SUNDAY, APRIL 30, 2017 4:00PM
Pre-concert conversation 3:00pm
Howard Performing Arts Center, Berrien Springs
Margaret Beckley Upton Memorial Concert
In celebration of our 65th Anniversary Season, the SMSO and Citadel Symphony Chorus will be joining forces with some of its long-time favorite vocal collaborators for a stirring performance of Beethoven’s monumental final Symphony. The always inspirational setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” will draw this milestone season to its thrilling close.
Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor
BEETHOVEN, SYMPHONY NO. 9
Ten years were to elapse between the première of the composer’s Eighth Symphony in 1812 and the beginning of concentrated work on its successor, the vastly more complex Symphony No. 9. Over the intervening period, Beethoven worked on a series of compositions (the Hammerklavier Sonata, and the Missa Solemnis for example) that not only crowned his achievement in other genres but also allowed him to develop compositional techniques essential to the present work. Finally, in 1824, following a two-year period of deep seclusion, the composer emerged triumphant, having forged musical and philosophical ideas he had been contemplating intermittently for decades into a statement as profound as it was revolutionary.
The première that May must have been quite an event. In the words of one attendee, violinist Joseph Böhm, “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.”
Despite the audience’s initial reaction, the music’s reception in the music world was at best mixed, with fellow composers such as Louis Spohr for example describing the 9th’s Finale as “monstrous and tasteless.” How ironic it is that it was the 4th movement – including the now ubiquitously popular setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” - that so many found utterly baffling. The second performance two weeks later was only half full, and the symphony was subsequently seldom performed until Wagner and others championed the work once more in the 1870’s.
The symphony is cast in what at first glance appears to be a fairly conventional layout: a sonata-form first movement; a scherzo with trio; a variation-based slow movement; and a finale. However, as ever with Beethoven (even the very first chord of his first symphony, being dissonant, was wildly unconventional) the struggle for expression forced innovations at every turn. The first movement for example begins not with a clearly stated opening theme, but with mysterious twitches over open fifths, pianissimo. Only after several measures does it become clear that the key is D minor. At the recapitulation, this magical moment is turned on its head, being both fortissimo and in D major. The scherzo begins with quotation from that same initial idea, but this time metamorphosed into a striking declamation followed by a headlong fugue, complete with surprise solos for timpani (to the utter delight of the first audience). The movement’s conclusion is a masterly compositional sleight of hand, in which listeners are lead to believe that there will be a repeat of the contrasting trio, only to have the music instead come to a completely unexpected close. A contemplative slow movement in B-flat follows, repositioned from its conventional 2nd movement position in a symphonic scheme.
Introducing the human voice into symphonic music for the first time in history was a step that must have required the utmost creative courage. According to his friend Schindler, the composer ruminated long and hard before coming up with a way to allow the 4th movement’s vocal ideas to seem organic to the whole symphony. Beethoven’s solution was as ingenious as it was revolutionary. First the introspective mood created by the slow movement is swept away in a sharply dissonant moment of tumult. This is followed by one of the most extraordinary passages in all of music: a kind of musical “narrative” in which wordless recitative played by celli and basses appears to dismiss the music of all previous movements one by one, proceeding instead to a new theme, hushed and hymn-like. Finally the voices enter, first repeating the recitative (using Beethoven’s own words of introduction) and then embarking on a set of widely contrasting variations upon the hymn theme, which is now revealed as a setting for Schiller’s Ode.
ROBIN FOUNTAIN, JULY 2016