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Beethoven's Ninth has become a paradoxical icon. The epitome of the lone, individual genius struggling to articulate new visions, it celebrates an all-inclusive ideal of humanity. And while the Ninth crosses boundaries in the real sense, it has come to stand for ultimate limits. The number itself acquired a mystical significance for symphonists later in the 19th century as a marker of finality. Even the format of the compact disc was originally planned with a maximum playing time using the Ninth Symphony's length as its unit of measure.

In the past century, we've come to expect revolutionary works of art to meet a hostile - or at least baffled - reception when first introduced. But the world premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony had nothing in common with that scenario. On May 7, 1824, a Friday evening, the Viennese audience of nearly 1,000 people privileged to attend that event was unequivocally enthusiastic.

Even the critics showered praise. True, there was some carping about the technical quality of the performance. And yet the initial critical tone overall tended toward admiration. One particularly influential correspondent described how Beethoven's "inexhaustible genius revealed a new world to us." But no one in the audience could have been expected to foresee how enduringly resonant, across generations and divides of culture, that new world would prove.

The gravitational pull of the finale is so immense that it has a tendency to overshadow just how extraordinary are the Ninth's first three movements. Indeed Beethoven's ambiguous and enigmatic opening seems to reveal the very process of musical thought evolving in a way that succeeding composers have continued to capitalize on. Emerging out of an indistinct void of pulsing open fifths (chords that have yet to materialize as either major or minor), the music coalesces to thunder forth a titanic theme. Its first part is made from the simple elements of a D-minor triad, ruggedly defiant despite tracing a dramatic descent. This musical genesis has invited comparisons both to creation myths and to nuclear physics to describe the impression of unleashed energy and scale it calls forth.

The sheer profusion of ideas that follows further suggests a universe in expansion. So too does Beethoven's uncanny ability to build vast structures from his granitic and primal thematic material. He introduces elements of classically contrasting, tender lyricism - yet these become swept up in the ever-present momentum. Just as Beethoven seems to have exhausted the full potential of his material, he launches into an extensive and apocalyptic coda that has fascinated later composers almost as much as the movement's oracular beginning.

While our heads are still spinning from this rapidly expanding musical universe, the scherzo introduces another kind of energy: one which seems more densely concentrated, chasing itself in circles with proto-Minimalist repetitions.

The scherzo is often perceived as driven by a demonic mechanism (a view codified by its use in the film A Clockwork Orange). Yet in the timing of the famous timpani strokes, for example, Beethoven mixes the comic and absurd with the terrifying. His reordering of the sequence of movements so that the scherzo comes second moreover gives the trio a special strategic prominence: its joyful melody (foreshadowing that of the finale) becomes even more of an oasis than would be the case if the slow movement had come second.

The Adagio itself casts a retrospective glance at the classically proportioned songfulness from some of Beethoven's earlier works. At the same time, its sustained lyrical elevation provides a serenity commensurate with the emotional turbulence of the preceding two movements. Two separate melodic streams course and interweave through it, in contrasting keys: first B-flat, and then D major (toward which the Symphony as a whole will culminate). Mahler would learn much from Beethoven's manner of variation here, where the melody is not only presented under a different guise but is intensified to a new level.

In Beethoven's Fifth - his only other symphony in a minor key - the breakthrough occurs at the outset of the final movement. His strategy here is more complex. The finale itself - with its introduction of the human voice, the most overtly innovative part of the Ninth as a whole in terms of form - resists classification. Some of the most convincing interpretations view it as a compressed symphony, with its own interior sequence of movements. Instead of the inchoate vagueness that sets the first movement in motion, the finale begins with a clamorous chaos, from which an order must again be constructed and jubilation earned.

Beethoven reviews where the Symphony has come from as he clears the path to introduce the voices - first the brave solo, followed by the collective of the chorus. Yet in what follows, the first three movements are not so much "rejected" as integrated. For example, the lengthy instrumental fugue flowing out of the jubilant tenor's solo recalls the significance of contrapuntal textures from the first two movements; the counterpoint attains a Handelian magnificence when developed chorally later in the finale.

The great "Ode to Joy" tune itself has a workaday, down-to-earth quality - all the more remarkably malleable to the extremities to which Beethoven's vision subjects it. It serves as the basis for an immense series of variations which are superimposed on the finale's vast structure. Beethoven, again and again, takes up the variation principle (he concludes the "Eroica" with it, for example) as a symbol of life-affirming creativity. This dynamic underpinning grounds Beethoven's utopian exuberance with an awareness - both necessary and poignant - that our highest aspirations must always be molded anew.

- Thomas May is a freelance music writer. His book Decoding Wagner is available from Amadeus Press, as is his latest project, The John Adams Reader.