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12. Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in d, Op. 125, 4th movement

July 21, 2011

I sort of didn’t want to do another symphony by Beethoven, but his 9th symphony is widely considered the greatest work in all of classical music, which makes it hard to pass over. It’s popularly known for its “Ode to Joy” theme, but in full context, it’s an absolutely titanic work of art, which has become a symbol of the enduring human spirit and universal brotherhood, taking all the loftiest of adjectives. It is the first and greatest symphony to utilize a choir, and the words sung are an adaptation of a poem by the German poet Friedrich Schiller.

Lots of interesting history and factoids about this symphony:

– The longest (over 1 hour), and the largest (by instrumentation) symphony ever written at its time, and still today one of the longest ever

– “Officially” took 6 years to complete, though counting to when back-burner planning and sketching began, Beethoven spent 31 years on it

– When Sony was developing the compact disc, the length of the symphony was considered as a basis for how long they should be – it was decided that the CD should be at least long enough to hold the entire symphony

– Beethoven had long been completely deaf when he composed it, but still conducted the premiere performance of it

– The premiere performance received such a long ovation in Vienna that police had to break it up, because it was exceeding the customary length of ovation required for royalty

– Just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, American composer Leonard Bernstein conducted the symphony on back-to-back nights in Berlin, once on each side of the wall, with a special orchestra comprised of musicians from all over the world, and replaced the German word for “joy” (freude) to essentially make it “Ode to Freedom(freiheit)

– In Japan, is performed annually as a New Year’s Eve tradition

– Adapted to be the official anthem of the European Union

– Adapted as the Christian hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”

In terms of analysis and guided tour, this work is too huge for me to fully do it justice. The 4th movement alone (which contains the “Ode to Joy” part) is over 20 minutes long, and is vastly complex on many levels. One structural innovation about this movement is that it contains a “symphony within a symphony,” in that it has 4 distinct parts to it, which follow the conventions of a typical 4-movement symphony. With that, I’m just going to provide some hilights and explanations of the “first movement” of the overall fourth movement.

Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in d, Op. 125, 4th movement, part 1

0:00 – A striking dissonant chord begins a brief but fiery introduction.

0:09 – Cellos and double-basses make this sort of “declaration.”

0:51 – An interesting sequence here: a flashback to the first movement (still and quiet feeling), which gets interrupted by the lower strings, followed similarly by interrupted flashbacks of the second movement (quick, chattery woodwinds) and the third movement (slower, warmer feeling).

2:39 The “Ode to Joy” theme is starting to surface, but once again, the lower strings interrupt. Beethoven also inserted hints of the melody in earlier movements, but it doesn’t fully come out until the 4th movement.

3:17 – Now it’s out, and we hear 4 different full iterations of the “Ode to Joy” theme, each built upon the same melody, but orchestrated differently each time (sound familiar?) – a) lower strings only, b) middle-register, I think including violas, c) violins, d) brass. Listen for how each iteration is harmonized and filled out differently, and how each is “bigger” and “brighter” than the previous.

6:18 – After 4 full iterations, a closing section.

7:02 – Suddenly, we’re back to the start of the movement. The movement thus far basically repeats, minus the series of flashbacks, and the voices come in this time around. There are 4 solo voice parts and the full choir. The solo bass voice makes the same “declaration” that the cellos and basses did before, and the lyrics sung are saying something like, “not these sounds, but let us raise our voices in more joyful sounds.”

Continued – Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in d, Op. 125, 4th movement, part 2

0:13 – First iteration with voices – starting with solo bass voice followed by full choir singing in unison. The lyrics in German, with English translation, can be found here.

0:54 – Second iteration with voices – solo voices singing in quartet, followed by full choir singing in parts.

1:44 – Third iteration with voices – solo quartet, followed by full choir, singing something more elaborate, on top of the underpinnings of the main melody. You could still sing along the “Ode to Joy” melody and it would fit in with the framework.

2:28 – Closing section, and buildup

2:46 – This chord feels very out of place – something is about to change…

2:55 – What do you do with something builds and builds, and becomes so big that you can’t get any bigger? Stop everything, have a bassoon start farting out a low note (pardon my language), and bring in the Turkish army? wth? That’s exactly what Beethoven did. And thus ends the “1st movement,” and i’ll end here.

The work continues on for awhile, if you want to keep listening i’ll leave you the part 3 link. But don’t forget that this is all the 4th movement, and there are still 3 others.

Continued – Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 in d, Op. 125, 4th movement, part 3

Next: Wrap-up of Beethoven and further listening

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5 Comments
  1. Great! This movement is by far one of the most colorful and dynamic movements ever. Looking forward to the remainder of your analysis, especially after the low bass recitative part followed by the choral harmony part. I always get kind of confused after that, just too many things happening!

    • Hey Ed – thanks for your comment, and glad you’ve enjoyed my Beethoven series here. But sorry to disappoint, but I actually wasn’t planning on finishing up the movement – it’s just too massive for me to handle it well. Next, i’m going to wrap-up on Beethoven and the move on to another composer, probably someone completely different.

  2. ahh, that’s too bad – I guess I’ll give it a go on my own at some point…adding it to my list of “things to do” :)

  3. Ha ha, that’s a great factoid about the length of CDs! Nice blog, btw. I look forward to reading about Ravel!

  4. Nina permalink

    I would love it if you could do a “guided tour” on Handel’s Messiah, I feel like that’s a popular (and very beautiful) piece. :)

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