Symphony no. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

I. Allegro, ma non troppo II. Molto vivace III. Adagio molto e cantabile IV. Presto

Beethoven’s more frequently performed symphonies have tended to attract nicknames: thus the Third is known as the Eroica, the Fifth as the “Fate”, the Sixth is the Pastoral, while the Seventh is often refered to as “The apotheosis of the dance” (a quote from Wagner). The Ninth though, is generally known as “The Ninth”, proving that Beethoven had truly said the last word in the genre, and had gone way beyond all the masterpieces that had come before. It is no accident that many of the great symphonic composers of later generations growing up in Beethoven’s shadow (Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak and Mahler) could not themselves go on to complete a tenth symphony.
The Ninth symphony still transfixes us somehow – unfortunately, for many, it has become synonymous with the Ode to Joy melody. This simplification has some justification, since we know that Beethoven had long pondered setting Schiller’s verse to music – he first dwelt on the concept during his early Bonn years, and we know of similar plans dating from 1798 and 1812. And we also have the Choral Fantasy (1808), which although setting a different text, employs a melody that is an unmistakable predecessor to the tune that is now the European Union’s anthem. We must not make the mistake though of hearing and regarding the first three movements as merely “setting the scene” for the Ode to Joy. The melody is a very simple one, and the variations that are built upon it only gain their appropriate dramatic weight because of the arduous path traversed to reach it – even though looking back, this pathway, when the bass strings with their wordless recitative reject fragmented details from the first three movement, appears an abberation. Beethoven himself (in common with some contemporary analysts) was disatisfied with the finale and after the premiere, planned to compose an entirely new version. However, we know nothing about what this would have entailed. Could the new version have been “better” than the one we know today? Perhaps. But it is the resonance of the finale, its striving for greatness, that makes the Ninth “The Ninth”, and at the same time, frames it as a deserving partner to the Missa Solemnis: in truth, neither instruments nor voices can ennunciate the final word.

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