Thursday, August 1, 2013

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, last movement

I have been taking my time putting up this final post on the Beethoven symphonies because the last movement of the 9th poses unique problems. There are two conflicting ways to look at this movement: either it is one of the greatest works of musical art ever created, so universally admired that they play it every New Year's in Japan and it has also been selected as the "national anthem" of the European Union; or it is a dog's breakfast of a piece, cobbled together out of elements that do not fit together and saddled with vocal parts that are badly written and almost unsingable. I'm afraid that both of these perspectives are probably true!

Lest you think that my misgivings about the last movement of the symphony are some kind of eccentric perversity, let me quote a couple of opinions from others. Louis Spohr who had known Beethoven personally and even played in his orchestra thought the last movement was "monstrous and tasteless". Fanny Mendelssohn thought the last movement was "abominable" and fell into "burlesque". Even a young Schubert thought that it confused "the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings". All these quotes are from a brilliant essay by Richard Taruskin on the 9th called "Resisting the Ninth" that was published in the Spring 1989 issue of 19th-Century Music. By the way, this extraordinary article, under the guise of being a review of Roger Norrington's new recording (at the time), is probably the most interesting and challenging piece of writing on the symphony. Modern critics of the symphony include Thomas Mann and Ned Rorem.

Now, let's have a look at the music. Let me hasten to say that I am just going to mention a few elements--this is a blog post after all!--and make no attempt to analyze the movement. I recommend Taruskin's article, available upon registration (free) through JSTOR, which does a pretty thorough job and also has a list of recommended reading and listening.

The two most radical departures from classical tradition in this movement are first of all, that it is virtually a symphony in itself with different sections in different tempi that recapitulate the previous movements of the symphony. Secondly, the introduction of vocal soloists and choir turns the work into something unprecedented: this symphony, in order to have a finale grand enough for the work, turns it into a kind of oratorio or cantata!

The movement begins with a cacophony in the winds:

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Followed by a recitative in the contrabasses:

Then the recitative is interspersed with quotations from the previous movements. The big theme is prefigured in the basses--here is just the beginning:

Finally, finally the baritone enters with this plea to stop all this cacophony "Oh friends, no more of these notes":

And then states the main theme himself. Again, here is just the beginning:

He is joined by the choir:

Later on there is a Turkish March:

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A couple of fugues:

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And passages of sublime transcendence:

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Beethoven is anticipating the 19th century with a message of universal brotherhood. Unfortunately, in the view of many, this vision was thoroughly burned by dictators and commissars in the early 20th century. Beethoven's encoding of the brotherhood of man transcending worldly concerns, while powerful, has to also be seen as naive--tragically so.

There are also musical problems in performing the piece, many of which Taruskin and others have written about. Not the least of these are the problematic metronome marks that Beethoven provided. I'm not sure that anyone has fully resolved those issues! Still another is the writing for voice. Preparing for this discussion, I put up a post the other day talking about Beethoven's writing for voice. He was, above all, a superb composer for instruments and it is his instrumental music that typically wins us over. His vocal writing is another story! The choral writing in this last movement is workable, but the parts for the vocal soloists are difficult, awkward and to me, fall short of what one would hope for. Don't take my word for it, let's ask a composer famous above all for writing for the voice, Giuseppe Verdi who said of the symphony that it was:
...marvelous in its first three movements, very badly set in the last. No one will ever surpass the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement.

Now let's hear the last movement. It would be appropriate to listen to Norrington's 1989 recording which comes in three parts on YouTube:

I cannot seem to find the last part of the Norrington performance, so here is the last movement conducted by Daniel Barenboim:

But for all the problems, it is also true that the 9th Symphony and especially the last movement also deserves all the praise it has received over the years. It is a movement like none other, spectacular in ways no other music has ever succeeded in being. The inspiration of generations of composers from Berlioz to Wagner to Mahler to Shostakovich. However much we may resist it, there is no other music like the 9th...


Craig said...

It is indeed a piece to be reckoned with, one way or another.

My favourite vocal piece by Beethoven is his Missa Solemnis, but I am told that it is a real beast for the singers to get through. It is strange to me that a composer could write so memorably for instruments but not for voices. Schubert did both, Mozart did both, Wagner did neither. Heh.

Thanks for the tip about that Taruskin article; I've just printed it. As it happens, just last night I finally -- after over three years of reading! -- finished the final volume of his Oxford History. What an achievement.

Bryan Townsend said...

As soon as I finished the Oxford History, I started again at volume 1! I have had to set it aside, but I do intend to read it multiple times. An extraordinary achievement, as you say!

It is not so strange that composers who excel at instrumental music and composers who excel at vocal music are usually different people. In fact, the only one I can recall who seemed to effortlessly excel at both was Mozart!

Verdi? vocal
Haydn? (despite writing a lot of operas) instrumental
Rossini? (despite writing some nifty overtures) vocal
Beethoven? instrumental
Bach? now this is interesting: he wrote an enormous amount of vocal music including the Mass in B minor, the Passions and hundreds upon hundreds of cantatas, but he tended to write for voices as if they were instruments
Sibelius? instrumental
Shostakovich? instrumental (I find his vocal music, with only a few exceptions, less convincing than his instrumental music)
Wagner? both, obviously, but...
Mahler? instrumental, but with a few fine examples of vocal writing such as Das Lied von der Erde
Schubert? Here is another one who could do both equally well
Schumann? I am going to take a radical position and say that his vocal writing is superior to his instrumental. A couple of early piano pieces aside, such as the Davidsbundlertanze, his songs are unsurpassed, but he was a second rank writer of symphonies, quartets and concertos

Craig said...

Good points, Bryan. It seems the combination is rare after all!

I would like to read Taruskin again someday too, but I'm going to take a break for now. I found the last half of the final volume quite dispiriting. In any case, my next project is to read Shelby Foote's multi-volume history of the American Civil War. I've been looking forward to this for a while.

Shantanu said...

What are you talking about? The Finale of the 9th is among the best works by Beethoven, which is saying a lot.

I think there is a difference between appreciating the music from a listener's and a musician's perspective. Even as a musician, I am sure you have done both at different times.

Beethoven was always radical in his symphonies. The 3rd, the 5th, the 7th are all monumental strides in terms of expression with music. By the time he came to the 9th, he had matured even more as a composer. As you have said elsewhere on this blog, all the movements of the 9th are masterpieces in their own genres. The finale is an amazing movement to listen to. Whether it proposes a naive view of mankind is rather irrelevant as far as the music is concerned.

Talking about Beethoven's writing for voice, I think you are not far from the truth in saying that he wasn't perhaps as good as some of the other masters. But that is why the finale of the 9th is respected so much. Because, as much as it is not proper music for voice, it is also a departure from what could be done with the voice. It's not a lied, not a cantata, but a "vocal symphony".

I think for all the respect you have Beethoven, it is absurd that you don't like his Ode to Joy, which is an breath-taking listen. All the different parts are like episodes, joy being expressed in different forms.

Also, I would like to say that despite its popularity, the Finale is still an esoteric piece in its meaning, and Beethoven's intentions about it. I think it's just not joy, it's much much more than that.

Bryan Townsend said...

The 9th Symphony is challenging in ways that probably no other piece is. For that reason alone it is one of the greatest pieces ever written. But it is not simply "great", it is also deeply problematical, which is part of the challenge. I think that I could agree with everything you say in your comment, but still hold that my criticisms, which are not just mine alone, are still valid. Actually, I do like the last movement, but that doesn't mean I do so uncritically...

Augustine said...

Haha. I sense a lack of appreciation for Wagner here. I've only listened to a few of his pieces. In your opinion, what is 'off' with his music? I'm curious ..

Bryan Townsend said...

I don't think I mentioned Wagner in this post? But perhaps you mean "here" on this blog? The late romantics such as Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler are certainly some of my least favorite composers, which is why I don't write about them a lot. But they occupy a very significant and important part in music history. Wagner's role in the history of harmony is hugely important and the piece to note is the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.