Everything will pass, and the world will perish but the Ninth Symphony will remain.

– Mikhail Bakunin

CHAPTER AIM: Using fugue to examine two sections of Beethoven’s ninth


5.05-6.06   Orchestral fugue section   

Better Late than Never

Beethoven’s work rather neatly divides into three periods: early middle and late.

His early work is Classical in style, reminiscent of Haydn and Mozart. Tradition has the younger Beethoven composing in the manner of his elders and teachers (Haydn was both).

Very late Beethoven

Very late Beethoven

Beethoven’s middle period is conveniently announced by his 3rd symphony, the great ‘Eroica’ (as discussed last chapter here). This middle period covers the majority of his oeuvre: symphonies 3-8, most of his concertos, and a lot more besides.


The last ten years of Beethoven’s working life – his late period – covers the composition of his final three piano sonatas, his ‘late’ string quartets, the great choral work ‘Missa Solemnis‘, and of course our very own 9th symphony.

Towards the end of his life, Beethoven had undertaken an involved study of earlier Baroque composers, particularly Handel and Bach. He did this in order to compose a Great Mass, which became the gigantic Missa Solemnis.

But one of the fruits of that labour was a musical tool from the older generation: the fugue. As we shall see, it was a technique Beethoven would use in this finale.



Fugal Beethoven

Beethoven's dynamic scoring

Beethoven’s dynamic scoring

The fugue is about the hardest of form of composition to use, and Beethoven struggled to master it. It came easier to Mozart, or more obviously to the master of the form, J.S. Bach.

But when Beethoven struggled with something – and this sets him apart from his predecessors – he expresses a sense of that struggle within the music itself. Which is why Beethoven’s fugal writing becomes something intensely personal. Rather than revealing something about the music in itself, Beethoven’s fugues take you into the thoughts, feelings, and personality of the man who composed them.


Although this section of orchestral music is fugal in nature, we’re going to follow a different fugue buried right in the hear of this finale, a choral fugue sung by the choir.

If you need a reminder of what a fugue is, go here. We’ll also need to know the names for the different choir sections, so if you need a reminder of that go  here.




Choral Fugue

CordesteatreThe fugue comes about two-thirds of the way into the movement, after the spiritual section that makes up the heart of this piece. This section uses a number of elements (or ‘themes’) that are combined together in fugal form.

Our obvious starting point is the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme.


Let’s just hear the theme itself from earlier in the movement, so we know what we’re listening for:

6.48-6.54   Ode to Joy theme  


Let’s now turn to the choral fugue section of music we’ll be exploring. We start with the theme beginning – up high – with the sopranos:

10.57-12.00   Choral fugue section  

  • 0.01     Sopranos (with flutes/oboes)
  • 0.09     Bass (a little harder to distinguish)
  • 0.18     Tenors (with trombones, horns, cellos and bassoons…you can’t miss that brass!)
  • 0.27     Altos (with clarinets).

Then there is a lull – if you can call it that! – in proceedings, before the sopranos bring the theme back centre-stage:

  • 0.42     Sopranos (again with flutes/oboes)
  • 0.50     Altos (again with clarinets). Really hard to make out, in those softer mid tones.
  • 1.00     Bass (with bassoons/trombones). Again, really hard to make out amongst so much other material.
  • 1.11     Altos (with trumpets/horns/clarinets). Crystal clear this time.

This final section at 1.11 announces a coda of sorts, with a dramatic restatement of our main theme, backed as it is with the sturdy reinforcement of artillery by the brass section.

Let’s take a look at our next theme…



Group Hug

We’re going to re-examine this same section of music, this time following a different phrase: ‘Seid umschlungen Millionen, diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!’ (be embraced you millions, this kiss is for the whole world!).

Here’s a reminder of this second theme, as it first appeared previously in the movement:

8.00-8.11   Seid Umschlungen  


Back to our choral fugue: this ‘be embraced’ theme actually enters with the Altos, momentarily before the Sopranos enter with their Joy theme. The theme also plays at more than twice the speed of its earlier use above, so it’s quicker!

Again let’s follow the thread as it weave into the overall fabric:

10.57-12.00   Choral fugue section   

  • 0.00      Altos (with clarinets)
  • 0.09      Altos and tenors
  • 0.19      Basses (with horns bassoons and cellos, struggling against the 1st theme in the trombones!)
  • 0.27      Sopranos (with flutes/oboes naturally, but also the 1st violins).

..a small break…then…

  • 0.41      Altos (with the 2nd violins)
  • 0.50     Sopranos (with flutes/oboes/1st violin), unusually quiet for the sopranos, but they’re singing low in their register.

It’s actually very hard to make out the entry of the Sopranos here, but our “be embraced” phrase becomes immediately more obvious as it breaks up rapidly spreading to tenors, basses, and then back to the sopranos (o.54).



To Fugue or not to Fugue

10.57-12.00   Choral fugue section   

The breaking up of a phrase into many parts doesn’t just happens with “Seid Umschlungen“, but also at 0.33 with “der ganzen Welt“. These repetitions charge the music with energy, as if releasing a coiled spring. They give the music a really dynamic sense of drive and purpose.

468px-Beethoven_caricatures_Lyser (1)

Beethoven caricature


This is not the way Bach would have executed a fugue. The strict logic of the form has been abandoned, or rather put shifted into a higher gear. Beethoven is happy to use the fugue to give his music depth and direction, but he doesn’t let it rule him.

The logic of the fugue is NOT dictating Beethoven’s actions. On the contrary, it is Beethoven’s drive that gives the music shape, dynamism, and direction. This is music created by a mind determined to wrestle order from chaos.

This process personalizes the music. This isn’t a strict fugue, but this is Beethoven using fugal writing to express his purpose (more of that in the final chapter).

Beethoven is a deeply honest composer, who pulls you into his way of seeing the world. The fugal writing serves that purpose. Exactly what that view of the world might be, we’ll hazard some guesses in the final chapter.

But first, quick quiz:


How many times do you hear those two words “Seid Umschlungen” sung by the choir throughout this section? Test your hearing by trying to count them all:

10.57-12.00   Choral fugue section   

Click For Answer
The answer is 14. Here’s the list:

1. Altos (at 0.00)     2. Altos & Tenors (0.09)     3. Basses (0.18)     4. Sopranos (0.26)     5. Altos (0.41)     6. Sopranos (0.50)     7. Tenors (0.51)     8.  Basses (0.52)     9  Tenors (0.52 it’s quick!)     10. Sopranos (0.54)     11. Tenors (0.59)     12. Altos (0.59)    13 Basses (1.10)    14 Tenors (1.12)

If you got 14, you are a genius! They come in so fast at 0.59 it’s hard to keep up, and the altos at 0.59 are nearly impossible to hear.




Finally: a third strand we can add to the weave. This theme really is brief: a simple repeated note of Freude! (joy!). That makes it harder to pick out. Have a try, and see if you can make it out as it descends through the register:

10.57-12.00   Choral fugue section   

  • 0.11 & 0.13     Sopranos.
  • 0.19 & 0.21     Altos (very hard to hear)
  • 0.28 & 0.30    Tenors (the second joy! is a little clearer, but still hard to discern).
  • 0.43 & 0.45    Basses accompanied by the timpani (much clearer)



Wrapping up

10.57-12.00   Choral fugue section   


When you listen to this section, try to listen out for how these three different themes are developed together, at the same time.

Hand of God (Rodin)

Hand of God (Rodin)

Beethoven is achieving a real concentration of form through this kind of fugal writing. It isn’t revealing an inner harmony, as Bach might do, or exhilarating in brilliance the way Mozart uses the form.


Instead, Beethoven appears to be struggling through a process, an argument. It’s as if this music is trying to work through a complex problem, not through divine precision (as with Bach) or deft panache (Mozart), but rather through sheer hard work and determination.

The fugue reveals Beethoven from the music, like a Rodin sculpture, with features emerging from the rough-hewn stone.


Beethoven wants us to feel the direction his thoughts are taking him, and that’s one of the reasons his music is so instantly effective. He doesn’t want us to know what he thinks, but how he thinks.

This music is highly expressive of the composer, of his thoughts and feelings. Beethoven very much wants us to feel the struggle in moments like these, for he is grappling with profound issues.

Deaf but not dumb

Deaf but not dumb


And what might such profound issues actually be?

Well, that’s mighty ocean into which we’re going to dip a hesitant toe in our final chapter on Beethoven, when for the first time we shall attempt to take on this mighty movement in a single sweep.

Lead on!