Beethoven's Ode to Joy
May 20, 2017
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 9
composed in 1824
After completing his Symphony No. 8 in 1812, Beethoven began writing out ideas for his next symphony. But it would be 11 years before Symphony No. 9 would be completed. In 1817, Beethoven received a commission for a new symphony from the Philharmonic Society of London, and with some delay, he began work on the symphony in earnest in 1822, completing it in February of 1824.
Unique to this symphony is the use of a chorus and vocal soloists in the final movement, giving it the nickname, “Choral Symphony.” We take such undertakings for granted now, but including a chorus as part of a symphony in 1824 created quite the stir. Beethoven elected to include vocal elements as a rather last minute decision, and even had some doubts about doing so after the premiere. Fortunately, he didn’t let his doubts win him over.
Symphony No. 9 is considered by many to be one of Beethoven’s greatest works, and many consider it one of the greatest compositions in the western musical canon. The text is taken from a poem, “Ode to Joy,” written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785, and revised in 1803, with additions made by Beethoven. Today, Symphony No. 9 is one of the most performed symphonies, and the “Ode to Joy” theme is one of the most recognizable melodies ever composed.
The mood of the first movement is one of turbulence, probably reflective of the many unpleasant personal, political, medical occurrences going on in his life (by this time his tinnitus was so severe that he could hear very little of his masterpiece). The movement is a theme and variations with slow introduction. It opens with tremolos in the second violins and cellos, with short murmurs of sounds coming from the first violins, violas and basses. Some have suggested this sounds like an orchestra tuning, but from this suspenseful quietude emerges a motivic theme of power and authority that later drives the entire movement. This music transitions to a second theme introduced by flutes and clarinets, which flows into alternate sections of great dynamic contrasts; soon the introductory music is heard again. The movement follows the traditional sonata-allegro form.
The second movement is a delightful scherzo and trio. Listen for the explosive tympani parts. The meditative slow third movement is in a loose variation form, with each pair of variations progressively elaborating the rhythm and melody.
Agitated intervals of tri-tones open the fourth movement, the music speaks in fits and starts, with motives from the opening movement of the first movement, bits of the scherzo movement, but eventually we hear the “Ode to Joy” sung by the cellos and basses, then repeated with violas, flowed by violins and eventually the full orchestra led by the trumpets. The agitated tri-tone music returns to introduce the solo baritone.
Soon the chorus joins in the famous choral finale – Beethoven’s musical representation of universal brotherhood.