Hyperion Records

Symphony No 9 in D minor 'Choral', Op 125
1823; first performed on 7 May 1824 in Vienna
author of text
Ode an die Freude

'Beethoven: Symphonies' (CDS44301/5)
Beethoven: Symphonies
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'Beethoven: Symphony No 9' (LSO0592)
Beethoven: Symphony No 9
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'Beethoven: Symphony No 9' (SIGCD254)
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Movement 1: Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
Movement 2: Molto vivace
Movement 3: Adagio molto e cantabile
Movement 4: Presto – Allegro assai 'Ode to Joy'

Symphony No 9 in D minor 'Choral', Op 125
When Sir George Smart conducted the first, abridged, London performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert given on 21 March 1825, the work was proudly announced as having being ‘composed expressly for this Society’. The RPS had in fact been trying to lure the great composer to London since as early as 1817, when it offered him the handsome sum of 300 guineas on condition that he spend the following winter in London and compose two new symphonies. Beethoven accepted, and even made enquiries as to the size of the orchestra and the acoustics of the hall in which the works were to be performed; and towards the end of that same year he sketched out a preliminary version of what would eventually become the ninth symphony’s opening theme.

At this stage, Beethoven’s symphonic plans were diverted by other projects—among them the Missa solemnis—and it was not until 1823 that he set to work in earnest on what had become a single large-scale symphony in D minor. In the summer of that year he told his patron and pupil Archduke Rudolph that he was writing a new symphony for London which he hoped to finish in a fortnight. But as things turned out, the score was not dispatched to London until the following April, by which time plans had already been finalized for the work to be performed in Vienna.

Various accounts of the ninth symphony’s premiere on 7 May 1824 have come down to us. They differ in detail, but they all tell the same story. The deaf composer, oblivious to his surroundings, had his head buried in his own score, and had to be turned to face the audience at the appropriate moments so that he could witness the tumultuous applause. That applause broke out not only at the end of each movement, but occasionally during the music itself—notably in the scherzo, at the point where the leaping theme is so strikingly assigned to the timpani.

The inclusion of voices in a symphonic work was an unprecedented step, and Beethoven expended considerable effort in creating a suitable context for the appearance of Schiller’s paean to joy. To this end, he decided to preface the actual poem with some words of his own, in which the discordant sounds of the finale’s opening fanfare are forcefully rejected, as being inappropriate for a celebration of the brotherhood of man. This was the only occasion on which Beethoven set to music lines he had written himself, and after several rejected attempts, he settled on a solution that plays on the German words ‘Freunde’ (‘friends’) and ‘Freude’ (‘joy’), and provides a natural transition to Schiller’s poem: ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere!’ (‘O friends, not these sounds! Let us rather strike up others that are more pleasant and more joyful!’). Each of the reminiscences from the preceding movements which follow on from the terrifying fanfares at the start of the finale is interrupted in turn by an angry burst of instrumental recitative. Only once a snatch of the forthcoming finale theme has been heard does the recitative assume a more positive guise.

The symphony begins mysteriously, with the nebulous sound of a bare fifth, out of which a shattering, jagged fanfare gradually emerges—the most far-flung gesture of its kind Beethoven ever conceived. Twice during the course of the opening movement the material of the opening bars makes a return: once, at the end of the exposition, as if to indicate that a repeat is being made (instead, for the only time in Beethoven’s symphonic opening movements, there is no repeat), and again at the start of the recapitulation. On this last appearance the previously mysterious bars appropriate the dynamic level of the fanfare; and immediately before the fanfare itself emerges, the music alights on a shrieking discord, almost as if in premonition of the famous gesture of horror with which the symphony’s finale is launched. This time the jagged fanfare is harmonized, with the downward leaps of violins and violas countered by an ascent—albeit of more restricted compass—in the basses and cellos. The moment, one of the most astonishing Beethoven ever composed, leaves the music hanging in suspension at precisely the point where we would have expected it to regain its stability.

Uniquely in his symphonies, Beethoven places the scherzo before the slow movement—a sequence that will not be found in any of the great symphonic works of Haydn or Mozart. Beethoven may have opted to reverse the traditional symphonic plan in order to avoid placing the unusually expansive opening movement cheek by jowl with the lengthy Adagio. Not that the scherzo is short: it is, indeed, by a considerable margin the most expansive movement of its kind Beethoven composed. It is prefaced with a rhythmically altered version of the first movement’s jagged fanfare, but the main body of the piece has its origin in a fugue theme Beethoven sketched in 1815, at the time he was working on his D major Cello Sonata Op 102 No 2—a work that ends with an actual fugue. As we have seen, Beethoven had already experimented with tuning his timpani an octave apart in the finale of his eighth symphony, but he puts the idea to even more spectacular use here, with the intervention of the solo timpani near the start of the scherzo calculated to make maximum effect. The much shorter trio section in the major, with its extended passages for the wind instruments on their own, transforms the underlying rhythm from triple metre to duple, though the pulse remains the same.

The slow movement is essentially a series of interwoven variations on two contrasting themes. The first theme is a wonderfully serene hymn-like utterance, with the floating melody of the strings punctuated by wind phrases permeated with the sound of clarinets and horns; while in the more flowing second theme the melodic interest passes to second violins and violas. Much as happens in the fifth symphony, the second theme eventually drops out of sight altogether, and it is left to the first to carry the musical argument.

Like the slow movement, the opening section of the finale is written against the background of a variation form. Following the shrilly discordant fanfares and intervening recitatives, and the reminiscences from the previous movements, the famous theme that will be used to set Schiller’s words ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ is heard unharmonized on the cellos and basses. The initial variation-chain occupies fewer than one hundred bars, before Beethoven provides a lengthy transition to a new theme in the key he would have chosen had he been writing a purely symphonic kind of piece. The function of this new theme is defined by the fact that it never reappears: at this stage Beethoven needs to engender the expectation of a repeat of the exposition, in order to maximize the effect of what transpires instead. What actually ensues is a varied repeat, but one of an unprecedented kind. Having served their purpose, the reminiscences are eliminated; the recitatives are now sung, rather than played, and the orchestral variations are replaced with choral variations. There is an analogy here with first-movement concerto form, where an orchestral opening section is followed by an exposition featuring the soloist—except that here that solo section is vocal, rather than instrumental.

In place of the orchestral exposition’s new subject in the dominant key there is now a dramatic interruption, and immediately following the words ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott’ the music plunges into a new key for a passage that confronts the sublime with the sublimely banal, in the guise of a toy march for wind-band, complete with ‘Turkish’ percussion instruments (triangle, cymbals and bass-drum). In Beethoven’s grand sonata design, this marks the start of the development section.

The recapitulation is interrupted by further development, in the shape of a slow movement (‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’). Its sustained theme appears at first to be entirely new, but as things turn out it can be combined with the main theme in the form of a double fugue. The words of this section, together with a vastly accelerated form of its theme, will return in the symphony’s exhilarating closing pages. The fugue itself eventually leads to the coda, where the finale’s events thus far are passed in review: the quasi-slow movement is recalled in a breathtaking Adagio excursion into a distant key (‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt’); and the Turkish instruments make a return in the jubilant explosion of sound which brings the symphony to its close.

from notes by Misha Donat © 2007

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Details for LSO0592 track 1
Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
Recording date
30 April 2006
Recording venue
Barbican, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
James Mallinson
Recording engineer
Jonathan Stokes & Neil Hutchinson
Hyperion usage
  1. Beethoven: Symphony No 9 (LSO0592)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: September 2006
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