Seid Umschlungen! Notes on Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies
Symphony No 1 in C major Opus 21
‘Artists who have won fame are often embarrassed by it; thus their first works are often their best.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
It is quite a challenge to listen to Beethoven’s First Symphony without being conscious of the eight more that followed. We can easily be distracted by looking for seeds of development and under appreciate what a flowering of creativity this work already is. We assume perhaps that Beethoven’s first attempt must be a work of youthful promise rather than any great achievement in itself.
But at 30 years old, Beethoven was not especially young when he wrote this symphony. In terms of orchestral experience he had already composed his first two piano concertos as well as making two attempts at a symphony prior to this one. At a similar age, Schubert had completed all nine of his symphonies and Mozart all but his final three. It is as if Beethoven had decided that revolutionizing the symphonic form was going to be one of his lasting legacies and by making sure he was as prepared as possible before he began, was determined that this ambition would be clear from the very start.
And what a start it is! It is familiar to us now but at the time many would have been startled by the fact that the opening chord is not the main harmony of the work. Haydn and Mozart wrote plenty of surprising things of course, but their surprises seem inevitable and universal. Beethoven’s on the other hand feel shocking, and certainly more personal -always autographed, even if not necessarily autobiographical. His symphonic arrival neatly coincides with the start of a bold new century, and he announces himself with a gesture that brilliantly combines both daring and respect. ‘Haydn and Mozart,’ he declares, ‘yes, but…’
The opening to the first movement is not the only novelty in the work. The speed and spirit of the third movement is more an expression of mood than anything that could be actually danced to, a response perhaps to Haydn’s suggestion that this part of the symphony was ripe for reinvention. And by adding an introduction to the last movement, Beethoven raises its stakes a little, giving it extra significance within the structure as a whole. This was an idea not appreciated by one conductor who, in 1809, omitted these opening bars through fear that they might make audiences laugh. Heaven forbid!
Beethoven had travelled to Vienna from his home in Bonn in 1792 and, according to his friend and patron Count Waldstein, would there receive ‘the spirit of Mozart through the hands of Haydn’. There is certainly a great deal in his first symphony that sounds like a seamless continuation of Mozart’s final one. But the originality of the work is Beethoven through and through. The journey has well and truly begun.
Symphony No 2 in D major Opus 36
‘Grant me at least one day of pure joy.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
Shortly after the premiere of his First Symphony, Beethoven wrote to his childhood friend Franz Wegeler, opening up in considerable detail about his emerging deafness and the understandable stress this was starting to cause him. Within a year he had come to realise that it would be incurable and he poured out his despair in the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, a suicidal letter that he wrote, but never actually sent, to his brothers. As devastating a time as this was, it is nevertheless typical that none of this emotional turmoil makes its way into the symphony he was writing at the time. The concept of composer as egotist might have been created around Beethoven’s persona, but his music is never about himself, and he would have seen no contradiction in such a distressing and uncertain period of his life fostering as smiling a work as the Second Symphony.
From a structural point of view, the Second Symphony is a big step forward from its predecessor. The introduction to the first movement is three times longer than its previous equivalent and the coda to the finale represents a third of the movement as a whole. By turning what previously could be considered bookends into significant sections in their own right, Beethoven strikingly expanded the potential of the symphonic form as a whole.
But it is not just the structure that is new. The tone of voice has changed as well. Haydn and Mozart’s symphonies often sound like they were written for the aristocratic society that paid for them, a cultural aesthetic continued by Beethoven in his First Symphony. But though Beethoven’s commissions were derived from similar sources, the music of his Second Symphony is more obviously intended for everyman. Even the title of Scherzo, or joke, that he invented here for the traditional third movement minuet shows that he did not want his music to sound confined to a courtly environment. Beethoven always riled against class distinctions and his music is clearly seeking to engage a more egalitarian audience.
Not that the music is political in a specific sense. There is a calm bonhomie to the first movement, genuine fun in the scherzo, a finale that threatens to burst its Germanic banks with an outpouring of joie de vivre, and a second movement whose intimate calmness brings to mind Beethoven’s exact contemporary, William Wordsworth, whose definition of poetry as ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ is an equally valid description here.
If Beethoven had only written two symphonies, much would have been written about how different they are to each other, and what an advance the Second is on the First. His Third Symphony is indeed revolutionary, but its originality would not have been possible without the loosening of the foundations that Beethoven started in his Second. He has established a base camp, one from which his more dramatic mountain assents can confidently begin.
Symphony No 3 in E flat major Opus 55
‘I am not satisfied with the work I have done so far. From now on I intend to take a new path.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
As a profound believer in the revolutionary aspirations of liberty, equality, and fraternity, it is not surprising that Beethoven was so inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte that he dedicated his Third Symphony to him. But when the composer heard that Napoleon had proclaimed himself Emperor, the legend goes that he violently scrubbed the dedication out, a symbolic gesture of an artist’s resistance to tyranny. ‘Now he will trample all human rights under foot,’ he is supposed to have raged. Judging by the original manuscript the story is credible, but it is fair to say that it might have suited Beethoven to have the opportunity to clarify that his symphony was about the concept of heroism, rather than its embodiment in one particular individual, especially an individual about whom he had become increasingly equivocal. The eventual dedication – ‘Heroic Symphony – composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’ – may well imply someone specific, but it offers the possibility that this is a universal celebration of heroic qualities and could be about any hero, perhaps even Beethoven himself.
The concept of heroic music was not new. Haydn’s Military and Drum Roll Symphonies as well as his Mass in the Time of War, were specific responses to current political events. But Beethoven, of course, goes further. His music is not so much inspired by heroism, but an expression of what heroism is. What is heroic and revolutionary about this music is its emotional confidence, and its courage in revealing its author’s individuality. We take it for granted that music can be an overt exploration of identifiable emotions but at the time this was radical, certainly in a symphonic context, and it changed music forever. When Haydn heard the Eroica he noted that everything would now be different. He recognized that Beethoven had repositioned the composer from the role of observer, or narrator, to become the subject of the music itself. Not that the music was necessarily autobiographical, but it was now clearly a mouthpiece for a composer’s emotions, philosophies, and in some cases, politics. The romantic composer was born.
Given the panache with which the first movement begins, it is interesting that Beethoven originally considered starting it with a slow introduction. His decision in the end to begin with two emphatic chords of arresting simplicity suggests a composer determined to get on with it. And there’s a lot to get on with. In fact it is the sheer scale of the first movement that was so unusual for its time. Before the Eroica, the structure of a symphonic first movement defined, to a certain extent, its content. Here Beethoven puts the content first and through a constant development of the material is able to sustain a journey of enormous breadth without losing any sense of purpose along the way. Everything is generated by what precedes it. Even the first two chords are not just a chapter heading but the source of the opening melody itself, the first eight notes of which all emerge out of the notes of these opening chords. And from this initial melody everything else follows. The result is a sense of inevitability and momentum created with relentless logic, albeit one that is far too subtle and sophisticated for us to consciously appreciate in real time.
The length of the first movement was unprecedented but the reason behind its length is even more radical. Haydn and Mozart wrote plenty of dissonances but these harmonic tensions never sound like a reflection of their own emotional equilibrium. The conflicts Beethoven creates, on the other hand, feel personal. This is not the musical equivalent of a statue erected in idealistic memory of some man on a horse. In the real world heroism is the result of a great deal of inner torment and sacrifice. It rarely comes easily to the individual, nor is it often accepted by a public without question. It is Beethoven’s honesty in describing what heroism actually demands that feels so new in a musical context. That in itself is heroic.
Beethoven once said that he always composed whilst imagining a picture of what he wanted to express. Apart from the obviously programmatic Sixth Symphony and the choral finale of the Ninth, the second movement of the Eroica is the only symphonic movement in which he makes this extra musical context explicit. It is the most cinematic soundscape he composed, and we hardly need to be told we are at a funeral to recognise the tread of an arriving cortege, to pan across the congregation’s sorrow and anger, witnessing the smiling tears of reminiscence, sharing in private and public faces of grief and acceptance, before the cortege departs, leaving us uncertain as to whether the disintegration of the fading melody relates to the dead or those left behind.
When Napoleon died in 1821, Beethoven remarked that he had ‘already written music for that catastrophe’, reigniting the question whether this symphony was intended as a biography or not, and showing that Beethoven’s opinion of Napoleon had returned to one of admiration. But it doesn’t really matter if this is the funeral for a specific person or for heroism in general. What is clear is a tragic sense of loss, and an uplifting spirit of legacy, a legacy that can inspire anyone, whether they be an Emperor or not.
There were occasions when people thought the life and death narrative of the first two movements was both long enough and clear enough to be performed without the scherzo and finale at all. But unless you need to believe for chronological reasons that the third movement represents a hero rising from the dead to join the Gods in the finale, Beethoven simply adjusted different aspects of heroism around so that they fitted into the accepted framework of a symphony. The idea of hunter as hero is rather discredited today but there is an idealistic nobility to the trio of three horns that forms the centre-piece of the third movement. And though it is too literal and simplistic to suggest that the music of the scherzo sounds like people rubbing sticks together to make fire, the connection between the finale and the legend of the fire giving Prometheus is unequivocal.
Based on a theme that was used by Beethoven for his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus a few years earlier, the last movement is a set of virtuosic variations, each one perhaps biographical in character. And whatever you think of Napoleon, there can be little argument about the heroic qualities of Prometheus, a demigod who made humans from clay and civilised them through the creative force of the liberal arts. There is an unmistakeable sense of heroic individuality about the emotional thrust of this music. And it is hard to listen to it without aspiring to be, if not a hero, then at least the best version of ourselves we can be. We may well fail, but Beethoven encourages us to try, and it is through this profoundly moral leadership that the Eroica symphony becomes worthy of its name.
Symphony No 4 in B flat major Opus 60
‘Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom & philosophy.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven composed his Fourth Symphony during an extraordinary period of blossoming creativity that included the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the three Razumovsky Quartets. The symphony was written quickly and appears to have caused the composer less trouble than usual. Whether that is true or not, the result certainly sounds effortless, and the music is predominantly free from the emotional complexity that underpins so much of its predecessor, the Eroica.
Beethoven had in fact already started work on what was to become the Fifth Symphony when he began the Fourth. The suggestion that he needed to give himself a break from the more personal nature of Symphonies Three and Five and write something less intense is an attractive narrative, but probably too simplistic to be true. Nevertheless, the contrast with what went before and after is a significant one, and as Robert Schumann famously remarked, the Fourth sits alongside its neighbours like ‘a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants.’
With a modern sensitivity to gender stereotypes we can safely ignore Schumann’s reference to slender maidens but in describing the symphony as Greek, he is right to highlight how classical is its sense of balance and proportion, style and temperature. In terms of orchestration, this is smallest symphony of them all, yet the joy that it expresses is on an overtly grand scale. There is something indefatigably sunny about so much of this piece. The Adagio introduction to the first movement feels simply pensive rather than introspective and the energy of the Allegro Vivace thrusts the music forwards with an infectious enthusiasm that is collective rather than individual.
The Adagio movement has a similar universality and its melody and rhythm are perfectly combined to create a sense of both stillness and motion. The small rhythmic figure that runs through so much of it could be heard as a restless heart palpitating beneath a loving smile, but Beethoven’s request that the melody be played cantabile, singing, rather than the more emotionally obvious espressivo marking, suggests an idealistic romance untouched by the pain of any specific human experience. This emotional distance is perhaps why Berlioz said it must have been written by an angel. Beethoven was no angel, but physical love is perhaps one of the few gaps in his expressive palette. To have lived but not lived was part of his tragedy.
Proportionally speaking, the third movement is the longest such movement Beethoven had composed thus far. By increasing the number of times the music is repeated, he establishes a traditional symphony’s scherzo or minuet as more of an equal to the other three and in liberating this part of the symphony from its traditionally lightweight expectations, he paved the way for future composers to engage more seriously in the expressive opportunities it could offer. It was a bolder move than it might sound. Like many of the moulds that Beethoven broke, it is hard to remember there used to be any moulds at all.
The fourth movement is a bustle of uninhibited momentum and after the extended individual drama that is the last movement of the Eroica it feels like we have returned to the more lightweight finales of Haydn. Beethoven and Haydn had a complicated teacher/pupil, father/son relationship, an intriguing combination of mutual suspicion, jealousy, and respect. We can imagine Haydn thinking the Eroica displayed too much heart upon its sleeve, and perhaps Beethoven wanted to show his one time mentor quite how capable he was of writing pure music after all. The elegance, wit, and abstract emotion that run throughout the work feel Haydnesque. Yet even within such a classical scenario there is an energy of gesture and daring originality that is unmistakably Beethoven. The playfulness of the musical question-marks we hear just before the end reveals a humour that is typical Beethoven. No angel – but all the more remarkable for it.
Symphony No 5 in C minor Opus 67
‘I will seize fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
Few would disagree that the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most famous two seconds of music ever composed. But not withstanding the self-perpetuating nature of fame, why these iconic four notes have resonated so far and wide goes to the heart of what we want music to be and the purpose we want it to serve.
Neuroscientists have shown how well the brain responds to short simple rhythms, and how our expectations are rewarded by their frequent repetition. Many of the most popular classical pieces have a concise and recurring rhythmic gesture as their defining characteristic. But the start of Beethoven’s Fifth is more than a rhythm. It’s a force that grabs you with uncompromising directness, a power made all the stronger by its simplicity – an unequivocal and charismatic demand to be heard.
The oft-repeated description of the famous four-note motto as ‘fate knocking at the door’ is not Beethoven’s own, but given how much he wrote about fate, quoting both Shakespeare and Homer on the subject in letters and diaries, it was certainly something that engaged him greatly. On some occasions he suggested that we should submit to fate, courageously enduring whatever might be, but at other times he saw fate as an imposter, an enemy we should be determined to overcome. In fact destiny is a more correct translation of the word schicksal that Beethoven uses. And for Beethoven there would have been an important difference. There is something resigned about fatalism, whereas destiny has a more positive implication, one in which we have a greater control over our circumstances than we might be tempted to suppose. Both might be somehow pre-determined, but destiny offers us a greater opportunity to make choices that channel our life into the direction we want it to go.
The opening gestures of Beethoven’s Fifth are actually not as confident as they sound on the surface. Bold obviously, and with a seriousness of tone made explicit by the orchestration employed, but the pauses create a rhythmic instability and combine with an ambiguity of harmony to undermine the music’s superficial determination and create, even if only in our subconscious, a longing for resolution of the conflict between certainty and doubt. The movement is both epic and personal, and there is a friction between the senses of inevitability and possibility that fuels its intensity. In the end it is the music’s incessant drive that wins out over the arresting pauses and restraining pleas to hold it back.
The theme and variations movement that follows provides welcome calm. There is something relaxing about this form, with its constant revisiting of the same tune heard through different levels of activity and colour, and though it offers an oasis for self-reflection, we hear glimpses of what the symphony’s ultimate victory might sound like. We see some light at the end of the tunnel before the next movement returns us to the restless inner turmoil with which the work began.
The contrasting moods of the third movement are clearly defined. Memorably described in E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, it begins with ‘a goblin walking quietly over the universe’ observing ‘that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world’. This desolate vision is interrupted by the four-note motto returning with a sense of ‘panic and emptiness.’ And the trio of ‘dancing elephants’ is hardly light relief. Beethoven feels we need to be reminded of the dark in order for the finale’s sunlight of hope to arrive with an appropriate level of jubilation.
When the last movement finally blazes in, it does so heightened by the arrival of three new instrumental colours. At the top of the scale, a piccolo; at the bottom, a contra-bassoon; and in the middle, for the first time ever in a symphony, three trombones. Beethoven has not only increased the range of pitches available, but filled out the centre with a completely new symphonic sonority. It’s an all encompassing grandeur that extends the limits of what victory can feel like. Nevertheless, this is a victory that has to be continuously earned. The return of the scherzo in the middle of the finale is a warning against complacency. This is not some idealistic fairy-tale. Darker forces can reappear at any time, and must be defeated every time. It is Beethoven’s emotional honesty that is so telling here, and I believe one of the reasons behind the symphony’s popularity.
Beethoven’s fundamental belief in the ‘rights of man’ meant he never really accepted the notion of forces beyond our control. And many millions since have heard his Fifth Symphony as an inspiration not only to tackle personal and universal challenges but to succeed in overcoming them too. It was an obvious choice for the scientists who had to decide what music to send aboard the 1977 Voyager journey into outer space.
When Martin Luther King penned ‘I have a dream,’ we have no idea if he was tapping into Beethoven’s iconic rhythm. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that Samuel Morse’s decision to use short-short-short-long to represent the letter V was based on Beethoven’s Symphony No V. But extrapolating the motif to represent V for victory, and a symbol of democratic freedom, was certainly a conscious choice on the part of the allied resistance to fascism. And when the musicians in Auschwitz were deciding what to music play, they would have been fully aware of the significance of choosing a work, especially a German work, that expressed such defiance, and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit over seemingly all-conquering forces. It takes courage to be optimistic, and at times resilience too. Beethoven shows us it is worth it.
Symphony No 6 in F major Opus 68, ‘Pastoral’
‘Tranquility and freedom are the greatest treasures.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
At the start of the nineteenth century a piece of music about the countryside was hardly novel. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi had all created works inspired by nature, and Haydn’s The Creation and The Seasons were amongst the most talked about hits of the day. But Beethoven was suspicious of programme music, concerned that ‘tone painting loses its value if pushed too far.’ According to his pupil Carl Czerny he knew that ‘music is not always so freely felt by listeners when a definitely expressed object has already fettered their imaginations.’ Beethoven’s sub-heading ‘more the expression of feeling than painting’ was a cautionary sign that revealed his desire for his symphony to work on musical grounds as well as illustrative ones. His achievement in doing precisely this opened the door through which the likes of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mahler, Strauss, and Debussy could pass.
There are countless contemporary references to Beethoven’s love of the countryside. ‘It was like food to him,’ a friend wrote. ‘He loved to be alone with nature, to make her his only confident,’ said another. In Vienna he once refused to rent a house when he discovered there were no trees around it. ‘I love a tree more than a man,’ he explained to the probably rather bemused estate agent. Beethoven saw the countryside as a release from the stresses of city life. He found it ‘indispensable’ and looked forward to going there ‘with childish excitement. How delighted I shall be to ramble through bushes, woods, under trees, over grass and rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks give back the echo that man desires to hear.’
The symphony does indeed echo the outdoors, a rustic simplicity of open strings and natural harmonies, free from a chromaticism that could be attributed to human interference. The constant repetition of little motives, changing gradually over static or very slow moving chords reveal what must, before Darwin, have been a subconscious realization by Beethoven of how evolution works. There is a perfect balance between movement and stasis, repetition that is not monotonous, and an overall mood that is relaxing from a distance, yet slightly unnerving when put under the microscope. Beethoven’s genius is to recreate a sense of calm intimacy within the energy necessary for what is still a grand public symphony.
This is not the first Beethoven symphony to begin quietly (though unique in that all its movements do) but the understated opening gives the impression that the music started some time ago and only now are we the listeners arriving on the scene. The pause as early as the fourth bar feels very different to the one at the almost identical moment in the Fifth Symphony. There the composer takes a personal, almost stifling, grip on our emotions. With the pause in the Sixth, we are reminded to breathe, and take stock, with awe perhaps, about what we have in front of us. ‘Awakening of happy feelings’ indeed.
The Scene by the Brook does the opposite, fulfilling a slow movement’s traditional need for stasis whilst reminding us that nature is always busy below the surface. This is music that knows how to relax, always dreaming, never sleeping. A river that is constantly moving, yet ever the same. Given Beethoven’s reticence about descriptive music it is surprising that he should be so specific with the bird calls that end the movement. He even names them in the score. But by doing so he abstracts their songs from ‘his’ music and allows the Nightingale, Quail, and Cuckoo to perform as a kind of cadenza, a moment of wonder that seems to stop not only the composer, but time itself.
Time is very much in evidence in the next movement though, and the music has a human angularity that contrasts with the natural curves of the music we have heard so far. This ‘Merry Gathering of Country Folk’ is so vividly characterised that we could have stumbled into a painting by Bruegel. More like painting than feelings here – the exact reverse of Beethoven’s opening inscription.
The Three Ravens is a pub that Beethoven would frequent just outside Vienna. It had a band of seven amateur musicians and Beethoven once pointed out to a friend that it amused him how these musicians would keep playing until they dropped off to sleep. ‘I have tried to copy them,’ he said. The story may be apocryphal but feels too valid not to enjoy. It is quite easy to notice the oboist playing a beat late, a bassoon player who only knows three notes, fiddlers who don’t seem to be able to stop, and a trumpeter (who until the symphony moved into the pub hasn’t played a single note) waking up just in time to play the final chord. The headlong rush to get home before the weather breaks is a stroke of brilliance that works on both dramatic and musical terms and forms a perfect bridge into the storm that follows.
The low string tremolo that starts this movement is not so much the sound of distant thunder as a heaviness in the air and a sense of apprehension at the approaching darkening clouds. And by accompanying the ensuing pitter-patter of rain with a more worried melodic gesture, Beethoven continues to link the weather to our reaction to it. The storm he whips up, using the thunderous timpani for the only time in the piece, is as powerful and uncompromising as anything he wrote, an important contrast to the Arcadian ideal of the previous movements.
The Shepherd’s Song: Joyful, Grateful Feelings after the Storm is such an inevitable consequence of what has gone before that the last two movements are really one, with the storm movement functioning as an introduction (albeit a fast one) to the finale. Once the horn has heralded the transition with a Ranz des Vaches, an alpine call to summon the cattle, the overall expression is very much one of religious gratitude. ‘Oh God what Majesty is in woods like these,’ Beethoven wrote. ‘In the height there is peace – peace to serve Him.’ The arrival of trombones, considered traditionally as church instruments, enhances this connection.
It has been a lovely day out, arriving in the morning, sitting by the river in the midday sun, lunch in the village, an afternoon storm, ending with evening prayer. If the performance is good enough, we might happily imagine hearing the whole thing again tomorrow. Beethoven’s previous symphonies, particularly the Third and Fifth take us on very human journeys in which struggles are overcome in order to enjoy triumphant conclusions. Their endings are a long way travelled from their beginnings. But the conclusion of the Sixth feels like a return to its opening, and the piece reflects the circle of nature as opposed to the trajectory of humankind.
Nevertheless, it is obvious from the titles Beethoven gave the movements that this symphony is not about nature, but about our relationship to it. It is more a state of mind than a realistic description of the countryside. For Beethoven however there was no difference. Like many at the time he saw nature only in relation to humankind, existing for our benefit as a source of protection and comfort. People did not realise then that it needs our protection in return.
Symphony No 7 in A major Opus 92
‘I wish you music to help with the burdens of life, and to help you release your happiness to others.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
The premiere of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was an illustrious occasion. The orchestra included the famous violinist Louis Spohr, the double bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti, as well as the composers Hummel, Meyerbeer, and Salieri –conducted by none other than the composer himself. The performance was organized by Johann Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome, to raise money for widows and orphans of Austrian soldiers killed by the retreating French army at the Battle of Hanau. In a speech to his glittering array of orchestral talent Beethoven said ‘We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism and the joyful sacrifice of our powers for those who have sacrificed so much for us.’ Celebrities attaching themselves to good causes is an older phenomenon than one might have thought.
In fact, though the tread of the second movement’s cortege and the unbridled joy of the finale would have appeared a natural reaction to current affairs, Beethoven finished writing the piece in the spring of 1812, well before the military events that its first performance commemorated. Beethoven normally responded to universal and timeless impulses and the connection here between the spirit of the music and specifics of the day was a fortunate coincidence.
In the case of his Seventh Symphony, Beethoven’s inspiration was joy, and in particular a public joy – a group dynamic that manifests itself best through dance. Dancing is rarely a solitary activity, and a sense of communal movement underpins much of this work. Rhythm is the essence of music. It has a primordial quality that stimulates our brain and resonates in our body more than melody or harmony and the repetitive rhythmic gestures that feature throughout the Seventh Symphony are one of the reasons it has always been so popular. Obviously all Beethoven’s compositions are rhythmic, but none of them are as defined by their rhythm as this one. Even the slower sections are driven by forward momentum. Wagner called this symphony the ‘apotheosis of the dance’ and there is little wonder it has inspired choreographers on several occasions.
The introduction to the first movement, the slowest music of the whole piece in fact, sounds bathed in sunlight, and the Vivace that follows has a lightness of step that feels inspired by something Beethoven wrote at the time: ‘Daedulus, when confined to the labyrinth invented the wings which lifted him upwards into the air. Oh I too shall find these wings.’ There is a folk element to much of this movement too. Its lilting rhythms, full of grace notes and scotch snaps, could have sprung directly from the many arrangements of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh folksongs Beethoven was working on at the time. The commission to do so might have had a financial incentive at first but Beethoven went on to arrange 179 of these songs, and clearly enjoyed the connection they afforded him to the more popular music of his day.
The second movement, a funeral march in all but name, is less personal than its equivalent in the Eroica. There is a sense of ceremony here, and ever since it was encored at the first performance, the movement has had a life of its own. It was so instantly popular that it was sometimes even substituted into performances of Beethoven’s Second and Eighth Symphonies. Its objective tone, aided by the implacable wind chords that bookend its top and tail, quotation marks perhaps, is one of the reasons it speaks to so many. It is noble and serene music, and an absence of sentimentality tells of more than a single story.
In a flash, the Presto restores the work’s overriding joie de vivre, and even the slightly slower sections of this movement, thought by some to be based on an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn, maintain the dance of the living.
The finale bursts onto the scene with a flourish and rushes headlong into a melody that, like the first movement’s main tune, also has its roots in folk music. The connection between this and the postlude that Beethoven wrote for one of his Irish folk-song arrangements is so strong that it’s not surprising how appropriate the song’s text is: On! my careless laughing heart, O dearest Fancy let me find thee, Let me but from sorrow part, And leave this moping world behind me.
In a letter to Goethe, Beethoven’s friend Bettina Brentano quoted the composer as saying: ‘When I open my eyes I must sigh. I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the wine which inspires us to new generative processes. I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine to make mankind spiritually drunken.’ It’s easy to imagine Beethoven as Bacchus when listening to this finale, the exhilaration made all the more intoxicating by the sheer physicality needed to play it. And it feels right that a symphony of such exuberance should overflow at its climax with the loudest music Beethoven had written in his life so far. For the first time, perhaps for the first time ever, musicians are asked to play ‘triple forte’. The roof is well and truly raised. The dance is unfettered – for now at least.
Symphony No 8 in F major Opus 93
‘There is no longer any happiness, except within yourself, within your art.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
After the passionate romanticism of Beethoven’s middle symphonies, the more abstract nature of his Eighth is almost a return to the 18th century world of Haydn and Mozart. Written not so much to tell a story or share a profound emotional state of mind, Beethoven offers logic and beauty here on purely musical terms. As such perhaps, he created the first neo-classical symphony, one that audiences initially found a little confusing, and to a certain extent, still do. It does not fit the stereotype of Beethoven as a heroic composer expressing himself through his own personal drama and the fact that the Eighth, along with the First, Second, and Fourth Symphonies, are less famous than the others reveals a lot about what function most people want music to serve. But it does not mean these works are less good. In fact when asked why he thought the Eighth was less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven apparently replied, ‘because the Eighth is so much better.’
Beethoven’s confidence is clear right from its compelling opening gesture. In fact the entire symphony sounds like it was written by someone at the pinnacle of their craft. Though there are just as many preliminary sketches for this as there are for any other work, it was composed in the space of just four months. Beethoven is in complete control of content and structure, and maintains a perfect balance between the two. The music might sound more rigorously controlled than normal but it somehow sounds freer as well, aufgeknöpft (unbuttoned), as Beethoven described himself during its composition. It is almost like he is showing off, not to an audience, but to himself, doing so for his own pleasure and fulfillment. It makes sense that this was the only symphony Beethoven did not to dedicate to anyone else.
The symphony may sound on the surface like it is harking back to Haydn, but it is in fact one of his most forward-thinking orchestral works. Most radical is the absence of a slow movement, replaced with an Allegretto Scherzando that is the shortest symphonic movement Beethoven ever wrote. This epigrammatic but iconoclastic amuse bouche is balanced by a third movement at pains to sound as traditional as possible. Written to be played ‘in the Tempo of a Minuet’ Beethoven is determined to make sure we get the point.
The finale is a tour de force of brilliance and bravado. Never has laughter been so well expressed in musical sound, a Falstaffian good humour that is witty at times, boorish fun at others. In fact the symphony as a whole is rather like Falstaff, Verdi’s last opera, celebrating the foibles of humanity through a perfection of music. For the ten years that followed the premiere, Beethoven’s Eighth was his last symphony too. Had he not written the Ninth, which considering the effort it caused him could easily have been the case, I believe we would hail the Eighth as the crowning glory of Beethoven’s symphonic achievement. Many composers’ last works are a crystalline summation of a lifetime’s wisdom and experience. Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony would have comfortably slotted into this category had it not been forced to retreat into the shadows cast long and wide by the towering stature of the Ninth.
Symphony 9 in D minor Opus 125
‘Love, and love alone, is capable of giving you a happier life.’ Ludwig van Beethoven
The reason for the exceptionally long gap between Beethoven’s Eighth and Ninth Symphonies has fuelled much speculation. The painful and protracted process that accompanied the composer’s efforts to adopt his nephew Karl was certainly a significant distraction. But there was an artistic hesitation as well. We will never know whether he sensed it might be his last symphony, but with much of the music seemingly foreshadowed in previous works the Ninth does feel like a summing up of everything Beethoven had written to this point. But more significantly, it is also a massive door opening up a new world of possibilities as to what a symphony might be – musically, emotionally, and socially. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to belittle the bravery required in attempting something so original and vast. A certain amount of writer’s block is understandable.
The beginning of the symphony sounds like we are listening to Beethoven think in front of our very ears. We hear his crafting and chiseling before the granite like theme, refined and blazing, ultimately reveals itself. In one of the sketches Beethoven appears to suggest that this music characterises despair. Wagner said that it sounded like ‘the fight of the soul struggling for happiness, against the hostile power that tries to prevent us achieving happiness.’ The relationship we have with forces larger than ourselves, whether political, religious, or spiritual, is a theme that runs through a lot of Beethoven’s music, particularly his symphonies. In the Ninth, the conflicts feel more universal than those expressed in the more personal earlier works. Having addressed us as individuals, Beethoven now speaks to us all as one, with music that expresses a very human coexistence of conviction and insecurity. There is a confidence in where we are heading, even if plenty of doubt remains as to how we are going to get there. It seems to ask questions that we know have answers. We are just not sure what those answers are.
The scherzo is necessarily less complex on an emotional level though its dramatic opening would have felt like an electric shock given that up to this point the second movement of a symphony had always been the slowest of the four. In fact Beethoven pointedly does not call it a scherzo. There is nothing skittish about it at all. And a central section with two beats to the bar instead of three hardly qualifies it as a conventional trio. There is a relentless restlessness to the whole movement that would probably not have worked had the movement been placed third, whereas without it we might not be quite ready for the profound serenity of the movement that follows.
Considering the rhythmic thrust of so much of Beethoven’s music it is somewhat surprising to know that Beethoven himself said that ‘melody must always be given priority above all else.’ The slow movement here is a supreme example of him acting on this philosophy to express, in Berlioz’ words, an ‘extra human meditation.’ It has a beauty that is impossible to describe, and it is tempting to be reminded of Wordsworth’s ‘thoughts that often lie too deep for words’. Beethoven is perhaps singing the fondest of farewells to the purity of music before embarking on a final movement whose thoughts are so specific that they demanded words to make them understood.
Beethoven revered the poetry of Goethe but felt more in common with Schiller, a lot of whose work he knew by heart. Schiller’s Ode to Joy was written in 1785 when he was 25 and Beethoven had planned to set it to music as early as 1790. In 1793, the poet’s sister, Charlotte, wrote that she had heard that ‘a young man whose talents are universally praised…proposes to compose Freude…I expect something perfect for as far as I know the young man is wholly devoted to the great and to the sublime.’
Schiller’s text celebrates the magic of joy and its ability to unite us all, whatever our differences. There was an undoubted political implication to this at the time and in 1803 Schiller revised the poem, changing lines like ‘beggars shall become brothers of princes’ to the less sensitive ‘all men shall become brothers.’ Beethoven would have known both versions but was probably happy to adopt the more inclusive message that the revised text embraces. In the end Beethoven only used half of the poem and significantly rearranged the verses to suit the musical structure he wanted to compose. The Ode to Joy had been set to music more than forty times by various composers, and in that sense Beethoven was not doing anything new. It was doing so in a symphony that was original – a decision that changed so many attitudes to what a symphony could be, indeed what music could be, that it is staggering to discover that it was actually something Beethoven subsequently came to view as having been a mistake.
In the 18th century a symphony was by definition an instrumental piece. A sinfonia in an opera for instance would be a section without words. A symphony with voices was therefore a contradiction in terms. Clearly worried that his novel idea would separate the finale from the rest of the symphony, Beethoven considered having the choir as part of the third movement. But instead he settled on making sure the finale felt connected to the whole by recapping the first three movements at its start, and in doing so reminding us that nothing that we had heard so far was going to offer up any solutions to the questions he felt we should be seeking. This needed a new way forward, a message made clear by the opening text for the bass soloist. Written by Beethoven himself, the words are a repudiation of the past. ‘Not these tones’, he says, the implication being that the past will not help us. The only way forward is a new way forward.
Preliminary sketches for the finale show the bass soloist starting to sing at the very beginning of the movement. After the tumultuous opening fanfare he was to have proclaimed ‘No, this chaos reminds us of our despair. Today is a day of celebration, let it be celebrated with song and dance.’ Reminiscences of the earlier movements were then to be rejected one by one. After the reference to first movement would come ‘Something more pleasing is what I require’; the scherzo quote would be followed by ‘Oh no, not this one either. It is not better but only somewhat more lively’, and after recalling the Adagio, we would have heard ‘This too is too sweet. We need something more animated.’ Only after the movement’s main melody had finally been played would the soloist have sung ‘This is it! Yes, now it has been found!’
In the end, by delaying the entry of the voice, and composing instead recitatives for the Cellos and Basses that sound like they are meant to have words, Beethoven makes us aware of an absence of text and puts us in a position where its ultimate arrival comes with a sense of inevitability. It is remarkable that a moment that must have been so shocking is made to feel so welcome. And we welcome the voices not just for the meaning their words. Singing is the oldest form of music making and possibly even the oldest form of any communication whatsoever. We sing when we are happy and we sing when we are sad. And we sing when we want to celebrate our togetherness. It is one of the most human things we do. Not everyone can play an orchestral instrument, but, to a certain extent, we all can sing. We therefore engage in the role the chorus has in this piece as an extension of ourselves. By using the human voice, Beethoven invites us to join in, to join together. The humanity of it transcends the music.
At a time when National Anthems were just starting to evolve, Beethoven composed a National Anthem for humanity. He wanted to celebrate what connects us all rather than what sets us apart. It is a message that resonates throughout the world, one that is relevant whatever class, culture, or continent you come from. And it is a message that matters today more than ever. The insularity that borders create and control is the opposite of what Beethoven believed in. Those who want to build walls between us, real or metaphorical, seek to divide us and restrict the fundamental right of all humans to express themselves freely, threatening the strings that bind us all together, eating away at the roots of what makes us strong. Beethoven offers an alternative, ‘a kiss to the whole world’. He asks us to remember that the answer to the problems humanity faces is for humanity to unite and try to solve these problems together. He asks us to embrace each other. Everyone of us.
© Mark Wigglesworth, 2020
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