Ludwig Van Beethoven: Symphony Number 9 in D Minor, Fourth Movement

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is probably one of the most recognizable piece of music. If number of recordings indicates popularity, this symphony, of which Tower Records list hundreds of different recordings(some by the same conductor), is very popular indeed.

If you’re looking to buy a recording of The Ninth Symphony, I’d avoid the stuff on some of the cheaper budget labels. They don’t seem to have top orchestras or if they do, the recording might have been a first take with some problems, kind of like a “factory second.” One exception is the Sony Infinity Digital line, which has adopted the strategy of recording artists from the former Soviet Union; that enables the label to hold down the cost of the “talent.” But you can get burned on famous labels as well. Once I bought a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Carmina Burana, which had a soprano solo in which the singer hit a high note and her voice cracked. I can’t believe they left it in.

The music world had never seen anything like the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. It starts out with a strong statement followed by a complex interplay of different melodies heard throughout the symphony. The basses ominously play a melody that will be sung later to the words “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” (O friends, let’s stop our moaning). Beethoven introduces a second major theme, also sung later in the movement, “Freude, shöner Götterfunken” (Joy! Bright spark of divinity!), and he goes back and forth between them. Once a melody from the second movement bubbles up on the flutes and oboes to sort of break the tension. Eventually, it quietens down, but then after a tiny pause, the full orchestra restates the opening theme again at the end of which, the baritone sings the melody, and this begins the incredible choral section.

The text for this part comes from Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The baritone exhorts us all to sing more joyful songs, full of joy. He then launches into the first stanza, which describes joy and its magic power to unite all men. On the second stanza, the sopranos join the baritone to sing about friendship and a loving wife. For the third stanza, the tenor and sopranos sing about how we all nurse the joy from nature’s breast and even the lowly worm can feel contentment. The choir repeats the last four lines of each stanza after the soloists. This part is quite rousing, and when it ends you think “Gee, that was a good finish.” But then the drums, cymbals and flutes start wonderful march upbeat march, which the tenor joins to call all brothers to lead the heavenly life of a hero. There follows a quick orchestral interlude, which ends with the choir joining in and singing the entire first verse again. If it ended there, you would say “Wow, that was really great.” But it’s still not over.
Next the basses in the choir starts the last stanza of the poem and the melody goes back and forth between them and the sopranos. From this it moves onto a number of solos, duets, trios and quartets for the voices. Some are serious; some are joyous. In this stanza, Joy addresses the multitudes and tells us to recognize our creator in heaven and to fall down to worship him. At the end of these duets, the strings start in sounding like the beginning of rain, and it rapidly builds to the grand finale with the full orchestra and the choirs singing snatches from the first stanza again. It slows for a bit, but then speeds up and ends with a great clash of cymbals and drums.

It really is quite an extraordinary piece. A whole symphony in one movement. You can’t really touch it with anything. Nothing compares with it since then. It is glorious music, full of passion, joy and hope for mankind.
Consider for a moment that Beethoven wrote this when he was stone deaf. There are people who can play chess without a board. That is, they can just sit together and call out the moves to each other and visualize the whole game in their mind. Imagine composing a whole symphony in your head though. And without being able to sit at a piano and plunk out the chords to see how it sounds. That is pure genius.

I first heard the second movement to the Ninth on the same soundtrack that I wrote about in my previous post, namely A Clockwork Orange. I can’t remember when they used it in the movie—probably in some pointlessly violent scene. Had they not used it there, I probably would have heard it sooner or later. It’s now nearly forty years after the film was released and few people—outside of film majors—remember it anymore. But it’s been nearly 190 years since Beethoven died, and I don’t see any signs of Beethoven: Symphony Number 9 losing popularity.

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