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Beethoven's final three symphonies—Nos 7 & 8 composed as a pair in 1812, the monumental No 9 following twelve years later and concluding with the famous 'Ode to Joy'. Beethoven's original audience was decidedly ambivalent regarding his use of human voices in what is today regarded as a masterpiece; modern listeners can experience something of their consternation in the coupling of Gerald Barry's defiant The Eternal Recurrence.
Where then, did Beethoven find the sunny demeanour that characterises his seventh symphony, a work he began sketching while convalescing at Teplitz in the autumn of 1811 and completed in Vienna in April 1812? Brisk, joyous and radiating warmth, it is one of Beethoven’s most carefree symphonic works, a symphony that Richard Wagner would later call ‘the apotheosis of the dance herself’. At its Viennese premiere it proved an instant success, so much so that the second movement was reprised as an encore and the whole concert was repeated four days later. Beethoven, for his part, referred to it as his ‘Grand Symphony in A’, adding in a letter to the impresario Johann Peter Salomon that he considered it ‘one of my best works’.
While the seventh glows with a kind of easy self-contentment, there are gloomy shadows to be found lurking beneath its bright façade and it is by no means a trivial work. At around 45 minutes in performance it is half as long again as the rather slim eighth, which Beethoven completed just a few months later, and many of its features are unprecedented in both scale and ambition. The introduction to the opening Vivace is longer than any symphonic introduction ever composed before. Nor does it stick to symphonic norms by setting up the tonic of A major and preparing for the first movement proper. Instead, Beethoven diverts almost immediately from A major to touch, in turn, upon C major and F major, neither of which have any close relation to the key of the symphony. It takes Beethoven nearly four, suspense-laden minutes to reach the Vivace, by which time the last thing we are expecting is the ebullient romp that follows. Spirited along by a galloping rhythmic undercurrent and coloured by its emphasis on the woodwind, this joyous opening movement has more than a hint of the ‘Pastoral’ about it.
But it is the solemn Allegretto that has become the symphony’s calling card. Although it is not ‘slow’ in the traditional sense (Allegretto meaning ‘fairly brisk’), the Allegretto is the de facto slow movement in an otherwise spirited symphony, its effect more a result of context than of tempo. Muted both in tone and dynamics, this rather sombre series of variations upon a repetitive, walking theme has been compared to a funeral procession—and for good reason. Just as the first movement was carried along by its propulsive rhythmic accompaniment, repetition abounds here too, but here the long-short-short-long-long ostinato has quite the opposite effect. Every time it seems to get going, we stall once more, as though the procession were inching forwards only to stop, take stock, and set off again. Only when Beethoven begins to spin out long, languorous counter-melodies does the procession find its momentum and a remarkable grandeur emerges out of this rather unassuming theme, only to peter out and sidle off into the distance once more.
There is nothing unassuming, however, about the Scherzo that follows. Composed in F major, that same errant key that made its first appearance in the expansive introduction, the Scherzo is a whirlwind of tossed out melodic fragments and sudden dynamic contrasts, relaxing only briefly in the more measured, rustic Trio sections—which again recall elements of his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. And then, with little more than a couple of punchy chords to pull us back to the home key, Beethoven launches headlong into the finale, a wild, unbound Allegro that Tchaikovsky called ‘a whole series of images, full of unrestrained joy, full of bliss and pleasure of life’. While the conductor Thomas Beecham was rather less kind (‘What can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about’), there is no denying its physicality. Joy spills over into raucousness, the gloom of the Allegretto long forgotten, as the finale hurtles along with an earthy, unrestrained energy that flirts with dance but borders on bedlam.
Symphony No 8 in F major Op 93 (1812)
Having taken a leave of absence from the symphony for four years after the ‘Pastoral’, in 1812 Beethoven composed two. Like the fifth and the sixth, both composed together in 1808, the seventh and eighth were composed as a pair. And together, they give lie to the suggestion that Beethoven’s music represents a cathartic outlet for his troubled personal life. For the eighth, like the seventh, bears none of the scars that troubled Beethoven that difficult year. Described by Beethoven himself as ‘my little Symphony in F’, as distinct from the grand ‘Pastoral’ Symphony in the same key he wrote four years earlier, the eighth symphony is both the shortest of all his nine symphonies and the brightest. There is no room for a deep and brooding slow movement here; instead, any foreseeable drawn-out, melancholic Adagio is replaced with a playful Allegretto scherzando—the only time Beethoven forgoes a slow movement in all of his symphonies. It is a far cry from the funereal slow movement he included in his seventh symphony, which was so popular that it became common nineteenth-century practice to insert this movement into the eighth symphony, perhaps to give audiences the range of emotions to which they had become accustomed.
In fact, Beethoven’s audiences would have been accustomed to very little of what this slender symphony has to offer. While it maintains the outer structure of a traditional classical symphony, the work’s extreme concision—and the devices that Beethoven uses to achieve this—would have come as a shock at its premiere. There is no introduction, nor any preparatory chords, just a leap straight in to what proves to be a rather whistlestop tour through the markers of sonata form. The Allegro vivace finale is also one of the quirkiest symphonic movements that Beethoven ever composed, veering between dynamic extremes, with gaping silences and sudden fortissimo intrusions, and one of the most unusual conceivable key relationships (F major to F sharp minor), which Beethoven seems to use simply to show his technical prowess in reconciling the two. It is no surprise that it took Beethoven’s audiences some time to warm up to the eighth’s rather distinctive quirks. As one reviewer in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung wrote after its premiere: ‘The applause it received was not accompanied by that enthusiasm which distinguishes a work which gives universal delight; in short—as the Italians say—it did not create a furore.’
Symphony No 9 in D minor 'Choral' Op 125 (1824)
Imagine for a moment the audience at the premiere of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. They had waited some twelve years for Beethoven to unveil his new symphony, following the disappointment of the eighth. But they can hardly have anticipated the vastness of the ninth, clocking in at 70 minutes, its instrumentation swollen by the addition of trombones, contrabassoon, four horns and percussion, not to mention four vocal soloists and a full SATB chorus. The dimensions of the symphony alone are staggering, but Beethoven’s technical and aesthetic ambitions are more impressive still. The ninth has proved to be not just a turning point in the western symphonic tradition, but one of the most important and iconic works of any genre composed at any time in history. As Rachmaninov declared a century after its premiere: ‘Nobody will ever write anything better than this symphony.’
But those who attended its grand unveiling in Vienna in 1824 did not quite agree. Beethoven’s contemporary, Louis Spohr, wrote that the symphony’s first three movements, ‘in spite of some flashes of genius, are to my mind inferior to all the eight previous symphonies’. He found the finale to be worse still: ‘so monstrous and tasteless … that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.’ Beethoven had shocked his audiences before—as far back as the startling chords that open the second, through to the unprecedented pictorialism of the sixth—but with the ninth, Beethoven crossed another boundary line. In the finale, for the very first time, Beethoven introduced the voice. Hitherto a wholly instrumental genre, in the ninth the symphony took an enormous leap into an altogether new musical sphere. ‘O friends, not these sounds!’, the bass soloist implores, as each of the themes of the preceding movements are trotted out in turn at the start of the finale. It is an abrupt interjection with both small- and large-scale implications. On the one hand, this announcement resets and restarts the ninth symphony, paving the way for the 'Ode to Joy', which soon follows. But it is also Beethoven’s way of ushering in a new aesthetic chapter for the symphony as a whole, a turning point in musical history unlike any other, effected by a single, wilful individual.
And unlike any other work in Beethoven’s output, it is almost impossible to discuss without starting at the end. The ninth has an unparalleled teleological drive, in which the finale—although baffling—is also somehow a seemingly inevitable endpoint. When the 'Ode to Joy' emerges, resplendent, in the symphony’s finale, it is the culmination of everything that came before, its distinctive melody in fact prefigured in each of the preceding movements. But the sunny assurance (or is it sarcasm?) of the 'Ode to Joy' is hard-won. While most of Beethoven’s symphonies just start—with conviction and without hesitation—the ninth quivers mysteriously into being. Agitated strings tremble pianissimo around an open fifth, the violins offering tentative interjections, the key and metre uncertain and undefined. It takes thirteen bars before Beethoven finds his theme and announces it fortissimo with the full might of the orchestra. It is as though the world itself, at that moment, had come into being.
From here Beethoven takes us on a broad and, at times, tortuous journey, the opening Allegro in effect a whole symphony in miniature. By the recapitulation, Beethoven has transported us from D minor to D major—a shift that took place over four movements in the fifth but which, in this bold new symphonic landscape, is swiftly and deftly dispatched. But the Allegro ends macabrely back in the minor, the funereal trudge of the lower strings preceding a series of apocalyptic hammer blows in the final bars. Listen, Beethoven seems to say, as I lay the symphony to rest.
After all that, the Scherzo that follows seems like an ironic afterthought, its buoyant energy quite at odds with what had come before. Not so the ensuing slow movement, which is almost as long as the opening Allegro, unfolding through a typically Beethovenian series of double variations. Beethoven shows little inclination to hurry here, the movement’s exquisite stillness hinting at an Arcadian landscape just beyond the horizon—the Elysian fields, even, that we meet in the finale. So when the brass shatter the peace with what Wagner called a Schreckensfanfare (‘terror fanfare’) and wrench us back to the present, it is as though Beethoven had pulled the rug from beneath our feet. Elysium remains, for now, on the horizon, there is work still to be done here.
And with that the bass soloist calls a halt—‘no more these sounds!’—and in doing so announces the arrival of a new musical landscape. But he also makes a wider plea to humanity—‘Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!’, and in one deft move transforms the symphony into an extra-musical vehicle for hope, community and peace. This extraordinary leap may be the work of one wilful individual, but it is also the culmination of decades of symphonic development. The ‘classical’ symphony as we know it can go no further: this is the symphony’s rebirth.
Gerald Barry The Eternal Recurrence (1999)
Give Gerald Barry a text and you are unlikely to get a sympathetic setting. Illustration is not Barry’s style. His unique brand of musical defiance thrives on the rebellious and the unexpected—rather like Beethoven himself. The ninth symphony and The Eternal Recurrence form a natural pairing, the former drawing upon Friedrich Schiller’s poem about universal brotherhood and the idea of heaven upon earth, the latter taking excerpts from Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Also sprach Zarathustra, which focuses on themes of joy, eternity and the power of mankind.
There are musical parallels between the two as well. Where Beethoven sets Schiller’s text with a certain jingoistic sarcasm, Barry defies the norms of text-setting too, rejecting the natural stresses and expression of the text in favour of a style that is deliberately undermining. For the soprano soloist, this means an almost impossible string of top Cs and a breathless parlando delivery, the text falling away in feverish fragments as though spontaneously created. It is a style that Barry would pursue in his 2005 opera The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and which, perhaps counter-intuitively, is designed to mimic a more natural form of vocal delivery. ‘The music isn’t illustrative in the conventional way,’ Barry admits, ‘but it mirrors the complex way people speak. For instance, the two of us could be talking now but we might be thinking about all sorts of other things; there could be a whole kaleidoscope of emotion running through our heads.’
This quasi-improvisatory, rapid-fire approach lends the work a frenetic energy, as though we are taken on an endless voyage of discovery, with a new idea around every corner. While the sense of pacing (or lack thereof) may not mirror the more measured rhythm of Nietzsche’s writing, it reflects the abundance of Nietzsche’s ideas, and his seemingly endless list of joy’s desires. It is a feature that is encapsulated by the work’s title, too. In Also sprach Zarathustra, ‘eternal recurrence’ is the idea that—given enough time—life, and all the events within it, will recur again and again ad infinitum. ‘This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever’, Nietzsche writes. It is a startling concept—that joy and the very spark of life is to be found in the everyday. ‘Rather like the familiar objects in still lifes’, Barry explains, ‘the music uses everyday musical gestures to produce something feverish and brilliant.’
Jo Kirkbride © 2021