Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: Two Centuries of Joy

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna in May 1824. Two centuries later, it remains a powerful and enduring work.

“Sing that song from Germany,” my cousins would say to me over the phone when I was a little boy of four, just arrived in Goa with my family from what was then West Germany in 1970.

The “song” was the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the original German from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that our father taught his two sons. We learned the lyrics by rote and sang it as if it were another nursery rhyme. So began my fascination with Beethoven’s crowning masterpiece that persists to this day.

By 1824, Beethoven was in his fifties and almost completely deaf. The Viennese obsession with Italian opera, particularly those by Rossini, had made him feel unappreciated and he thought of having his latest symphony, completed that February, premiered in Berlin instead of Vienna. But when prominent Viennese music patrons and performers learned of this, they all signed a petition that persuaded him to change his mind.

The symphony was premiered along with The Consecration of the House (Die Weihe des Hauses) overture and three parts of the Missa solemnis (the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei) at Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor on 7th May 1824. Despite it being a Friday, when the nobility usually went to their country retreats for the weekend, the hall was packed with the city’s other prominent musicians including Franz Schubert and Carl Czerny; and the Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich.

Beethoven wanted his music to be heard by everyone, not just the elite, which is why he slashed ticket prices. He didn’t own the customary black frock coat that was the dress code for concerts, so he wore a green jacket instead.

The work saw Beethoven’s visionary ambition play out on an epic scale. It involved the largest orchestra he had ever assembled. At over an hour in duration, it dwarfed any symphony that had ever preceded it. But its most revolutionary feature is that the symphony culminates in song for the first time in musical history.

After completing his previous two symphonies (the Seventh and Eighth) in quick succession in 1812, a whole decade lapsed before he received a commission from London’s Royal Philharmonic Society in December 1822.

Beethoven, a great admirer of Friedrich Schiller, had kept the German poet’s verse ‘An die Freude’ (literally ‘To Joy’) in mind since the 1790s as a possible source of inspiration for his creativity. And he had, as early as 1808, written an orchestral work that incorporated vocal soloists and mixed chorus (and piano) in his Choral Fantasy. Beethoven now not only took this idea further but repurposed the melody from the 1808 work to set Schiller’s ode to friendship and brotherhood, adding some text of his own, in the Ninth’s mammoth choral finale.

It was a bold step, and Beethoven himself wondered if he had made a mistake after the premiere performance. There are conflicting accounts of how the symphony was received. Some musicians found it too challenging despite more rehearsals than usual and simply put down their instruments in the difficult sections. The orchestra had an able concertmaster in Beethoven’s longtime friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh, and the theatre’s kapellmeister, Michael Umlauf, as conductor.

Yet Beethoven stood by his side, and also conducted “like a madman” according to one orchestra violinist: “One moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the choral parts.”

After the scherzo of the second movement (though some accounts maintain that it was after the conclusion of the performance), the contralto soloist Caroline Unger had to gently turn the deaf composer to acknowledge wild applause and waving of handkerchiefs from the audience.

The gigantic scale, elemental power and originality of the work, however, bewildered both performers and listeners well into the 19th century before its current status as one of the world’s most frequently played symphonies. The beguiling simplicity of its theme has made ‘Ode to Joy’ a favourite among music educators everywhere.

Like the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, Beethoven’s Ninth has become what each listener wants to draw from it. Some in the Romantic period read it as an autobiographical account of Beethoven’s life: his struggle with deafness (first movement); his quest for joy (the middle two movements) and the completion of that quest in the finale. To Richard Wagner, it was a representation of the Creation myth, a rejection (in the finale) of purely instrumental music and a redemption through incorporating text into ‘universal art’. Nazi Germany appropriated Beethoven’s Ninth as a monument to Aryan supremacy and pan-Teutonic culture. But more organically, it became a hymn to universal brotherhood and freedom (the German word for freedom ‘Freiheit’ replacing ‘Freude’ in Schiller’s text) through subsequent historical events worldwide, notably the Tiananmen Square protests and the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Daniel Barenboim summed up the symphony’s essence beautifully in an interview before his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra—co-founded by him and comprised of young Palestinian, Arab and Israeli musicians as an example of peace and brotherhood— performed it at the 2012 BBC Proms:

“Beethoven was a very political human being in the deepest sense of the word … He didn’t want to see the difference between a count and a peasant. He invented a symphonic work with chorus which is not on a religious subject. It is on the subject of the human condition.

The first movement begins without a beginning. It starts out of nowhere with a great sense of expectation, with a bare chord and the trembling, simmering movement in the strings. For those who like to associate ideas, I think it is a movement about suffering, about chaos, about disorder, about protests, about all those things.

The second movement, the scherzo, is a wild movement with a new edge in the sound that was not there in the first movement. The second movement is savage.

The slow movement is probably one of the deepest expressions that music is capable of. It has a never-ending melody—when you hear it, you think it could go on forever. If music can provide us with an inkling of what eternity, the feeling of eternity, of ‘never ending’ is, it is this movement.

This is why, after these extraordinary three ‘worlds’, there is a need for the last movement. And the last movement does not start with the ‘Ode to Joy’. It starts with a kind of declamatory recitative in the double basses. It proceeds to quote the other movements which are rudely interrupted by the double basses and the cellos; as if saying ‘No no no, this I don’t want’. And then, we hear from far away the ‘Ode to Joy’ without text, only the cellos and basses, bare with no harmony, just the melody. And then that grows and then it becomes the hymn which is today the hymn of the European Union.”

Schiller’s text says, “Be embraced, all ye millions! This kiss is for the whole world.” Two centuries on, our world needs that loving embrace and kiss more than ever before.

NCPA’s 1970 Commemorative Stamp and Cover Release

In honour of Beethoven on his bicentenary in 1970, the NCPA took the initiative of proposing to the government to issue a commemorative stamp. The stamp and First Day Cover, released in Bombay at a function organised at the NCPA, were designed by Dr. Jamshed Bhabha. Excerpts from the first book on the NCPA:

For the postage stamp he chose a portrait of Beethoven in his early prime at about the time he composed his revolutionary Third Symphony, the Eroica. For the First Day Cover, he chose a picture of Beethoven in his last years, at about the time when, stone-deaf, he composed his glorious Ninth Symphony.

Extracts from German translations of the great Hindu scriptures were copied by Beethoven in his own handwriting and kept around his workroom. “Brahma” wrote he, “is present in every part of space … Thou alone are the truly blessed one (Bhagavan). Thou, the essence of all laws, the image of all wisdom, present throughout the universe.”

In this image by Batt used for the First Day Cover, Beethoven is depicted in his workroom in the old Schwarzspanierhaus. Behind him stands his Graf piano, wrecked by his frantic efforts to hear his own playing. On the table are his ear-trumpets and conversation books in which any visitor would have to write what he wished to ask or say. The squalid disorder meant nothing to him in those days. He had finished with the world. Since 1824, the medium of the string quartet had absorbed his mind, and now, stone-deaf, very ill but still indomitable, he rose to heights he had never reached before. His stormy life closed with a revelation which, in the last five quartets, was the crowning glory of his supremely great epic achievement.

By Luis Dias. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2024 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.