I’m generally omnivorous in my music tastes. And I try to approach the great works especially with total humility and little suspicion. But there’s one notable exception: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
Recently I attended a performance of the symphony, which was met with ferocious applause and a stomping, standing ovation. I must have been one of the few who did not stand — and the only one who did so out of stubbornness, not age or disability. I wonder why the Ninth gets such a raucous reception? At first, one suspects politics. The concert was a conspicuously European-themed Proms concert: first was James MacMillan’s European Requiem (though not the Brexit piece many doubtless thought), then the Ninth. Dozens of little EU flags were waved, and several supersized flags were draped over the railing by Prommers.
But politics, if it matters at all, is a peripheral reason for why the work is so adored. (Nor is its modern appropriation as a universalist secular hymn why I dislike it.) Not long ago the Ninth was performed on every penultimate night of the Proms. It’s an exceptionally popular work, particularly with a Proms audience. And the sheer volume of the choral finale filling the vast space of the Albert Hall is admittedly impressive.
However, as Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford writes, ‘the Ninth has attained the kind of ubiquity that threatens to gut any artwork’. Think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Faure’s Pavane. And indeed it is the most popular part I dislike most: the interminable choral section blu-tacked onto the fourth movement. This pushes the symphony to way over an hour (was it the longest symphony to date?). Following what Wagner called a ‘horror fanfare’ and a bizarre recapitulation of the first three movements, the anticipated moment arrives. First the tune is played on the cellos and double basses, expanding out to the rest of the orchestra, then, after another ‘horror fanfare’, comes the elongated, almost Oratorio-length variation on the Ode to Joy theme.
Interestingly, this is what Verdi, a man who knew a thing or two about choral writing, had to say about the finale:
… Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, marvellous in the first three movements, [is] very badly set in the last. No one will ever approach the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as in the last movement. And supported by the authority of Beethoven, they will all shout: “That’s the way to do it…”
Quite a number of contemporary critics disliked the symphony. Many blamed its failings on — yep, you guessed it — Beethoven’s deafness. They found it too harmonically extreme, not sufficiently ‘beautiful’, or simply too long and trying. These critics weren’t in the majority. But as musicologist Nicholas Cook points out, had the symphony been written by Berlioz it would likely have been roundly rejected ‘as eccentric, wilful, and probably incompetent too’. (Berlioz of course loved the symphony.)
My problem might be a prejudice against the grandiose. Seldom do musical forms become more humble with time; they often seem to metastasise. It then takes someone like Arvo Part to do the radical thing: go back to the beginning. When I hear the Ninth, I think to myself, Beethoven did the exiting, celebratory fourth movement much better in the Fifth Symphony and with far less.
Were I musically more competent, I’d be tempted to rewrite the fourth movement without the chorus. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to Beethoven’s true masterpiece: the Seventh Symphony. Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhausorchester: