The fourth movement of Leonard Bernstein's historic performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin in 1989. This video is in four parts. The other portions should appear as options after the first part finishes playing.
Click here for an outstanding audio tour of Beethoven's Ninth by Rob Kapilow for WNYC. It's nearly an hour, but it is well worth the time.
The question is one of the Rorschach tests of popular culture: If you were dropped on a desert island for the rest of your life and could only have one album to listen to, what would it be?
That was a tough question back in my school days.
Which Talking Heads album to take? Or R.E.M., U2 or someone else?
That was then.
Now, it’s easy to answer, though it’s none of the answers I had before.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral” — aka the Ode to Joy.
No other answer makes sense when you can pack the greatest piece of music in the world.
We all get another chance to hear the masterpiece on Friday night, when the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra and Lexington Singers perform the Ninth under the baton of music director George Zack.
It will be Zack’s last time conducting the philharmonic with the Lexington Singers. The retiring maestro’s final concert as music director of the Phil won’t be until Sept. 12, but he couldn’t leave without taking another crack at this masterpiece.
While my mind might one day penetrate all the layers of the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and my heart may cool to U2’s War, I could listen to the Ninth until the oceans swallow my little island and still make new discoveries.
When it premiered almost 200 years ago, the Ninth shattered the symphonic form.
Beethoven loaded the symphony, 12 years in the writing, with a huge orchestra, particularly when we consider the early 19th-century music world had yet to encounter the Herculean forces of Gustav Mahler or Richard Wagner.
Then, he added a chorus, a huge chorus.
This was unprecedented. In Beethoven’s time, you either wrote symphonies or choral works. You didn’t combine the forms. And, by incorporating Friedrich Schiller’s poem An Die Freude (Ode to Joy), the composer was making a blatant plea for universal brotherhood.
“Here is Beethoven at his most revolutionary, transforming the symphony, for the first time in its history, into an act of moral philosophy and personal confession,” Ted Libbey wrote in The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music (Workman, $19.95).
After shaking off the “anything that’s popular must suck” snobbery of my school years, I started to give Beethoven a chance and made the same mistake many people make with the Ninth: I went straight to the fourth movement, the part with the chorus.
It is so easy to do, because you just want to get lost in its power. Then, I started to backtrack, in part, thanks to that ancient process of transferring CDs to tapes so I could listen to albums in the car, and also by actually going to hear a performance of the Ninth.
Listening to those first three movements revealed what a brilliant setup they were for the fourth. They’re also playgrounds where he started breaking the form, beginning with an introduction that sneaks in, instead of boldly announcing itself.
The piece grows from a soft horn and string opening to a stormy march by the entire orchestra, and then proceeds to take that opening theme and spin and interpret it in a dizzying number of ways, different instrumentation and dynamics, rising and falling, never seeming to fully resolve.
So much of the Ninth is about anticipation.
The second movement, the scherzo, starts with much the same theme, dialed back a bit. This is a run when you are full of breath — thanks, woodwinds. Again, we are hearing themes that develop more, reveal more, but are rarely fully realized. In the slower, more lyrical third movement, we finally get hints — only hints — of that timeless melody Ode to Joy. It eases you into it, like an act of creation before our ears.
At this point, the listener already feels as if he has been through a full symphony. Then comes the blast that announces the fourth movement. It ushers in a movement-within-a-movement, where we hear the first fully formed articulation of that Ode to Joy.
Beethoven, it is said, struggled with how to introduce the vocal part to the proceedings, but his solution was perfect: Bring back the fast attack at the opening of the fourth movement, and then lay it down for the baritone soloist to declare, “O Freunde, nicht diese Tone!” — “O friends, not these strains!”
Then we’re off, into some of the most delirious but purposeful choral and solo singing you’ll ever hear, articulating a vision of mankind unified.
Stephen Johnson’s liner
notes for the latest version I heard — by the BBC National Orchestra
and Chorus of Wales conducted by François-Xavier Roth — noted that a
percussion line in the fourth movement recalled military music of
Austria’s old enemy, Turkey, “as though Beethoven were saying, ‘When I
say all men shall be brothers, I mean all men.’”
That brings up, if we stay with this desert island analogy, the issue of what recording to take under the palm tree.
I am fond of a 1961 performance by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra I have on vinyl. Libbey recommends Leonard Bernstein’s 1990 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and that is hard to argue with.
But my choice for the island would be Bernstein’s historic 1989 performance after the fall of the Berlin Wall, found on the Deutsche Grammophon album Ode to Freedom. I have never heard a performance more appropriate and more shot through with emotion than this celebration. This is the one where the word freedom (freiheit) is substituted for joy (freude); it seemed like Beethoven would have wanted it that way.
The Ninth was an ecstatic expression of hope for mankind, employing imagination and musicianship that still has yet to be matched. Give me one piece of music for the rest of my days, and the Ninth is the obvious choice.
And if I were a conductor with only one more choral concert to command, I’d sure as heck conduct the Ninth.