First, let me provide a little information about symphonies.
When you listen to a Classical era symphony — a symphony composed between the mid-1700s and the 1820s — you are expecting to hear instrumental music composed for an orchestra. You are also expecting to hear music that takes you through a variety of "emotions" developed in four movements. If you are new to classical music, I would ask you to think of a Classical era symphony as a “story” told in four “chapters.”
The first movement (or chapter) is normally the most challenging of the four, and when the movement is finished you might want to turn to someone and say, “Wasn’t that interesting?” The second movement is generally slower and more peaceful than the first, which might prompt you to ask, “Is it time to wake up yet?” The third movement is a faster movement in triple time, and you might want to ask, “Do you want to dance?” The last movement is generally fast and upbeat, designed to leave you wanting more. If the composer ends the symphony on the right note (no pun intended), you should be saying, “Wasn’t that fun?”
In short, think of a Classical era symphony in these terms:
- The first movement challenges the intellect.
- The second movement provides relaxation and time for reflection.
- The third movement is dance-like and "physical."
- The fourth movement provides pleasure.
Although Beethoven's Ninth has as many interpretations as it has members in its audience, let me give you one interpretation to get you started. To understand the Ninth, think of it as an epic story of human suffering that ends with a utopian vision of the future. Remember, it's a symphony, and the story is traditionally told in four movements.
- First Movement: This movement can be heard as an exploration of the suffering and turmoil that humans must endure. The movement moves back and forth between minor and major tonalities. If you think of a minor tonality as “darkness” and a major tonality as “light,” you should begin to hear the movement as a metaphor for the contradictions and uncertainties of our lives. The movement ends with a statement of darkness and terror.
- Second Movement: Instead of the slow, quiet music that we are expecting in a second movement, Beethoven gives us a violent introduction to the movement that is followed by music played in a fast and spirited triple time beat. Although the movement may make us want to get up and start dancing, we should notice that the music is often in a minor key, and we just might be dancing with death. (Phew! Serious guy, this Beethoven!) Fortunately, the movement ends in a major key, giving as a glimmer of hope before we move to the third movement.
- Third Movement: In this movement we finally get the slow and quiet music we had wanted to hear after the first movement. The movement is long and achingly beautiful, giving us time to meditate and reflect on what happened in the first two movements. We might even sense a little peace of mind in the third movement. Beethoven might be telling us that even though the world is full of darkness, terror, and uncertainty, humanity will endure and prevail.
- Fourth Movement: This is a long and complicated movement that begins with a terrifying chord of darkness and despair. The frightening chord that opens the movement then leads to a “conversation” between different parts of the orchestra providing quotes from the first three movements. In some ways, it’s like trying to follow a play in which the actors have not been told how the story they are performing will end. Then comes the “Ode to Joy,” and we should immediately realize that the symphony had been moving toward this melody all along. Beethoven ends the instrumental introduction of the "Ode to Joy" by shattering our expectations and having vocal soloists and a full choir sing the melody. (Before Beethoven's Ninth, symphonies had been defined as music composed for an orchestra — no voices.) The words sung in the fourth movement come from a poem by Friedrich Schiller titled “Ode to Joy.” All told, the poem — and Beethoven's use of it in the Ninth Symphony — describe a utopian view of the future, a world built upon brotherhood, peace, and joy. If you're not inspired to try to make this a better world after listening to this final movement, you're not really listening.
The elegant tune that Beethoven gave us for the “Ode to Joy” has become one of humanity's most enduring and recognizable melodies. Today, the “Ode to Joy has become the European Anthem of the Council of Europe and the European Union, and we would be hard pressed to find a better anthem than the "Ode to Joy" to inspire the cooperation of European nations.
I spent time at the beginning of this blog describing the basic elements of a Classical era symphony so that the power of the "Ode to Joy" can be understood in context. On its own, the "Ode to Joy" is a beautiful melody that will remain in your memory long after you first hear it. In the context of a symphony that explores issues of human suffering, uncertainty, and terror, the melody has tremendous power to lift your spirit and elevate your soul.
Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”(1785)
O friends, no more these sounds?
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise;
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s beast.
Just and junjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God?
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, abobe the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek Him in the heavens!
Above the stars must he dwell.