Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.
– Ludvig van BeethovenCHAPTER AIMS: To tackle the entire choral finale of Beethoven’s ninth!
In The News
As previously recounted, the premiere of Beethoven’s ninth symphony was a hugely anticipated affair. People wanted to hear what Beethoven had to say. People felt it was important.
In this age of the modern 24-hour media cycle, it’s easy to forget how the opera house, theatre, exhibition, or concert hall were places where people went to see the issues of their day articulated.
Music during the 18th century had really been a pleasure for the rich. But over the course of the nineteenth century, concerts increasingly became big-ticket events, required fare for the great and the good, rather than ear-candy for a bored aristocracy.
Composers, and not merely performers, were beginning to acquire celebrity status.
During their lifetimes, Bach and Mozart were both celebrated performers of music, better known for their playing than their writing. But when Beethoven was buried, he was buried as a composer and an artist.
At Beethoven’s funeral in Vienna, thousands thronged the route to the cemetery to try to get a view of the coffin. Pallbearers included devoted fellow composers like Czerny, Hummel, and Schubert.
Compare that to Mozart’s burial in the same city some 25 years earlier, a ceremony of which we know little, at place of which we know nothing. Beethoven, by the end of his life, had acquired superstar status. Classical music, as a popular art-form, was entering its high-water mark.
So people were already excited at the time of the premier of Beethoven’s Ninth, and History seems have agreed that that Beethoven’s final symphony is a Very Important Piece of art.
Witness the Berlin Olympics in 1936, where the music was played at the opening ceremony as a welcoming fanfare to the world of Hitler’s Germany.
Witness the European Union, who decided in 1972 to make it their official anthem (which it remains to this day).
Or witness Berlin once again in the famous 1989 concert, when a choir and orchestra drawn from both East and West Germany came together under Leonard Bernstein’s baton to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.
Throughout history, Beethoven’s 9th has provided the soundtrack for very different political aspirations.
This is music that tugs at your coat, demanding attention. It doesn’t wait to be admired, like a work of Mozart. Rather it draws us in, compelling us to engage with it at some level of thought and debate.
It argues, questions, yearns, pronounces: this is music in some kind of debate with you, the listener.
Which begs the question: what is it trying to say?
Or even: if it can mean something to such different political persuasions, is it saying anything worth listening to??
Well, we actually have a useful tool for understanding what this music is trying to say, and that’s words! Don’t forget this is a choral symphony. So let’s use the lyrics to navigate our way through the piece, which I will split into three distinct sections.
PART 1. Earthly joy.
The Opening 0.00-3.24
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
|Oh friends, not these sounds!
Let us instead strike up more pleasing
and more joyful ones!
After a howling blast from the orchestra, the solo Baritone emerges, encouraging the chorus to sing a more joyful song.
Next comes our main theme, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken“. The theme is developed by soloists, then passes on to the choir, three times in three verses (the chorus repeats the second half of each verse each time). This shouldn’t be new ground: we covered these three verses in .
It’s worth just listening to the whole section and following the words:
|VERSE 2 (0.00-1.43)
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
VERSE 2 (1.44-2.25)
Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
VERSE 3 (2.26-2.59)
Freude trinken alle Wesen
Joy, beautiful spark of the divinity,
Whoever has been lucky enough
Every creature drinks in joy
The principal lyric – and musical theme – is “Freude Schone Gotterfunken Tochter aus Elysium” (Joy, beautiful spark of God, daughter of Elysium). This will reoccur many times later throughout the piece, and you should by now be quite familiar with it (revision: ).
Other phrases to listen out for – as they reoccur a number of times later in the piece – are:
- Deine Zauber binden wieder (your magic binds together)
- Alle Menschen werden Brüder (all men will become brothers)
- Küsse gab sie uns und Reben (she gives us kisses and wine)
After these three verses we have a short transition section, repeating the final lines:
3.03-3.25 Und der Cherub steht vor Gott
The section solidifies the music, as the orchestra and chorus sing together in unison, with the repetition of the words enforcing this stability.
The words themselves “vor Gott” (for God) – and the emphasis placed on them by the music – indicate we are turning to loftier matters. Changes of key (at 0.07 and 0.16 above) also lift us up through the harmonic space.
But if we were given a glimpse of the heavens, it was just a glimpse.
Immediately the music sinks back down to earth with the deep parp of Bassoons and Contrabassoons…
The Military Band 03.25-05.05
3.25-5.05 Military March
Our Ode to Joy theme is reworked with that distinctly military feel we should know by now. The scene presents us with the tenor solo, later to be joined by his male comrades. That feeling of male camaradie, along with the rather military instrumentation (drums, flutes and brass to the fore), not to mention talk of victory (“Seigen“)…
…Berlin 1936, anyone?
Well this is no piece of patriotic posturing by Beethoven, who was no simple nationalist. The tone is certainly heroic, but this joyful hero leads his fellow kinsmen to victory, not war.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
|Gladly, just as His suns hurtle
through the glorious universe,
So you, brothers, should run your course,
Joyfully, like a hero to victory.
Beethoven aspires to the universal. This a celebration of mankind’s journey towards a brotherhood of harmony. Brothers march forward, confident of the inevitable progress ahead.
This is the Enlightenment in song.
History is no simple jog towards victory, however joyfully our hero and his band of brothers may sing. As Beethoven himself knew well.
There is always the struggle…
Fugue and Theme 5.06-7.37
5.06-6.27 Orchestral Fugato
While we are in a section without any words, let’s take the chance to ask ourselves where the words actually come from?
Beethoven took the lyrics for his finale from the German playwright Schiller’s poem “an die Freude” (to Joy). Schiller had written the poem in 1785 as a celebration of the values of the Age of Reason.
The poem, brimming with Enlightenment optimism, was written four years before the French Revolution of 1789. By some accounts, Schiller’s poem was originally titled “an Freiheit” (to Freedom), thus tying its colours firmly to a radical political mast.
But after the bloodshed of the French Revolution, Schiller backed away from the more overtly revolutionary themes of his work (revolutions can have that effect). In his 1803 edition of the poem he revised the poem, with changes such as “Bettler werden Fürsterbrüder” (beggars become a prince’s brother) becoming the more politically nuanced words we recognise today “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (all men become brothers”).
And yet the Enlightenment ethos of the poem, with its implicit belief in universal brotherhood, remains at the core of Schiller’s poem. And, you’ve got to suspect, at the heart of Beethoven’s choral finale.
As a young man, Beethoven had strong republican (ie anti-aristrocratic) leanings. He sympathised with the revolutionary movement that had erupted in France. But he also deplored the violence and blood-letting that ensued.
He would later in Vienna suffer twice under siege by Napoloen’s army. The first invasion in 1805 helped scupper the premier of his only opera, Fidelio. And the second, in 1809, saw him hiding in the basement, cushions over his ear, convinced Napoleons’ cannons would ruin what little hearing still remained to him. As he wrote at the time: “What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me: nothing but drums, cannons and human misery in every form.”
History is struggle. And if you want historical struggle, Beethoven is most definitely your man.
Through the storm, Beethoven struggles on…until finally:
6.33-7.37 Ode to Joy Theme
Now – at last – we are offered the full Ode to Joy theme in its full unified glory.
Can you hear how the violins spill enthusiastically across the top of the singing? It’s as if they’ve been so energized by the preceding fugue, that they can’t help but release that exuberant dynamism all the way across the chorus’ emphatic statement of our main theme.
Ok, that covers the first third of the movement, a section that seems to be concerned with man in his social context, the political organization of our species. Friends and wives, heroes running to victory and creatures drinking at breasts: this first third really does concern itself with matters of the earthly, or temporal realm.
But next – a change in tone, as we enter an altogether place….
Time for that well-deserved break!
PART 2. Above the stars.
Do you sense the Almighty? 07.36-10.56
We now enter a new world, albeit one hinted at earlier (with that repeated “Vor Gott” about three minutes into the movement):
3.03-3.25 Und der Cherub (from earlier)
Now that realm that was so briefly hinted at earlier, comes thumping into view:
7.36-10.56 Above the stars
We begin with the men. Notice that’s men, not ‘a man’. This music represents a communal voice, not an individual’s call. There are going to be no soloists here, in contrast to that earlier military band section, which seemed to thrill with the voice of the individual.
The men are soon joined by the rest of the choir, and that means women. We really feel that injection of the higher female registers after those rather stark male calls. It broadens and unifies the sound.
The feminine tone seems to soothe those questioning voices (at 0.24 and 1.12 above). Again, the tone counterbalances the masculinity of our previous military band section.
Listen to what instruments are being used. Beethoven selects those which blend and support the vocal line. Deep strings and deep brass for the men’s sections. Then violins and higher wind instruments as the female voices join in. These are instruments that augment the voices, rather than ornament them.
The overall effect is to unify the music, rather than giving it definition, or a more individualistic swagger. No room for piccolos or cymbals here: the instruments support the choir, leaving the human voice centre-stage.
This is about universals, and that means knitting the separate units of the orchestra and chorus into an organic whole and blended whole.
The effect of sections of the choir answering one other resembles the call and answer of prayer. We are unquestionably reaching towards a more religious or spiritual space.
It’s as if the explication of an earthly paradise must by necessity become an exploration of a heavenly one. When you seek universalised values, you inevitably are lead to The Universal. Thoughts of a heaven on earth inevitably turn to thoughts of heaven.
All that talk of brothers leads inevitably to talk of a father…
We can follow these thoughts through the lyrics themselves. Be embraced, oh millions!
7.36-10.56 Above the stars
|Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.
|Be embraced, o millions!
This kiss is for the whole world! (x 2)
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father. (x 2)
Do you bow down before Him, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, o world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars. (x 2)
Universality is stressed; nature’s kiss, we are reminded, is for “der ganzen Welt”, the whole world.
But the chorus has dramatically changed in nature, now sounding more like a religious congregation than a revolutionary band of brothers.
This is a spiritual realm, more reminiscent of the eternal than the temporal. The tone is made explicit by the lyrics looking ‘above the stars’ to where ‘a loving father must live‘.
There remains a dubious thread to the texture, as the male chorus twice pose statements so stark as to sound like questions.
A holy father must live above this starry canopy…mustn’t he?
8.26-8.48 Above the stars
Any thoughts of existential anguish are soothed by the entry of the female chorus, and that interlocking of the harmonic space we discussed last chapter:
8.49-9.14 Above the stars
The harmonies weave together, the musical equivalent of a loving embrace, as opposed to the rather bare male unison tones from earlier.
Towards the Unknowable
9.45-9.54 Above the stars
All through this section, the music hums with a sense of mystery – the unknowable perhaps – as we explore this new spiritual realm.
9.59-10.13 Above the stars
Everything seems gradually to ascend higher (do you notice both melody and pitch shift up?). The universalised is becoming the Universal, as the choir asks (and we feel) “Ahnest du der Schöpfer” (do you sense the creator?)…
10.14-10.27 Above the stars
And now both choir and orchestra unify to sound out definitively: “uber Sternen muss er wohnen” (above the stars he must live).
We’ve journeyed deep into the spiritual realm. And so we enter the core of this music, its inner-sanctum. As the lyrics themselves tell us, we are sensing the creator, approaching the place of greatest mystery…
10.30-10.55 Above the stars
We have arrived at the centre of our choral finale, its very heart.
Or – to express it through another dimension – its highest point.
It is as if we hang suspended, equidistant between heaven and earth.
We remain floating in this elevated viewpoint, so high we can almost touch the stars themselves…
Perfect time for one last break, before we tackle the final third…
PART 3. The Whole World.
Towards resolution 10.57 – 12.19
And so we come tumbling back down to earth:
10.57-12.19 The Whole World
We begin in the higher tones, and drops through the registers, as we enter that choral fugue we looked at . Like a vortex within a centrifuge, the fugue pulls us inevitably back towards the earthly tones with which the movement began.
We are heading down!
Back down to our world: listen to how often the words ‘der ganzen Welt’ (the whole world) are stamped throughout this section.
And if you were in any doubt how earthbound we are, and yet how broad remains Beethoven’s sweep, listen to how the sopranos hold onto that word Welt up high all the way during this close (1.09-1.18 above). That section in particular caused plenty of trouble and complaint during rehearsals for the premiere.
1 and 1 makes 3
The lyrics have now become more muddied, as sections of words are repeated by different sections of the choir in fugal form. But it’s worth just taking a moment here to think about the two principal themes (and lyrics) from this fugue:
- 1) Freude Schone Gotterfunken, which is the main theme from the first ‘earthly’ third of the movement
- 2) Seid umschlungen, the main theme from the ‘heavenly’ second third (Seid umschlungen).
It is in this third section that these two main themes (and lyrics) are now musically fused through the process of fugue:
10.57-12.19 The Whole World
It is as if Beethoven is orchestrating a musical dialectic between the first two parts of his finale, attempting to join them together in this third part.
It all points to a three-part movement. We began in our earthly realm (0.00-7.35), with heroes, brothers, wives, and military bands.
Then we ascended to a more heavenly plane (7.36-10.56), sensing a father dwelling above the stars.
And now (10.57-end) we seem to be combining, or reconciling these two realms, as the symphony strives for resolution.
We have Theme A (Freude Schone Gotterfunken) and Theme B (Seid umschlungen): the two themes are now developed together before we finally return to the first theme as the symphony ends.
Talking about the Sonata Form in this context is not just an issue of musical theory. Think of this final part of the symphony as a philosophical dialectic, an attempt to fuse two points of view (earthly and heavenly universals) into some kind of synthesis and resolution. The Sonata Form operates as a tool that pushes this music into a form of spiritual or philosophical debate, or dialectic.
This really was the entire struggle of the Enlightenment, at least as experienced by Beethoven: the attempt to make a heaven on earth, the struggle to wrest order from chaos. This finale is nothing less than a political and spiritual map for our species.
As ever with Beethoven, there will be no easy short-cuts. We’re not going to just mix these two sets of themes together, even within such musical invention as this fugue, and hope for a quick-fix solution. We traveled so high in this musical journey, that when Beethoven brings us back down to earth, it requires extended development and interplay.
Let’s follow that journey through to the end…
Sanctum revisted 12.20-13.00
12.20-13.00 The Whole World
Suddenly we are taken back into the spiritual mode. The section is much shorter than our earlier devotional section, but it still clearly belongs to the same spiritual space. If this is our Sonata Form in action, the recapitulation will be a changed form of the exposition.
We begin with men singing in ‘blocks’ of melody in a single vocal line (ie no harmonies). The tone is probing and questioning.
And then (0.16 above) the harmonic space is filled out with the addition of female voices, as if in comfort to the previous doubt.
And finally (0.33) we rest on a plateau, all just like the ‘inner sanctum’ at the end of the earlier devotional section.
Like a highlights package, we’ve been reintroduced to our sanctum. But the return is brief: this time the place has also become less mysterious, as if we already know it better. As if we are beginning to understand the questions, or resolve the dialectic.
And now we head into the home-straight…
Finale Finale 13.01-end
13.01- end The Whole World
Never accuse Beethoven of rushing his endings!
He seems to be wrestling with his own material, fashioning order and meaning from chaos. The music always drives forward with a furious vigour, yet at the same time it tries to seek resolution and rest.
We push on, as the soloists blend together, until we hear a clear mark, a universal declaration of brotherhood (Alle Menchen – all men stamped out emphatically four times). This happens twice (at 0.43 and 1.15 above).
Next (1.16) the soloists engage in extended interplay….
Finally (at 2.16 above), the band once more strikes up its marching tune. The whirlwind of sound strives for resolution, and the movement impels itself towards the kind of all-guns-blazing finale the music demands.
The dialectic has been synthesized, as the words from the spiritual section “Seid umschlungen, Millionen…uber Sternen muss er wohnen” (‘Be united, millions, under the stars he must dwell’) are bedded into the orchestration of our more earthly and temporal plane.
The crashing strikes of “Der ganzen Welt” (the whole world) as it repeats from 2.46 seem to hammer home the new-found unity and universality. The music seems to rally, when it then reaffirms our main theme for a final time (3.21), before cascading into a truly triumphant and well-earned climax.
Yes, take a big breath.
Beethoven’s Ninth – both as an entire symphony and in this final movement – takes us on a journey through political aspirations and spiritual discovery, on a mission to articulate something deeply essential about our place – as a communal family – in the fabric of the universe.
Big words, perhaps, but then Beethoven is the kind of pushing-the-envelope composer who can happily accommodate the hyperbolic.
You don’t get bigger than Beethoven’s ninth.
- If you’re interested in the original Schiller poem, here it is together with an English translation.
- Beethoven was hugely influential to a slew of composers who followed him, and could be the most influential composer of all.
- Schubert adored Beethoven, and was a pall-bearer at his funeral. This is Schubert’s final piano Sonata, a really beauty.
- And here the slow movement to Schubert’s piano trio Op 100. Fan’s of Kubrick may recognise the theme from Barry Lyndon.
- Brahms also venerated Beethoven, and his Deutsche Requiem show much of that influence. Here is a good taster from that mighty work.