Ludwig Van Beethoven Symphony Number 9, Second Movement

It may seem a cheat to break up a symphony and write about just one movement at a time. In many cases, however, I heard just a part of a work used in a film or on a television show. Often I did not learn the name of the work until later—sometimes much, much later. For example, at 18 I first heard a haunting, eastern kind of melody that became associated in my mind with Arabian market places. In the fall of 1998, some 25 years later, my daughter ended up playing it in the county youth orchestra. It was the “Bacchanale” from Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah.

Beethoven’s music has appeared quoted in just about everything from car commercials to futuristic films. I heard the second movement of the Ninth Symphony because back in the 1960s the National Broadcasting Corporation used it as the theme for its nightly Huntley-Brinkley News Report. It got everyone’s attention, and even my parent knew it was Beethoven but not what it was called. It was my swim coach who told me.

My parents made me swim competitively from the age of eight until my senior year of high school. When I started competing, I perceived myself as being overweight and had a negative self-image. Neither was I a particularly fast swimmer and so swimming in races always filled me with the dread of humiliation. If I placed, it was always third, and to make matters worse, my coaches always made me swim butterfly, which is one of the most demanding strokes. So swimming always held bad associations for me, though things changed a bit in high school.

We called our high-school swim coach “Herr Green,” because he also taught the German language classes. I don’t know how he got interested in German, since he was a Korean war veteran, and since I studied French, I have no way of knowing how good his German was. But he was a great coach, and his was the first team I ever felt part of. The reason was basketball.

Basketball was big in Indiana, and our high-school basketball team was one of the better ones in the northern part of the state. The players on our basketball team were treated like, and acted like, gods. The school constantly held pep rallies for them; they kept to themselves; they always dated the prettiest girls, usually the cheerleaders.

We swimmers on the other hand were largely ignored by the rest of the school. The basketball coach taught American history and once told me that if swimming was as popular as basketball, we’d have gotten the money we needed to build a modern swimming pool to replace our cavernous, noisy and tiny one. For this reason, we swimmers played the role of the underdog, the subversive and marginalized. We thought of ourselves as the intellectuals among the athletes, and we tried, at every opportunity to undermine school spirit.

Herr Green did not encourage us in this role, but he provided a haven for us. On weekends, a number of would go to his house to talk, watch television, sit by the fire, and eat popcorn. Herr Green was the first adult who treated us like adults—an avuncular role I now see in retrospect. He always sat in a lazy-boy chair, smoking his pipe and making pronouncement on politics, books, and German culture. Sometimes he sat patiently listening to us rant and rave about the things in our lives, never telling us we were wrong but always offering some insight. He was a terrible punster and would sit for hours brewing up some gem that he’d deliver to be met by our groans. When I turned 18 the summer after graduating from high school, he organized a party to a bowling alley/bar over the Michigan state line, where the drinking age was 18, and he got me drunk, the American equivalent of the rite of passage to manhood. I’m eternally grateful for that.

Herr Green had an ear for music. One year he bought a banjo, and on our subsequent visits he’d perform some new blue grass piece that he’d worked out. When I began to take an interest in classical music, he overheard me talking about Beethoven’s music being used on the news and he told me that it was from the Ninth Symphony. The next time I went to his house, he was in an uproar. “I went to watch the news last night. To listen for Beethoven’s Ninth,” he fumed. “I had just settled in to my chair when it came on and I was all geared up for the second movement. When it came on, they had changed it to some modern crap!”

The Ninth is one of those perfect pieces of music. You could spend hours listening to each movement over and over again, and find something new and interesting. It is glorious, and passionate, and rousing, and sad and happy. The second movement is entitled Molto Vivace, and people tend to just remember it for the dynamic opening few phrases. Later, it became one of my favorite pieces, not for that part, but for another about four minutes into it. At that point the cellos, oboes and English horns have some nice interplay, which I became sort of obsessed with. I really loved hearing the oboe, and before buying a version of it, I checked out about five different copies of the album from the library to see which conductor emphasized that part. It turned out that two directors had done this movement to my satisfaction—Toscanini and Karajan. Toscanini had recorded it with the New York Philharmonic, but that version was in mono-and out of print. RCA did reissue it around that time, but they had switched to an inferior plastic, which warped easily and so I didn’t buy it. That left Herbert Von Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker, which, despite Karajan’s Nazi affiliations during World War II, I ended up buying. Karajan recorded on Deutsche Grammophon, which were about the most expensive label back then, and so I had to save up my pennies to purchase this disk, which ran about twice the price of the RCA Victor label.

Several years ago, my brother sent me Herr Green’s obituary, which said he had died of a heart attack. About a year after that, my high school wrote to invite me to a dedication of a new swimming pool, named after Herr Green in his honor. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it. Though later our politics diverged, he provided a safe harbor during my turbulent and stormy high school days.

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

6 Responses to Ludwig Van Beethoven Symphony Number 9, Second Movement

  1. writingthebody says:

    What a mad piece of work this is….just amazes me – good idea to break it up. This movement alone has so much in it, so many swerves of mood and tempo. It’s the nearest thing to easy brightness in the whole symphony, not that any of that is easy….nowadays I always think of this symphony alongside the late quartest esp 131 which scares me, sometimes, really does.

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    • kurtnemes says:

      Ah the late quartets! Absolutely the most amazing pieces ever written. The 9th is Opus 125 and the lates start at 127. Hard to believe he could surpass the 9th, but he did. Thanks for your comments.

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      • writingthebody says:

        My pleasure, you know the wild swings in the ninth amaze me, and I find it hard to listen to. This movement for all its struggles is one of the ones I find easiest….the 4th movement has so many things going wrong at the beginning of it, and then such an amazing, I mean amazing finale, and wrap up that I am always left exhausted by the vastness of it, the spirit of it, the very idea of it. There is nothing on earth like it. We are so lucky that there was a man called Ludwig van Beethoven. I love many kinds of music, but his music shccks me and moves me like no other….thank you for doing this. There is always room in the firmament!

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      • kurtnemes says:

        The third movement of it is really moving as well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOw0R03BuCE Do you perform?

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  2. writingthebody says:

    No not at all, though I was learning at one stage how to play one of the vioin parts in the fifth symphony….when you play a single part it is amazing how many micro worlds there are inside those symphonies!

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  3. First thing tomorrow I will get out my old mono LP of the ninth with Karajan and listen carefully to the passages with those oboes, cellos and horns. Many thanks.

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