Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, first movement

Finally we come to the last completed symphony by Beethoven. I talked a bit about the effect this symphony had on composers for the next hundred years in this post. But I have not discussed the piece in any detail. The Symphony No. 9 was completed in 1824, twelve years after the 7th and 8th Symphonies, both completed in 1812. It is the one symphony that falls within the period we often call "late Beethoven" and heralds that astonishing group of quartets he composed at the end of his life.

Beethoven was striving more and more to reach out to the listener in the most direct and intimate way. For this reason, his language intensifies and he uses every resource, especially the voice. In the quartets we find naive folk tunes and dances, passages like recitatives and others that sing. This is why Beethoven took the unprecedented step of bringing voices, in the form of a quartet of vocal soloists and a choir, into the last movement of his last symphony. Though never done before, it would inspire a host of other composers doing the same, from Mahler to Shostakovich.

As this is a very long symphony, over an hour in performance, and a very important one, I am going to divide it up into four posts, one on each movement.

Here are the four movements of the symphony:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
  2. Scherzo: Molto vivace – Presto
  3. Adagio molto e cantabile – Andante moderato – Tempo primo – Andante moderato – Adagio – Lo stesso tempo
  4. Recitative: (Presto – Allegro ma non troppo – Vivace – Adagio cantabile – Allegro assai – Presto: O Freunde) – Allegro molto assai: Freude, schöner Götterfunken – Alla marcia – Allegro assai vivace: Froh, wie seine Sonnen – Andante maestoso: Seid umschlungen, Millionen! – Adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto: Ihr, stürzt nieder – Allegro energico, sempre ben marcato: (Freude, schöner Götterfunken – Seid umschlungen, Millionen!) – Allegro ma non tanto: Freude, Tochter aus Elysium! – Prestissimo, Maestoso, Molto prestissimo: Seid umschlungen, Millionen!

The opening of the first movement, in sonata form, is justly famous. Here is the composer's manuscript:

Click to enlarge

And here it is in a modern edition:

That's a little easier to read! Simplicity itself: the dominant of D minor, but given just in bare fifths, A and E, without the third. Then outlined in the violins. Then, fortissimo, a theme in fierce dotted rhythms. I said that Beethoven was trying to reach the listener in the most direct way and this is an example. Instead of harmonic complexity, the most basic harmony possible: basic, but very powerful. Beethoven never liked to admit it, but he owed quite a lot to Haydn, including the idea of this opening. Back in 1798, Haydn completed his oratorio The Creation and the opening depiction of chaos, before there was form, looks like this:

This is not as bold as Beethoven's opening, but it does begin with just a unison on C, and slowly adds other notes. Here is a performance of that opening.

Though composed in a different way, it has that same feeling of something emerging from nothingness. Let's listen to the Beethoven first movement for comparison:

At nearly 18 minutes long that is a long first movement! Nearly as long as many whole symphonies from the 18th century. 

Here is that fierce dotted theme, played in unison by all the instruments:

Notice that that is not quite the chord we expected: B flat instead of D minor, but the D minor arrives, in root position, on the downbeat of the next measure. The second theme, appearing first in the flute, is in the key of B flat:

Towards the very end of the movement, the final statement of the theme is preceded by this enigmatic passage:

Enigmatic, somehow frightening and very ominous. But again, it is using the simplest means: a chromatic descent from the tonic, used in innumerable pieces since the Renaissance to signal torment, then a simple return via the melodic minor scale. It couldn't be simpler. But Beethoven has achieved such mastery of his tools--melody, harmony and rhythm--that he can use the simplest of means to achieve the most powerful effect. Perhaps this is what Donald Francis Tovey was talking about when he referred to Beethoven's tendency to 'normality'. Beethoven has transcended the odd, the individual, the quirky and found the means to speak to all of humanity in the most direct way. It is one of the mysteries of the aesthetics of music that when most other composers use these simple devices, it is merely boring. But when a master like Beethoven does it, it is deeply moving...

Now let's listen to another performance of the first movement. Here is Otto Klemperer conducting the Concertgebouw in a 1960 recording:

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