Monday, April 4, 2011

Great Ninths

Note: This is the next post in a continuing series on the greatest symphonies in classical music which I began last year.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824) is the greatest symphony ever written. It surpasses every symphony I have posted about in this series and it surpasses all its direct competition. No symphony compares equally with the brilliance of Beethoven’s Great Ninth in its combination of balanced orchestration, sophisticated musical ideas and themes, and the way its four movements create an unsurpassed grand structural force, a whole unto itself.

The composition was of long-time interest to Beethoven. He wanted to do something with Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” for over two decades. The first movement creates an atmosphere of awe, an affirmation of Being, through a succession of struggles and triumphs. It is establishes a strong central theme that Beethoven will return to toward the symphony’s end. It is amazing to remember that Beethoven was completely deaf when he composed this symphony. He conducted the premier performance himself and could not hear the massive applause the work instantly received.

While the opening movement expertly establishes a conflicted drama, the second movement is a singular expression of self-assured, even youthful human delight. Designated Molto vivace, it is the greatest single symphonic movement I have ever heard. It is powerful, optimistic, and confident and driving in positive progression. This is created with full use of the orchestra and strong parts of each section. I find it an uplifting piece in any life situation. Beethoven strikes something universal here, you will hear it if you listen.

The third movement, a brilliant adagio lasting almost 20 minutes, transforms the joy into a nurturing sense of nobility, a sense of higher purpose and Being. The movement begins in melancholy fashion but flourishes in peaceful resignation crowned in ethereal radiance. Multiple variations here make Beethoven’s work far more sophisticated than sentimental.

The finale is, perhaps, this symphony’s most remembered movement. It is a rather operatic movement (and readers should know by now I do not care for opera much) but with grandiose, refined orchestration, recalling previously established themes. It also features the magnificent choral treatment of “Ode to Joy” which rewards every listening. It is just symphonic and choral enough to inspire me to embrace its (likely much respected among musical artists) operatic nature.

Ultimately, Beethoven’s Ninth is Great because of what it is in its entirety. The symphony has many varied sections, each one rewarding, the later ones complementing the previous, attaining the highest possible musical celebration and expression of the best of humanity. It is the definitive summit of the classical symphony.

Whereas Beethoven celebrates the Being of humanity, Mahler’s Great Ninth (1909) is about death, or, better put, dying. Not in a brooding sense of foreboding and dread nor quite in a celebratory sense. Mahler’s Ninth is about the composer’s personal encounter with death and in its depths we find peace and acceptance and love transcending the grief and anguish and uncertainty. The first bars of the opening movement are as fascinating as anything Mahler ever composed. First, there are, fragmented and in slow motion, three notes being plucked and pointed out by cellos and a solo horn. Then a harp playing four notes on low strings. Gently the strings well up and rest in a steady slowness.

This 30-minute movement does not remain so easy for long. There are variations of complete anguish. Strong undertones of anger bubble up now and then. This is perfectly understandable for Mahler knew he was dying as he composed it (see program notes here). There must have been some initial anger involved when he first learned of his life-threatening heart condition only a few days after the death of his daughter. Two years later he composed this symphony. Another year and half after that he was gone.

This is Mahler’s most modern symphony in terms of composition, reflecting a great interest the composer had for Arnold Schoenberg at the time. The influence of the more contemporary Schoenberg (prior to his twelve-tone system) is evident in several parts of the symphony. (Mahler also was influential on Schoenberg.) Many Mahler enthusiasts consider the opening movement to be his greatest single musical achievement.

The second movement is, interestingly enough, fun. It is a series of dances: one clunky, one drunken, one slow and expert. There is a lightness to this movement that gives refreshment after the lengthy grieving of the prior movement. This lightness is no longer present in the third movement, a rondo, a bitter and mocking composition filled with a marching resentment.

It is Mahler’s fourth movement that caused Jennifer to fall in love with him. She and I rather ritualistically open the windows on a clear early spring evening, air out the house and crank up the stereo for this groundswell of love and tenderness that lifts the listener up. Mahler knew his end was near and he reflected a great deal upon his feelings about that. In the end, Mahler chooses to fade, not happily but with deep-seated acceptance and utter calm. Letting go.

The last four and a half minutes of the symphony are sustained near the reach of human hearing by strings alone. Easy, melodic, unhurried, drifting. A few simple notes at the very end for the basses and cellos, the violins hold a single note and remain barely audible until at last giving way to silence.

Subtitled “From the New World”, Dvorak’s Great Ninth (1895) is a long-time friend of mine. It was one of the first classical music pieces I listened to when I originally developed a taste for the genre during college. The first movement, an adagio, opens softly, then becomes a powerfully bold anthem to earthly folkish Being. I experience in this opening the light, sometimes stormy, passage of days.

The Largo second movement is the symphony’s signature piece and it is one of the most memorable symphonic experiences I have taken with me since college. It begins with a melodic English horn harmonizing with strings, other winds taking their turn. The movement has a spiritual, contemplative quality about it. This is a highly relaxing experience.

The third movement, a scherzo, reminds me of Beethoven. Whole sweeping strong strings sections with loud percussion accompaniment joined by the entire orchestra at frequent climaxes. This is a lively movement which is a nice contrast to the prior largo. The final movement picks up on the lively quality beginning with a triumphant horn section. The brass and horns carry this movement to a strongly uplifting conclusion.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony (1828) is, in fact, subtitled “Great”. It lives up to its billing and was finished only a few months before Schubert’s death. There is no trace of death within the symphony, however. The opening is a complex structure of variations on a dignified and vigorous theme.

The second movement, an andante, sustains and intensifies the energy of the first. It features and ever evolving, spacious melody with very pronounced deep strings propelling everything much like Schubert did in his Unfinished Symphony. It is a superb musical experience and my favorite part of the symphony.

The next movement, a stately scherzo, features an oboe with strings. It has a delightfully strident, folkish quality about it. The fourth movement, recapitulates the entire work through expressions of great energy. It is powerful, often more rhythmic than melodic composition. Overall, the work is a terrific example of the classical symphonic construct, a testament to Schubert’s rare expertise and brilliance that was so tragically short-lived in its creative glory. Schubert lived to be a mere 31, dying about a year after Beethoven.

Bruckner died while composing his Great Ninth (1896). He only completed three movements but, like Schubert’s Unfinished in a previous post, the incomplete status of the work does not make less of a distinguished composition. The opening is weighty and powerful with string, horns, percussion all prominent. It clocks in at over 25 minutes in length with wonderful alternating moments of ponderous thunder and delicate melodies. The sonic range contrasts explosive force by the entire orchestra with brief moments of complete silence. A certain tension develops and is sustained throughout the middle portion of this movement while returning to the opening theme.

The second movement is a wonderful trio and the best part of the work for me. It is highly rhythmic, almost skipping along through complex pairings of strings with horns, winds with percussion and is highlighted by a robust, pulsating drive that reminds me a lot of Beethoven in his earlier symphonic works. The third movement adagio is a beautiful (even sweet) yet stark Wagnerian-type masterpiece that runs almost 30 minutes in length. Overall, what we have of the symphony is an amazingly peaceful, confident, strong, and brooding spectrum of sound that is richly rewarding. It is interesting to speculate what might have been had Bruckner lived to complete the final movement, of which only scattered sketches exist.

But, as is by now obvious, by the time these masterful composers reached their ninth symphony, for various reasons, their lives were either at or near their end. Some, like Mahler, were so superstitious about the association of death when confronting a ninth that they rushed on to attempt a tenth or more. However, other very notable composers which I haven’t mentioned yet throughout this tour of Greats did not even begin to create truly great symphonic music until they were far beyond their ninth symphony. I will discuss two giants of classical music that fit that description whenever I write my next post in this series.

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