Why is Beethoven's Ninth still so mysterious?

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June 30 2003 5:58 PM

The Beethoven Mystery

Why haven't we figured out his Ninth Symphony yet?

Beethoven's inscrutable Ninth Symphony still mesmerizes
Beethoven's inscrutable Ninth Symphony still mesmerizes

This summer, as every summer, the end of the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood season will be marked by another round of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The world over, the Ninth has become an indispensable adornment for socio/musical hooplas. Chances are, it will be played soon by an orchestra near you. If you know Western classical music, you know this one. Probably half of humanity can hum the little ditty that serves as the theme of the choral finale—a setting of Schiller's revolutionary-era drinking song, "Ode to Joy."

Which is all to say, the Ninth has attained the kind of ubiquity that threatens to gut any artwork. Think Mona Lisa. Still, as with Lisa, when that kind of success persists through the centuries, there are reasons. One reason is its mystery. Figuratively speaking, everybody knows the Ninth. But has anybody really understood it? The harder you look, the odder it gets. In a singular way, the Ninth enfolds the apparently contradictory qualities of the epic and the slippery. First movement: loud, big, heroic, no? No. Big and loud all right, also wildly unstable, searching, inconclusive—everything heroes aren't. The formal outline, on the surface a conventional sonata form, is turned inside-out: The development section in the middle, usually a point of maximum tension and drama, is the relatively most placid part of the movement; the recap, the return of the opening theme and usually elaborately prepared, erupts out of calm like a scream, with a major chord that somehow sounds hair-raising. (Major keys and harmonies being traditionally nice, hopeful, that sort of thing, minor ones darker, sadder, etc.) At the end there's a funeral march over a slithering bass. Beethoven wrote funeral marches earlier, one the second movement of the "Eroica" Symphony. There we can imagine who died: the hero, or soldiers in battle. But who died in the first movement of the Ninth? Next comes the scherzo, Beethoven's trademark skittering, ebullient movement. Here it's those things ratcheted up to a Dionysian whirlwind, manically contrapuntal, punctuated with timpani crashes. Strange choice, to follow a funeral march. Even stranger: For all the apparent over-the-top gaiety, the movement is in D minor. Gaiety generally means major keys, but not here. Given its surroundings, the third movement is peculiar mainly in its cloudless tranquility. It's one of those singing, time-stopping adagios that mark Beethoven's last period. Two themes alternate, and nothing much happens but the themes acquiring delicate filigree and little dance turns in a dreamlike atmosphere of uncanny beauty. The famous finale is weirdest of all. Scholars have never quite agreed on its formal model, though it clearly involves a series of variations on the "Joy" theme. But why does this celebration of joy open with a dissonant shriek that Richard Wagner dubbed the "terror fanfare"? Then the basses start playing stuff that is unmistakably a recitative, the familiar prose patter between arias in opera and oratorio. Here, a recitative with no words. And for the supreme oddity: One at a time, themes from the earlier movements are introduced only to be rebuffed by the basses—opening of the first movement, nope, too grim; second movement, too light; third movement … nice, the basses sigh nostalgically, but no, too sweet.

This, then: The Joy theme is unveiled by the basses unaccompanied, sounding for all the world like somebody (say, the composer) quietly humming to himself. (In fact, Beethoven sketched the Joy theme early on and aimed the whole symphony to be a revelation of it.) The theme begins to vary, picking up lovely flowing accompaniments. Then, out of nowhere, back to the terror fanfare. And now up steps a real singer, singing a real recitative: "Oh friends, not these tones! Rather let's strike up something more agreeable and joyful."Soon the chorus is crying, "Joy! Joy!" and the piece is off, praising joy as the universal solvent, under whose influence love will flourish, humanity unite. Schiller's ode is a stylized drinking song, meant literally or figuratively to be declaimed by comrades with glasses raised. And what a tipsy course Beethoven's setting follows: At one point a mystical evocation of the godhead is followed by a grunting military march in a style the Viennese called "Turkish," which resolves into a learned and majestic fugue. Nobody has figured out what Beethoven meant by all this. The result has been that every age and ideology has simply claimed the music for its own. Communists, Catholics, lefties, and reactionaries have joined in the chorus. A 1999 book by Esteban Buch, recently available in English, traces the course of the Ninth through history. It's been attached to European disunity in the form of nationalism, it got sucked into the Nazi cult of blood and race, and finally it became, with the Joy theme's adoption as the anthem of the European Union, a symbol of togetherness. Others have seen the Ninth as a universal human anthem. Leonard Bernstein conducted it at the international celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and what else would do the job? For the composer's part, it's a good bet that Beethoven didn't intend for the Ninth to be precisely figured out. As with the Mona Lisa, maybe its very ambiguity is part of its success. Paint it any color you like, and it remains its exalted and inexplicable self. If you want universality in a work of art, here you are. One could argue that the best way of keeping the Ninth alive and fresh is not to pin it down but to embrace its mystery. What can be said about the Ninth with reasonable certainty? One is that its position in the world is probably about what Beethoven wanted it to be. In an unprecedented way for a composer, he deliberately stepped into history with a great ceremonial work that doesn't just preach freedom and the unity of peoples but attempts however strangely to foster them. Another thing to note is that most late Beethoven pieces take surprising courses. His earlier works tend to have a tone (which sometimes he names for us, as in the "Pathetique" and "Eroica") that propels a dramatic unfolding: We hear what happens to the pathos and the heroism. In his late works Beethoven turned away from such clear dramatic curves to more elusive and evocative trains of ideas whose effect he and his time called poetic. And in keeping with the turn from drama to poetry, he left the heroics behind.

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I'll add one more surmise. Famously, the Ninth first emerges from a whispering mist to towering, fateful proclamations. The finale's Joy theme is almost constructed before our ears, hummed through, then composed and recomposed and decomposed. The Ninth is music about music, about its own emerging, about its composer composing. And for what? "This kiss for all the world!" runs the telling line in the finale, in which Beethoven erected a movement of epic scope on a humble little tune that anybody can sing.

The Ninth, forming and dissolving before our ears in its beauty and terror and simplicity and complexity, ending with a cry of jubilation, is itself his kiss for all the world, from east to west, high to low, naive to sophisticated. When the bass speaks the first words in the finale, an invitation to sing for joy, the words come from Beethoven, not Schiller. It's the composer talking to everybody, to history. That's what's so moving about those words. There Beethoven greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

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