I took a Classical and Romantic Music History class when I was in college. Like, first of all, can you tell? Is it not the most obvious thing about me, beyond even writing this column? Anyway. One time, during one of my Classical and Romantic Music History classes on a sunny Friday afternoon, our professor opened up all of the windows in the classroom and put on the Leonard Bernstein 1969 recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and we listened to it in silence. That was it. The entire class. When it was done after about 50 minutes, he gave us a nod and we left.
It ought to be clear that I cannot file a one paragraph column that says “listen to Beethoven’s 9th and then you can close this tab,” but I can do my best to walk you through what is one of the greatest achievements in this history of culture without so much as fully ruining the integrity of the piece by over-explaining it. Does this include a brief overview of the achingly sentimental and sad short story I wrote about Beethoven in my sophomore year fiction class called “9th” that was ultimately REJECTED from my college’s literary magazine? We’ll see.
What is there to know about our old friend Ludwig van at this point in his life? Well, the composer had been completely deaf for nearly eight years by the time his 9th premiered in Vienna in 1824. The anecdote that always struck me about the premiere of this piece was that Beethoven had conducted the piece himself, sort of. The composer ultimately shared the stage the resident conductor Michael Umlauf (good name), who had instructed the orchestra to respect but ultimately ignore any of Beethoven’s gestures throughout the night. It was a combination of age and deafness and being totally absorbed in his own music that led Beethoven to conduct well past the finale of the symphony, forcing one of the singers to turn the man around so he could see but not hear the standing ovation given to him.
IS THAT NOT THE MOST FUCKED UP AND TRAGIC THING YOU’VE HEARD IN SOME TIME?
Because it is one of the most famous pieces of music of all time, it’s likely that at least the very beginning of every movement is going to sound familiar to you. The opening quiet refrain of the first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso (quickly but not too quickly, and a little majestic), and sounds not unlike an orchestra warming up before the first big blast of sound comes through. To me, the 9th has always been about the relationship between struggle and joy, the struggle for joy. No doubt this piece, as well as many others, had been an immense struggle for Beethoven; how do you compose something — let alone something as iconic and wondrous as this — once deaf? Similarly, is that feeling of perseverance in the face of struggle not one of the greatest feelings of all time? (This is what I tell myself as I’m cleaning my apartment.) This movement itself is in sonata form (the way a full symphony often is), but when the original theme returns, it’s a major key versus a minor key. You’ve persevered!
You 100% know the opening refrain to the second movement, Molto vivace — Presto, a quick and frantic dance of joy. This is one of the most hummable themes in the history of music (except, of course, well, we’ll get there). I do not think Beethoven’s 9th is aggressively easy to listen to — not because of its sound but more because of its length and scope, but this second movement is perhaps the easiest to latch onto. By the second minute of it, you know the essential beats and themes.
The Adagio molto e cantabile is reverent (not to be confused with the BAD MOVIE that Leo DiCaprio UNDESERVED won a BEST ACTOR OSCAR for), sincere, and peaceful. Beethoven takes his time lulling you into a sense of comfort before his big finale. The 9th is widely praised for its finale, but I often feel like the Adagio is the real MVP. It gets at the real heart of what set Beethoven apart, which was his ability to create these immensely worthy and noble pieces of music that almost burst out of thin air. The Adagio barely feels like it was written so much as it already just existed, merely crafted and shaped at the hands of someone who loved it dearly.
The duration of the fourth movement (with so many musical directions it’d be ludicrous to name them all here), is 24 minutes: a symphony in and of itself. Its first seven or so minutes are like a prologue to the rest of the piece. It starts in a relatively dark and foreboding place, but quickly reveals itself to be something else entirely. Bursting through a dialogue between the low strings and the woodwinds, at around the 2:48 mark, is the part literally the whole world knows, Ode To Joy. This is Ode To Joy, the origin of it, the famous piece, the thing that every kid who learns piano knows how to play, and one of the most joyous (I’m not sorry!!!!!!) melodies of all time. After the prologue, however, Beethoven does something literally insane which is bring in a full choir and four soloists. The text of Ode To Joy is from a poem of the same name by German poet Friedrich Schiller, and for the remaining twenty minutes of the symphony, it becomes something of an opera. This was lunacy at the time. It was fucked up and weird. Of course now you’re just like, oh, this is why Wagner exists.
This final movement is so enormously grandiose it’s hard to even wrap your head around it. My best advice: listen to it. And by the time you reach that final minute and a half with its timpani and crash cymbals, it’ll just all crystalize for you. It practically flails with self-importance, but hey, it’s deserved. Can you think of something else like this? It’s impossible, because… the 9th is it, in every sense. It’s the peak of a movement, truly, as well as Beethoven’s statement on why he persevered through his own struggle. It’s why it still resonates, why your brain knows it even if you think it doesn’t, because the feeling of it is so universally known, as if he conjured it out of happiness itself.