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Beethoven Ninth and Elegiac Song – Program Notes

November 6, 2013


by Martin Pearlman

 Elegiac Song, Op. 118

            Beethoven composed this small, rarely heard gem in the summer of 1814, at the beginning of a difficult time in his life.  It was a period in which he produced few major works but appeared to be finding his way toward a new musical vocabulary and new compositional approaches.  His “heroic” period, as it is often called, was over — he had already written all but his last symphony and all of his concertos.  The more abstract, introspective style of his late quartets and last piano sonatas was still some years in the future.  While the Elegiac Song can hardly be said to anticipate the style of the late quartets, it does reflect a sense of searching, a sense that nothing is conventional, even in a small piece written for a friend.  Harmonically it often goes in directions we would not expect based on his earlier music; rhythmically there are surprises too, as when chords are unexpectedly sustained before resolving; and there are irregular phrase lengths.  Even dynamics are sometimes unusual:  they are generally soft, except for a few brief swellings of emotion at the words für den Schmerz (for the pain of sorrow) and des himmlischen Geistes (of the heavenly spirit).

Beethoven wrote his Elegiac Song for his friend, supporter and former landlord, Baron Johann Pasqualati in memory of his wife, who had died in childbirth three years earlier.  The text is anonymous, perhaps written by Pasqualati himself.   Beethoven’s original setting was for four solo voices with string quartet, but he also provided an alternative version with piano accompaniment.  We perform it here with a small chorus and small string ensemble without double basses.


Symphony No. 9, Op. 125

An illustrious, extremely large audience listened with rapt attention and did not stint with enthusiastic, thundering applause.  Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman.  At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet.  –The actual direction was in [Umlauf’s] hands; we musicians followed his baton only. –Beethoven was so excited that he saw nothing that was going on about him, he paid no heed whatever to the bursts of applause, which his deafness prevented him from hearing in any case.

Thus did the violinist Joseph Böhm report on one of the most extraordinary premieres in music history.  The concert in Vienna on May 7, 1824 included, along with the premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, three movements of his Missa Solemnis and his overture to The Consecration of the House.  It was an extremely taxing program, made even more so by the newness of the music, and there had been only two full rehearsals.  Some of the high notes in the voice parts were omitted, because the singers could not sing them and could not convince Beethoven to rewrite the passages.  One of Beethoven’s friends reported that “the whole symphony, especially the last movement, caused great difficulty for the orchestra, which did not understand it at first. . . The double-bass players had not the faintest idea what they were supposed to do with the recitatives.  One heard nothing but a gruff rumbling in the basses. . .”

Nonetheless, the orchestra included many fine musicians, and the much anticipated new symphony made a tremendous impression.  According to one of the singers in the chorus, there were moments when the audience would spontaneously burst into applause in the middle of a movement, the most striking being at the solo entrance of the timpani in the Scherzo, which, she tells us, had the effect on the audience of a bolt of lightning.

The unprecedented last movement, which introduces voices into the symphony, although it is the most popular movement today, was less enthusiastically received and somewhat confusing at first.  Beethoven had been interested in setting Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude, or Ode to Joy, for more than 30 years, but his original thought, dating back to the early 1790’s, before he moved to Vienna, was to set it as an independent song.  Years later, in 1812, while working on his 8th Symphony, he sketched some ideas for a theme that would set Schiller’s words and wrote comments for himself next to the sketch:  “Make something using fragments of Schiller’s Joy” and “Work out the overture.”  But there was still not yet any thought of inserting it into a symphony.  Even more than a decade later, as he was working on the first two movements of his 9th Symphony, Beethoven still thought of the Ode to Joy as belonging to a different work.  It was only in the year before he completed the symphony that he decided to use the vocal setting of Schiller’s ode as its finale.

Surprisingly, Beethoven seems to have had some doubts about his decision to introduce a vocal finale into the symphony.  His student Carl Czerny reported that, well after the premiere, the composer told some of his close friends that he felt he had made a mistake in doing so and that he wanted to eliminate the finale and substitute a purely instrumental movement in its place.  He claimed already to have musical ideas for a new movement, but for unknown reasons, he never wrote it or replaced the original version.

The music

Beethoven’s 9th and last symphony stands apart from his other symphonies in many ways. It was written well after the period of his other symphonies, a dozen years after the 8th.  Every movement of this work is more complex in structure and orchestration and grander in scale than what had normally been seen in symphonies up to that point.  For much of the 19th century, it was considered the ne plus ultra of symphonic writing, even to the point that any composer contemplating writing a symphony — and particularly a 9th symphony — felt himself to be in Beethoven’s shadow.

From the very opening notes of the first movement, it is unprecedented:  the piece hardly has a real beginning but puts us almost imperceptibly into a pianissimo stream of sound, with the orchestra sustaining an atmospheric, hollow harmony; from there, the music quickly grows into something more violent and frightening.  The second movement Scherzo, famous for its solo timpani outbursts, is far more extended in form — and more taxing on players — than any scherzo written up to that point.  In the Adagio third movement, the violins develop elaborate ornamentation of the theme each time it returns.  This movement too makes unprecedented demands on the instruments of Beethoven’s time:  the fourth horn’s solo passage in Cb major, for instance, is something that no one else would have dared ask of a valveless horn.

After Beethoven decided that his finale would be a choral setting of Schiller’s ode, something never attempted in a symphony, his conversation books and sketches show him struggling with how to connect it with the earlier purely instrumental movements of the work.  His associate Schindler claimed to have observed the composer’s crisis in person:

When he reached the development of the fourth movement there began a struggle such as is seldom seen.  The object was to find a proper manner of introducing Schiller’s Ode.  One day entering the room he exclaimed, “I have it!  I have it!”  With that he showed me the sketchbook . . .

Beethoven’s solution, as today’s listeners know, was to create a dramatic “narrative” at the beginning of the finale.  Following a crashing dissonance and chaotic opening, he introduces one by one fragments of the three previous movements.  Each time, that earlier music is rejected by the cellos and basses playing in the style of  a recitative, music that suggests words, although we do not yet know precisely what they are.  But then comes music that is not rejected, a theme that is allowed to expand into variations — the famous “Ode to Joy” theme played by the orchestra alone.  When the voice of the baritone soloist is finally heard, he sings Beethoven’s own words imploring everyone to cease fighting and join together in song.  The piece then turns to Schiller’s ode.

The “Ode to Joy” theme

The “Joy” theme, one of the most famous tunes in all of music, is different in character from anything else in this symphony.  It is, in a sense, more of an anthem than a normal symphonic theme.  Beethoven was well aware of the relatively new interest in national anthems.  He admired the British God Save the King, on which he wrote variations and commented in his journal, “I must give the English some notion of the blessing they have in their God Save the King.”  He was also well aware of the beautiful anthem that Haydn had been comissioned to write for the Austrian empire of the Kaiser.  Beethoven himself had made several forays into composing political music in his career, including writing music for the Congress of Vienna following the fall of Napoleon.  It was around the time of that international gathering that he made early sketches for this theme.  Perhaps one of the qualities that has made it so popular is that it has the feeling of a “supra-national anthem” with words that call for the brotherhood of all mankind.  It is not surprising, therefore, that it is today the anthem of the European Union.


Appendix:  Reflections on Beethoven’s metronome markings

For his 9th Symphony, Beethoven dictated metronome markings to his nephew Carl, as he was preparing it for publication.  Some years before, he had endorsed the newly invented metronome and used it to insert tempo markings in his earlier symphonies and in a number of other works.

In recent years, there have been occasional performances that have made much of the fact that they follow exactly the metronome markings that Beethoven put into his symphonies.  We see this even for some performances that do not deal with any other aspect of historical performance.  On the other hand, players have often complained that some of the composer’s original markings can make the music feel almost frantically fast, and many traditional performances have deviated widely from Beethoven’s markings.

In our data driven society, metronome markings might seem like an obvious, objective way of deciding a tempo.  But coming up with markings for a piece of music is more complicated than it may at first appear. While we must study Beethoven’s indications and take them very seriously, there is much more to consider than simply looking at a number.

It has often been remarked that a composer who thinks through a piece in his head — as Beethoven had to do, for the most part — will tend to put down a faster marking than one who is playing it on the piano, and the tempo tends to be slower still when played by a full ensemble.  Accurate markings come partly from experience and from testing them in performance beyond just the beginning of a piece.  But their accuracy also varies from person to person, even among the finest composers.   The great conductor Pierre Boulez once said that it took him some years to realize that Schoenberg’s metronome markings were often too fast for his music, while Stravinsky’s were precisely on target.  Several years ago, Boston Baroque recorded a Requiem by Cherubini, Beethoven’s contemporary, in which the composer listed metronome markings.  But when Cherubini conducted the premiere, an audience member timed the movements and came up with timings that could not be achieved with the composer’s own tempo markings.  He was clearly conducting for the acoustics of the moment and according to his instincts.

Our tempi tonight remain close to the ones that Beethoven has indicated, although they do sometimes deviate a bit.  In places, though, the markings are unclear.  For the Turkish march in the middle of the finale, for example, Beethoven’s nephew has written a number but has not told us (or maybe did not remember!) what note value that number applies to.  As a result, conductors’ tempi for this long middle section of the piece can vary widely, some being quick, some seeming rather heavy and slow for an “Ode to Joy,” and others being somewhere in the middle.

Beethoven himself never saw a metronome until he was in his 40’s, and by that time, his deafness was so advanced that he could not test his tempi in performance.  Nonetheless, the information that we learn from his markings is an invaluable guide to the character of the music, even if an interpretation may occasionally vary somewhat from the precise numbers.






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