Conducted by the legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, the NBC Symphony Orchestra and the Members of the Collegiate Chorale (currently MasterVoices) perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (also known as “the Choral”). It is Beethoven’s final complete symphony. Completed in 1824, it is one of the best-known works in classical music; it is widely considered one of Beethoven’s greatest works, and many consider it one of the greatest compositions in Western classical music.
- Anne McKnight: soprano
- Jane Hobson: contralto
- Irwin Dillon: tenor
- Norman Scott: bass
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, often referred to as the “Choral” Symphony, stands as a monumental piece in the history of Western music, and is widely regarded as one of Beethoven’s greatest works. Composed between 1822 and 1824, it was Beethoven’s final complete symphony, and it notably broke new ground by being the first symphony of a major composer to include voices. The symphony premiered in Vienna on May 7, 1824.
The Symphony No. 9 is remarkable not just for its scale and complexity but also for its profound artistic and cultural significance. Beethoven, who was completely deaf at the time of its composition and premiere, expanded the scope of the symphony as a genre. He integrated the human voice into the final movement, setting a precedent that influenced later composers and broadened the expressive possibilities of orchestral music.
The text used in the final movement is derived from Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” a poem that celebrates unity, freedom, and brotherhood. Beethoven’s setting of this text is an expression of universal brotherhood and a utopian vision of humanity. The melody of the “Ode to Joy” theme has since become one of the most recognizable and frequently performed pieces of music worldwide, often used to symbolize peace and solidarity in public events and ceremonies.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is structured in a traditional four-movement format but deviates from the norm in its scale and the use of choral forces. The work begins with a powerful and expansive first movement, which sets the stage for the dramatic journey of the symphony. The second movement is a dynamic and rhythmic scherzo, contrasting sharply with the more solemn and lyrical third movement. The final movement, with its famous choral finale, is an innovative and complex structure that integrates vocal soloists and a chorus, culminating in a triumphant and uplifting conclusion.
The impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the musical world has been profound and long-lasting. It has influenced the symphonic genre significantly, inspiring composers such as Brahms, Mahler, and Berlioz. Its message of unity and joy has transcended its musical importance, making it a symbol of hope and brotherhood for many. The symphony’s universal appeal and significance were recognized by UNESCO in 2001 when the original score of the Ninth Symphony was added to the Memory of the World Programme, a testament to its enduring cultural and historical value.
1. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
The first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is a powerful and expansive piece, laying the foundation for the symphony’s dramatic narrative. Composed in the key of D minor, this movement is marked “Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso” – fast, but not too much so, and a little majestic. It’s a masterful example of Beethoven’s late style, characterized by its complexity, emotional depth, and structural innovation.
This movement opens with a mysterious introduction, featuring a series of open fifths quietly played by the strings, creating an atmosphere of suspense and anticipation. This introduction is notable for its ambiguity and lack of a clear tonal center, which was a radical departure from the conventions of classical symphonic form. It’s as if Beethoven is searching for the main theme, which gradually emerges from these open fifths.
Once the main theme is established, the movement unfolds as a traditional sonata form, but with Beethoven’s characteristic innovations and intensities. The sonata form typically consists of an exposition, development, and recapitulation, and Beethoven adheres to this structure while pushing its boundaries. The exposition presents the main themes, which are then developed and transformed in the development section, and finally restated in the recapitulation.
The themes themselves are characterized by their dramatic contrasts. The first theme is forceful and assertive, dominated by a rhythmic motif that drives the movement forward. The second theme, by contrast, is more lyrical and serene, offering a moment of respite from the intensity of the first theme. These themes are not just melodic ideas but are full of rhythmic and harmonic complexities that Beethoven explores throughout the movement.
The development section is particularly intense and dramatic in this movement. Beethoven takes the thematic material and subjects it to a series of variations and transformations, building tension and complexity. This section is marked by frequent modulations, dissonant harmonies, and a dynamic interplay between different sections of the orchestra.
The recapitulation brings back the main themes, now altered and enriched by their journey through the development. The movement concludes with a coda that revisits the themes and brings the movement to a powerful and emphatic close.
2. Molto vivace
The second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is a vibrant and dynamic scherzo, marked “Molto vivace – Presto.” Following the profound and expansive first movement, this scherzo provides a striking contrast with its rhythmic energy and driving momentum. It is a testament to Beethoven’s innovative spirit, especially in how he reimagines the traditional role of the scherzo in the symphonic structure.
Traditionally, the second movement of a symphony would be a slow movement, but Beethoven breaks from this convention by placing a fast-paced scherzo here. Composed in D minor, the same key as the first movement, it maintains thematic and tonal coherence with the rest of the symphony.
The movement is characterized by a rhythmic motif that is introduced right at the beginning and becomes a unifying element throughout. This motif, a short-short-short-long rhythm, is reminiscent of the famous motif in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and serves as a driving force, propelling the music forward with relentless energy.
Structurally, the movement is complex, featuring a double trio form. This form is an expansion of the traditional scherzo and trio form, where the scherzo section is followed by a contrasting trio section, and then the scherzo returns. In this case, Beethoven introduces a second, distinct trio section, offering further contrast and variety. The two trio sections are more lyrical and provide a momentary respite from the vigorous rhythm of the scherzos, but they still maintain a sense of forward momentum.
The first trio section introduces a new melody, more lyrical and flowing, in contrast to the rhythmic intensity of the scherzo. The second trio, meanwhile, brings a different character, with a more playful and light-hearted theme. Both trios add depth and complexity to the movement, showcasing Beethoven’s skill in developing contrasting themes within a cohesive structure.
After the second trio, the scherzo returns, bringing back the driving rhythm and energy. The movement concludes with a coda that intensifies the energy even further, driving towards a powerful and emphatic end.
3. Adagio molto e cantabile
The third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is a lyrical and introspective adagio, creating a profound contrast to the energetic and rhythmic scherzo that precedes it. Marked “Adagio molto e cantabile,” this movement is often celebrated for its sublime beauty and emotional depth, showcasing Beethoven’s mastery of melody and harmonic color.
Structured as a slow movement, it is in a loose ternary (ABA’) form and is composed in the key of B-flat major, which provides a warm and rich tonal landscape. This key choice marks a tonal shift from the previous movements, contributing to the distinct mood and character of the adagio.
The movement opens with a gentle, flowing theme played by the strings, which immediately sets a tone of contemplation and serenity. This theme is notable for its long, singing lines and the delicate interplay between different sections of the orchestra. The melody is expansive and unfolds gradually, allowing each phrase to resonate with emotional depth.
Following the initial statement of the theme, the movement evolves through a series of variations. Each variation explores different aspects of the melody, embellishing and transforming it while maintaining its essential character. These variations are not just melodic alterations but also involve changes in orchestration, rhythm, and harmony, showcasing Beethoven’s skill in developing and sustaining musical ideas over an extended form.
The adagio is characterized by its rich harmonic language and the use of lush, sonorous textures. Beethoven employs a wide range of orchestral colors to enhance the expressive quality of the music. The woodwinds, for example, are given prominent roles, adding layers of warmth and depth to the melodic lines.
The middle section of the movement (the B section) introduces new thematic material, providing contrast to the main theme. This section is more dramatic and intense, with a greater sense of urgency and emotional turbulence. However, it never loses the overarching sense of introspection and contemplation that defines the movement.
As the movement progresses towards its conclusion, the A theme returns, now further developed and enriched by the journey it has undergone. The adagio culminates in a peaceful and reflective coda, where the themes are gently restated, leading to a serene and poignant ending.
4. Presto – Allegro assai
The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is a monumental and groundbreaking conclusion to the symphony, renowned for its integration of vocal soloists and a chorus into the symphonic form. Marked “Presto – Allegro assai,” this movement is a powerful expression of joy and brotherhood, and it is most famous for its setting of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.”
The movement begins with a dramatic and turbulent introduction, where themes from the previous movements are briefly recalled and then dismissed. This represents Beethoven’s search for a new musical expression, which he finds in the “Ode to Joy” theme. This theme is first presented by the cellos and basses in a simple, unadorned form, gradually building as more instruments join.
Following this instrumental introduction, the baritone soloist enters, breaking the traditional instrumental boundaries of the symphony with the first vocal line, a recitative. This moment is revolutionary, marking the first time a major composer has used the human voice in a symphony. The baritone soloist introduces the “Ode to Joy” theme in a call to embrace joy and brotherhood.
The chorus then enters, expanding on the “Ode to Joy” theme in a more elaborate and festive setting. The text of the “Ode to Joy,” written by Schiller, speaks to the universal brotherhood of mankind, a theme that resonated deeply with Beethoven’s personal beliefs. The chorus and soloists continue to develop this theme, exploring various musical and emotional landscapes.
Beethoven structures this movement with a series of variations on the “Ode to Joy” theme, each bringing different textures and moods. The orchestration is rich and varied, with the chorus and soloists interweaving with the orchestra to create a tapestry of sound. The movement includes a Turkish march, featuring the bass drum, cymbals, and triangle, which adds an exotic flavor to the music.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this movement is the way Beethoven combines and contrasts the different forces at his disposal – soloists, chorus, and orchestra. He uses these elements not just for their musical qualities but as symbols of the unity and joy expressed in the text.
The movement builds to a final, triumphant chorus, where all the forces come together in a powerful and uplifting conclusion. The “Ode to Joy” theme is presented in its most grand and jubilant form, bringing the symphony to a close on a message of hope, unity, and joy.
The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is not just a musical masterpiece but a cultural and philosophical statement. Its message of joy and brotherhood has transcended its historical context, resonating with audiences around the world for centuries. This movement, and the symphony as a whole, is a testament to Beethoven’s genius and his vision of music as a force for good in the world. It remains one of the most beloved and frequently performed works in the orchestral repertoire.
Lyrics of the fourth movement
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen,
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein;
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.
Oh friends, not these sounds!
Let us instead strike up more pleasing
and more joyful ones!
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, burning with fervor,
heavenly being, your sanctuary!
Your magic brings together
what fashion has sternly divided?
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover.
Whoever has been lucky enough
to become a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!
Every creature drinks in joy
at nature’s breast;
Good and Bad alike
follow her trail of roses.
She gives us kisses and wine,
a true friend, even in death;
Even the worm was given desire,
and the cherub stands before God.
Gladly, just as His suns hurtle
through the glorious universe,
So you, brothers, should run your course,
joyfully, like a conquering hero.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.
Do you bow down before Him, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, o world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.
Arturo Toscanini (March 25, 1867 – January 16, 1957) was an Italian conductor. He was one of the most acclaimed musicians of the late 19th and 20th centuries, renowned for his intensity, his perfectionism, his ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his photographic memory.
He was at various times the music director of La Scala Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Later in his career, he was appointed the first music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra (1937–54), and this led to his becoming a household name (especially in the United States) through his radio and television broadcasts and many recordings of the operatic and symphonic repertoire.
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