Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’ – No. 50 in our collection

Ludwig van Beethoven (16?.12.1770 – 26.03.1827) was a German composer and pianist. He was the predominant musical figure in the transitional period between the Classical and Romantic eras, dominating a period of musical history as no one else before or since. He is widely regarded as the greatest composer who ever lived; widening the scope of the sonata, the symphony, the concerto, and the string quartet.

In his Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 ‘Choral’ Beethoven combined the worlds of vocal and instrumental music in a manner never before attempted. The descriptive title stems from the finale, in which soloists and chorus sing portions of Frederich Schiller’s poem An die Freude (Ode to Joy). While most attention focuses on this choral finale, the opening of the work is every bit as momentous. The great, Sir Donald Tovey described it as “a radiating point for all subsequent experiments for enlarging the time-scale of music.  No later composer has escaped its influence.” Indeed the opening of the symphony displays an uncertain tonality, melody and rhythm in a way not seen before.

Opening bars of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9

It is written in four movements. The tragic first movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, takes us on a dramatic yet cohesive journey through the exposition, development and recapitulation of established sonata form. Movement 2, marked Molto vivace, combines nervous tension and joyous outbursts. In the third movement action gives way to music of profound contemplation and introspection. The finale begins with a bitter confused outburst of wind and brass which is all the more shocking after the soft contentment of the leisurely adagio. The cellos and basses next “speak” to each other in a wordless passage that Beethoven labels selon le caractère d’un recitative, mais in tempo (in the character of a recital, but in tempo). Words are not missed, as the expressive speech-like inflection clearly signifies confused questioning together with dissatisfaction and impatience. Next, the orchestra summons fragments of the preceding three movements, each of which the cellos and basses interrupt and reject. They seem to mellow only when the orchestra suggests a fragment of a wholly new theme – the now-famous Ode to Joy melody. When voices finally enter after a repeat of the opening outburst, a solo baritone states explicitly what the orchestral forces suggested so effectively, O freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern last uns angenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere! (Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!) The baritone then goes into the “Ode” theme, followed by soloists and full chorus in a tribute to brotherhood, friendship and nature.

The entire work is pure genius and takes the listener on an unparalleled journey from darkness through to light.

There are many fine versions of this great symphony that one can stream or purchase. We have chosen to add a version that we believe surpasses all of the others. It is performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker and is directed by Ferenc Fricsay. In the final movement these forces are joined by the Chor der St. Hedwig’s-Kathedrale, Berlin and the soloists; Irmgard Seefried (soprano), Maureen Forrester (contralto), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Ernst Haefliger (tenor). This version is an all round success but special praise must be given to the playing of the slow third movement and the excellence of singing from the chorus and well balanced group of soloists in the finale.

Another version worthy of mention, perhaps more for political rather than musical reasons,  is Leonard Bernstein’s performance that he conducted with players from Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and America on Christmas Day 1989 at the Brandenburg Gate to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall, with its searing Ode to Freedom¹.

Stream on Spotify, Idagio or Qobuz. Buy from Amazon.

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¹  “Freiheit” replaced “Freude”, in that memorable one-off performance that is now available as a recording.