What is there left to write about the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven? It is arguably the single most famous and beloved pieces of classical music, indeed of any kind of music, that the world has ever known and has been at the centre of both intellectual and popular music appreciation since its premier in 1824.
“The 9th itself is so monumental, world-changing and pervasive that it has attracted endless debate, dissection, discussion and delight in the near-200 years since its composition, its relevance, immediacy and popularity never dimming, its vitality seemingly knowing no bounds.”
Beethoven himself is practically a synonym for genius of course, mentioned alongside the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton whenever the peaks of humanity are discussed. More books have been written about him and his work than practically any other person in history. Even concentrating only on his symphonic output, of which the 9th is the final and most ambitious entry, there’s enough for multiple tomes, multiple lifetimes, of analysis and appreciation.
One of the reasons for its longevity, I believe, is the way it strides both the intellectual realm of ‘High Art’ and the immediate, intuitive aesthetic of popular culture with such total mastery. You can play this piece for someone from any age, from any part of the world who has no experience of classical music, yet it can simultaneously be appreciated by someone who is steeped in the minute subtleties of composition and academic study of music’s inner workings, and they will both delight in it from beginning to end. A rare achievement for any work of art in any medium.
One of Beethoven’s compositional traits was to take small, almost insignificant-seeming musical themes, ideas and melodies and to twist and expand them into vast structures with a complexity and emotional subtlety unimagined in the humble beginning material (think of those infamous first four notes that open the 5th Symphony and form the basis for the entire following movement). This he did with increasing ingenuity until his “late period”, which include the late piano works and string quartets and the Missa Solemnis mass. However, the 9th Symphony stands out as being their equal in purely musical terms whilst simultaneously being totally accessible to the first-time listener.
Beethoven had been shaking up the idea of the Symphony as a form of musical storytelling since his first attempt at the form, though his third effort, the mighty “Eroica”, was when he really started making waves, extending the length, depth and ambition of what a piece of instrumental orchestral music could achieve. With the 5th Symphony, Beethoven changed the game entirely, making audiences used to regarding the voice in songs and Opera as the pinnacle of the art to realise that the abstract sounds of music itself could be as profound and intellectually and emotionally stimulating as anything set to words.
With each successive symphony he broke new ground until upon reaching the 9th where he added something truly mould-breaking: a choir. The text they sing is an ode by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, known as the Ode to Joy, and it is a passionate plea for brotherhood, peace and the indomitable spirit of humanity. For this alone it deserves recognition, as large choral works up until this point were almost uniformly sacred works written to religious texts for the Church. With the humanist ideals of the 9th, Beethoven breaks through all boundaries between peoples of all ages, classes, cultures and beliefs and writes for a universal human spirit, to be enjoyed and celebrated by all.
This is why the piece has been appropriated by so many different ideological causes, political and cultural, throughout the ages. The Nazi regime tried to use it as a show of superior German art, but the music was so good everyone else wrestled it from their tainted grasp; once they were toppled it became the official anthem of Europe and was even performed to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall.
Incidentally, its influence was even felt in technology, the length of CDs initially being set at 74 minutes to ensure you could fit a performance of the entire piece on one disc!
Its musical influence also cannot be overstated, setting the standard, for a century to come. Not to mention the fact that composers were afraid of tackling symphonies of their own in the wake of such majesty and, when they did, many of the great symphonists only managed to complete nine of their own before dying (the ‘curse of the ninth‘ was seriously a big deal if you wanted to write symphonies after Beethoven).
But beyond all this weighty historical significance and musicological density, it is simply a joyful piece of music to listen to. I think it was the first music I heard, alone in my room on an old Walkman as a youngster, that made me burst into tears from awe at the sheer beauty of it. This is why I call it the Soundtrack to the Apocalypse: there is no more dramatic music in the world than Beethoven.
The 9th Symphony sounds like it is the music at the end of the world – or the beginning of a new one. The sound of our species singing triumphantly through the suffering and confusion and pain of existence and claiming joy in spite of it all. Try it for yourself; sit or lie in a comfortable place, put on a good quality recording and just let yourself be taken on a journey, through a story told in pure sound and emotion, and see if it doesn’t overwhelm you.
Better yet, go see it live. One of the things that strikes people who go to see classical music performed live is how different it is from listening to a recording, which will always have an invisible barrier in the way distancing you from the experience. If you want to see what going to a classical concert is like but don’t know where to begin, see if there are any performances of this piece (or any Beethoven symphony) scheduled in your area. You won’t regret it, I can’t think of many more pieces more perfectly suited to draw people in to the wonderful world of classical music and what it can do to your soul.
I’ll leave you with one more performance that shows just how far-reaching this music is and the impact it still has on people around the world: it’s from Japan in 2011 and is dedicated to the victims of the tsunami earlier that year. It is sung by 10,000 people.
Oh yeah, and the guy that wrote this was deaf, which says it all really!
You can catch performances of Beethoven’s Ninth at various venues around the UK this Christmas and next year in 2015. Get Beethoven tickets now.