Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the Georgia Symphony Orchestra. I consider the 9th to be the Muhammad Ali of symphonies – The Greatest. There is no other symphony that compares to the raw power and exceptional beauty that Beethoven provides in his 9th.
The piece was finished in 1824 when the composer had three years of life left. He was completely deaf and suffering from horrible physical ailments (cirrhosis, sarcoidosis, and hepititis were all thought to contribute to his death) as well as his ongoing depression. There have been many studies on Beethoven and manic depression and bipolar disorder.
A conductor once told me that the opening (and nearly silent) passage in the first movement is like the “beginning of everything.” Then, there are two eruptions that signal “a planet or universe being created.” When performed correctly, this is absolutely true. The first movement uses d-minor like no other composer except maybe Mozart in the Requiem. There is a relentless tragedy playing out for us that is then continued in the Scherzo. Only the beautiful third movement gives us a calm in the storm, but only for a moment until the timpani and winds/brass startle us back into the dark place.
The finale is, for lack of a better word, joy. Alle Menschen werden Brüder, or, All Men Shall Become Brothers. This is what the symphony is about. The darkest of times shoved aside (O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenhmere anstimmen und freundenvolere – O Friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones), and arguably the most famous melody in the world takes us into the light.
There are countless stories and anecdotes surrounding this symphony. The most famous one has Beethoven conducting the premiere and “wildly gesticulating,” but continuing to conduct when the piece was over. He couldn’t hear the gigantic ovation behind him. One of the musicians took his arm and helped him turn around to see the audience in a frenzy.
Needless to say, this symphony is beautiful, but it is also quite difficult and treacherous for the performers. Herr Beethoven was never one to care about how tough his music was. Professional string quartets of the day thought his middle and late quartets to be almost unplayable. The choral writing in the 9th symphony (just like the awesome Missa Solemnis written just prior) is very difficult. High notes everywhere and you can just about forget about breathing. The orchestra has it no easier. There are passages in the strings that are almost unplayable and the winds and brass have the same breathing troubles as the choir.
I can’t recommend enough that if you have an opportunity to play this symphony, take it! I have been a professional violinist for about 25 years and only last week did I perform this terrific work for the first time. It isn’t an easy piece to program due to the difficulty and logistics involved. You need a large and skilled choir, four excellent soloists, and an orchestra that can really play. Luckily, I had all three last week and the end result was nothing short of amazing.
If you can perform it, you had better practice your butt off because this work can really wear you down if you don’t know it. If you do learn it and learn it well, you will enjoy the awesome experience of performing the greatest symphony ever written.