Posted by: cousindampier | 15 December 2011

A Short Note on Beethoven’s Ninth

This is over eight years old, but has a good description:

Big and loud all right, also wildly unstable, searching, inconclusive—everything heroes aren’t. The formal outline, on the surface a conventional sonata form, is turned inside-out: The development section in the middle, usually a point of maximum tension and drama, is the relatively most placid part of the movement; the recap, the return of the opening theme and usually elaborately prepared, erupts out of calm like a scream, with a major chord that somehow sounds hair-raising. (Major keys and harmonies being traditionally nice, hopeful, that sort of thing, minor ones darker, sadder, etc.) At the end there’s a funeral march over a slithering bass. Beethoven wrote funeral marches earlier, one the second movement of the “Eroica” Symphony. There we can imagine who died: the hero, or soldiers in battle. But who died in the first movement of the Ninth? Next comes the scherzo, Beethoven’s trademark skittering, ebullient movement. Here it’s those things ratcheted up to a Dionysian whirlwind, manically contrapuntal, punctuated with timpani crashes. Strange choice, to follow a funeral march. Even stranger: For all the apparent over-the-top gaiety, the movement is in D minor. Gaiety generally means major keys, but not here. Given its surroundings, the third movement is peculiar mainly in its cloudless tranquility. It’s one of those singing, time-stopping adagios that mark Beethoven’s last period. Two themes alternate, and nothing much happens but the themes acquiring delicate filigree and little dance turns in a dreamlike atmosphere of uncanny beauty. The famous finale is weirdest of all. Scholars have never quite agreed on its formal model, though it clearly involves a series of variations on the “Joy” theme. But why does this celebration of joy open with a dissonant shriek that Richard Wagner dubbed the “terror fanfare”? Then the basses start playing stuff that is unmistakably a recitative, the familiar prose patter between arias in opera and oratorio. Here, a recitative with no words. And for the supreme oddity: One at a time, themes from the earlier movements are introduced only to be rebuffed by the basses—opening of the first movement, nope, too grim; second movement, too light; third movement … nice, the basses sigh nostalgically, but no, too sweet.

For what its worth, my favourite two minutes of music ever are in the 4th movement, about 11-13. Chills. CHILLS, I SAY.

But it is introduced in a fashion I always thought interesting: ‘Ode to Joy’ is first played at the start of the 4th movement (and quietly, as the article notes); then, for the first time, there are vocals. Then everything dies for a pause, and the tenor starts in again with little background only to stop and give way to a twisting roller-coaster of instrumentation. It just twists and turns and dives…and then the full choir comes in and we hear the only full statement of the famous theme.


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