Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: 200 years on - Hindustan Times
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Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: 200 years on

By | Posted by Tapatrisha Das
May 07, 2024 05:00 PM IST

With his Ninth Symphony, first performed in 1824, Ludwig van Beethoven created a work for the ages.

Ludwig van Beethoven first performed his Ninth Symphony in Vienna in 1824, and created a work for the ages. We look at what makes it so special.

The 200-page manuscript is considered one of greatest pieces of music ever written (Andreas Altwein/dpa/picture alliance )
The 200-page manuscript is considered one of greatest pieces of music ever written (Andreas Altwein/dpa/picture alliance )

Ludwig van Beethoven had his hands full before the premiere of his Ninth Symphony on May 7, 1824. The work was eagerly awaited in Vienna. Copyists were working flat out to reproduce the handwritten score for the performance. Beethoven not only supervised their work, but also took care of finding musicians, singers, and a suitable venue.

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"The public often sees Beethoven as this lone genius who creates magnificent works all by himself, when in fact he worked with a large team," says Beate Angelika Kraus, musicologist at the Beethoven Archive, the research department of the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, western Germany. Ludwig van Beethoven was born in that city in December 1770.

Beethoven as a team player and manager

"We also have to think of Beethoven as a manager who organised his professional life with a network of collaborators," says Kraus, who edited his Ninth Symphony as part of the scholarly-critical Beethoven Complete Edition.

There were also additional people on stage managing the choir and orchestra. A chief conductor conducted the entire concert. Beethoven was at his side and set the tempo. In addition to the concertmaster on the first violin, a pianist also took on responsibility. "That was customary at the time. When a choir came on stage, the pianist could provide assistance from the piano if necessary," says Kraus.

All in the detail

As a milestone in music history and a "symbol of culture and humanity," the original, hand-written manuscript of the Ninth Symphony has been part of UNESCO's Memory of the World Register since 2001. In this last symphony completed by the composer, Beethoven used a choir, something that had never been done before in a symphonic work. At almost 70 minutes, the Ninth is also exceptionally long.

Beethoven paved the way for many composers. The famous final chorus with the "Ode to Joy" stands for peace and international understanding. The instrumental version became the anthem of the Council of Europe in 1972 and has been the official anthem of the European Union since 1985. The melody to the text "Freude schöner Götterfunken" is known all over the world today. That is why the work is a contribution to "international cultural dialogue", according to UNESCO.

Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv conducted the Ninth one day after the Russian attack on Kyiv and Kharkiv in February 2022. For her, the text passages from the pen of German poet Friedrich Schiller are particularly moving. For example, when it says: "All men become brothers."

"Everyone all over the world should develop this empathy, it infected the audience back then and they even threw their hats in the air," she says in an interview with DW.

There is not just one Ninth

The Ninth Symphony was planned for a long time. The first sketch is known to date from 1815. There were twelve performances of his Ninth during Beethoven's lifetime, and he created more than one version. "We can say that over a period of 12 years, Beethoven repeatedly sent a version authorized by him out into the world on different occasions," says Beate Angelika Kraus.

The Ninth performed at the premiere was an early version and different from the one he sent to his publisher or the score for the Prussian king, to whom Beethoven ultimately dedicated his symphony. "The Ninth is not, as is commonly thought, a fixed work," says Kraus, "it is more of a work in progress."

Commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society

The symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society. The premiere was therefore naturally set to take place in England. There was a letter from 30 friends of the arts asking Beethoven to perform his latest works in Vienna first. "We have known about this letter from February 1824 for some time, but now we see it from a different perspective — many of these signatories were in close contact with Beethoven," says Kraus. The question therefore arises as to whether Beethoven was involved in the ultimate decision to hold the premiere in the Austrian capital.

Same program as the premiere

Ludwig van Beethoven presented his latest works to the public in concerts, then called "Akademien."

At the Akademie on May 7, 1824, in the Vienna Court Theater at the Kärntnertor, the composer performed other works in addition to the premiere of the Ninth Symphony Op. 125 in front of an audience of more than 2,000. These included three parts of the Missa solemnis op. 123 and the overture "Die Weihe des Hauses" op. 124.

"Nobody would have gone to a concert back then that only lasted an hour or contained the Ninth Symphony as the only work," says Kraus.

At the time of the premiere, Beethoven was suffering from severe hearing loss. He had suffered a loss of treble at an early age and could no longer hear high tones, such as flute notes. "He also suffered from tinnitus and something called 'recruitment,' where, despite hearing loss, loud sounds are perceived as painful," says Kraus. Nevertheless, he was still on stage and set the tempo. "He may well still have perceived low frequencies, for example the timpani and basses."

The Ninth Redux

The Beethoven-Haus Bonn has reconstructed the Akademie from 1824 as faithfully as possible for the 200th anniversary of the Ninth Symphony. The world premiere concert will take place on May 7, 2024 in the magnificent Stadthalle Wuppertal, as the world premiere venue, the Vienna Court Theater at Kärntnertor, no longer exists.

The Orchestra of the Vienna Academy performs on original instruments under the direction of Martin Haselböck.

As in the world premiere, the choir will not stand behind the orchestra, but in front of it and thus, as conductor Haselböck told the press, speak more directly to the audience. Both the Missa Solemnis and Beethoven's Ninth appeal to the idea of peace, which is more topical than ever for the organizers.

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