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After Beethoven finished the Eighth Symphony in the summer of 1812, it would be almost 12 years before he completed another. Compared to his previous productivity, he actually completed relatively little in any genre in those years. Superficially at least, they were years of some political stability in Austria; Napoleon would not be back with another French army after his disastrous retreat from Russia and the delayed endgame drama of Waterloo. But 1812 was the year of Beethoven’s disappointing and depressing “Immortal Beloved” affair, and after that began the litigation over the care of his nephew Karl, which ended only in 1820 – the litigation, that is; the family woes continued.

This comparatively fallow period wasn’t for lack of musical interest or effort. (It did, after all, include the conception and completion of works such as the “Hammerklavier” Piano Sonata, Op. 106.) The basic arc of the Ninth Symphony is from chaos and struggle to serenity and jubilation, and that mirrors the course of its creation. Friedrich Schiller (17591805) published his ode An die Freude (To Joy) in 1785, and Beethoven was much moved by this ecstatic vision. The young composer may have tried to set it to music as a song even before he left his hometown of Bonn in 1792, and he made at least two other attempts to grapple with the poem before 1817, when the Philharmonic Society of London invited him to visit that winter, bringing two new symphonies with him.

As a result, Beethoven actually started writing about plans and ideas for two symphonies, one in D minor, the other with a choral slow movement, like the “untwin” pairs that are the Fifth and Sixth and the Seventh and Eighth symphonies. These two works began to come together in 1822, when the correspondence with the Philharmonic Society finally turned into an accepted commission. Beethoven worked steadily at this grand project throughout 1823, completing it in February 1824.

The work had its premiere on May 7, 1824, the famous concert at which the now-deaf composer had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause he could no longer hear. Also on the program, outsized as always by today’s conventions, were Beethoven’s overture The Consecration of the House and three movements of the Missa Solemnis in their Vienna premiere.

The Ninth Symphony opens in hushed anticipation, from which an elementally simple theme soon erupts violently. The dynamic energy and scope of the ideas in this movement suggest creation myths to many, or scientific theories such as the Big Bang.

At this point, Beethoven changed the usual order of symphonic movements, placing a Scherzo next. A scherzo is typically a dancing, often humorous movement with a contrasting middle section. Beethoven’s dark Scherzo here is relentlessly concentrated, its insistence intensified by fugal imitation. The contrast is supplied by a graceful hymn that suggests the ultimate joy of the finale.

The slow movement (Adagio) is the peaceful balance to the preceding furies. Beethoven develops two themes to increasing levels of yearning through sophisticated variations. The introduction of voices in the finale is Beethoven’s most obvious innovation, although he had models in French revolutionary symphonies, and it is still an electrifying moment when the baritone first sings. The chaos of the symphony’s opening returns at the beginning of the movement, from which Beethoven recalls the main themes of the preceding movements, before the baritone calls for new tunes. The composer’s decades-in-the-making setting of Schiller’s ode – which he freely cut and reordered – emerges at last as an immense and triumphant set of variations, expressing the highest aspirations with music of life-affirming exaltation.

— John Henken