and is echoed again by the entire orchestra at full volume with lots of horns. All the while there are minor melodies combined and woven into the whole.
It finishes with huge flourish and then the baritone solo introduces the vocal section. Strings and woodwinds underscore or present counterpoint as the baritone sings and flutes are added when all the voices join in the repetition. It becomes almost a round with different vocal sections playing off each other, yet ending at the same place. The four soloists sing almost like a string quartet playing a fugue or a canon. This culminates in the full orchestra and chorus ending this part.
The drums and brass reprise the theme in a very military sounding march, using doubled notes and the tenor joins in once more, followed by the full chorale. It is a variation on the theme, but so subtle that it almost is not heard as the same theme. Finally the strings take off with the melody in a final variation on the theme with the brass until they descend into a soft quiet interlude before the full chorus repeats the original theme with plenty of brass and percussion and low strings supporting.
To me this symphony sounds like the composer was thinking about the connection between God and the people. The sacred elements are certainly there, represented in all the vocal elements. It certainly sounds like praise. The Ode to Joy returns several times in slightly different variations between more classic sacred musical types. What is positively magnificent is how Beethoven wove melodies and harmonies almost like a canon in parts with the orchestra providing the background and some of the complexity.
However, Hamburger insists that it is all more political or social. “it would have been easy enough to detect revolutionary tendencies in the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony” (Michael Hamburger 7) I think it is very odd that I should hear ecclesiastical themes in the music while Beethoven was reported to have been quite furious that Bonaparte had signed a deal with the Vatican. He felt that France had been betrayed by this act.
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It is certain that Beethoven was fully focused upon this piece while he worked on it, though the work was interrupted at one point. Schlosser would have said he wqas rather obsessed with the composition. The Ninth Symphony filled his imagination, at home in the highest spheres, and the completion of this gigantic work displaced every other occupation at this time. Yet I was able to gather from his reply that in the near future he would publish several new quartets and sonatas, the manuscripts of which had already been sent off. (Michael Hamburger 193)
I found the vocal quartets both surprising and a little disturbing, since they seem just a little atonal in places. They must be very difficult to sing. The ending is almost conventional as compared to the rest of the symphony, with rising scales to a repeat of the themes at great speed and volume until it ends in three long notes.
I have to agree with the statement that Solomon made about the return of the dream of enlightenment being only really just a hope, but Beethoven did hang on zealously to that hope. In fact, it must have been very difficult for Beethoven, an idealist, to have to play politics and curry favor in order to survive. It is interesting how much rebellion shows up in his music. While this symphony was supposed as a coronation celebration for Napoleon, there are some Russian and Viennese elements which cannot be pointed to as exactly rebellious, as they are not outwardly revolutionary, but there are things like the chaos of anarchy hiding between the themes.
Quite by accident I listened to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture the same day as I listened to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and I was struck by the interesting similarities. For a symphony, the Ninth seems a bit short and the 1812 Overture is a little long for an overture, and the structures have things in common, such as the low pitches base score which underlies many parts, almost like a low thunder. The later versions of the 1812 Overture added voices which made it even more simi9lar.
However, that was not Tchaikovsky’s original intent no matter how well they work. Beethoven was half a century earlier, but they both wrote on the same theme from different perspectives, though both had the same idealistic views of freedom. Beethoven was focusing upon the freedom of the French people and the raising of the status of the common man. Tchaikovsky was memorializing both the struggles of the soldiers and the sacrifices of the common man. After all, it was the burning of their crops by Ukrainian peasants which actually defeated Napoleon by starving out his army during the harsh winters on the Russian steppes.
Though they were not written at the same time, and they were not even focused upon the same part of history. However, the two pieces together almost paint a picture of the French Revolution followed by the Napoleonic Wars.
So the controversy is really easy to understand, but I think that perhaps there really is none at all, if we consider that Beethoven, idealist as he was, wanted both themes to inform his work. Is not the theme of freedom the same in the story of Christ and in the struggle of the French people for freedom from tyranny? The sacred elements are there in the voices, and the military flavor is there in the percussion and brass sections and the whole is woven together almost like a tapestry of human social development.
The final blending of these with the wonderful melodic themes from Ode to Joy plus the inclusion of rounds and canons with the vocal quartet create a wonderful whole that pays tribute to the struggles of the time. It is really doubtful that composers of Beethoven’s time believed that they would be remembered and their music would be played for centuries, perhaps millennia. However, in writing for the people of their time they managed to write for the people of all times. The themes of freedom and sacrifice, love and joy are timeless and without national boundaries, and they are expressed exquisitely in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Solomom, first name. date. book name. Bonaparte: Crisis of Belief. publisher. pp. 175-185.
Michael Hamburger, ed. Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations. New York: Pantheon, 1952.
Tyson, Alan. 1969. Beethoven’s Heroic Phase. The Musical Times, Vol. 110, No. 1512, pp. 139-141. Musical Times Publications Ltd. Web.
Will, Richard. The Characteristic Symphony in the Age of Haydn and Beethoven. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002.