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NZSO Perform Beethoven's Symphonies 1 & 9 This Weekend

NZSO Perform Beethoven's Symphonies 1 & 9


Beethoven, portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820


When we consider precisely how prodigious Beethoven's musical output was - including nine symphonies, five piano concertos, a violin concerto, various piano sonatas, sixteen string quartets, a mass (Missa Solemnis), and an opera (Fidelio) - it is a truly remarkable achievement that only twenty-four years separated the premieres of his first and final symphonies. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) remains a crucial figure in the transition between the Classical and Romantic periods and one of the most influential composers of all time. He had already displayed a precocious musical talent when, at the age of twenty-one, he moved to Vienna to study composition with Jospeh Haydn. His hearing began to deteriorate during his late twenties and he was almost completely deaf during his last decade of his life. He gave up public performances in 1811, but continued composing many of his most admired works, such as the extraordinary final string quartets. Beethoven died on 26 March 1827 during a violent thunderstorm, after which an autopsy revealed significant liver damage, possibly due to heavy alcohol consumption, as well as dilation of the auditory and other related autonomous nervous systems. His funeral procession was attended by an estimated 20,000 people (Franz Schubert, who died the following year and was buried next to him, was one of the torchbearers). Originally buried in the Währing cemetery, his remains were eventually reinterred in Vienna's Zentralfriedhof in 1888.

Beethoven’s intense health issues were generally considered a tragic twist of fate. The romantic poignancy portrayed in many biographies and the movie Immortal Beloved have played a sentimental part in appreciations of his works, while his general ill health and ironic deafness have added excessive pathos and intrigue to his posthumous reputation. After several exhumations and autopsies, it was revealed he had serious liver disease which was thought to have led not only to his constant physical discomfort, but could also have contributed to his deafness. Friends and visitors before and after his death clipped locks of his hair, some of which have been preserved and subjected to forensic analysis, as have skull fragments removed during the 1862 exhumation. Over the years, cirrhosis, syphilis, hepatitis, sarcoidosis, and Whipple's disease have all been proposed as possible causes of his death. More recently, it has been recorded that every time Beethoven was treated by his doctor, his lead levels spiked. Beethoven suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, as well as edemas of the abdomen, and in attempts to ease the composer’s suffering, Dr. Wawruch repeatedly punctured his abdominal cavity, then sealed the wound with lead-laced poultices that may have eventually poisoned him.


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Beethoven's First Symphony is clearly indebted to his predecessors, particularly Haydn and Mozart, but nonetheless possesses characteristics that mark it uniquely as Beethoven's work, notably the frequent use of sudden sforzandi and the prominent use of wind instruments. Sketches for the finale are found among the exercises Beethoven wrote while studying counterpoint under Johann Georg Albrechtsberger in the spring of 1797. The Symphony was dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an early patron of the composer, and published in 1801 by Hoffmeister & Kühnel of Leipzig. It is not known exactly when Beethoven finished writing this work, but sketches of the finale were found to be from 1795. The premiere took place in April 1800 at the K.K. Hoftheater nächst der Burg in Vienna. Most sources agree that the concert program also included Beethoven's Septet as well as a symphony by Mozart, but there is some disagreement as to whether his Piano Concerto No. 1 or No. 2 was performed. In any case, it was this concert that effectively served to announce Beethoven's talents to his Viennese audience.

The beginning of the twelve-bar introduction to the first movement has been considered a kind of musical 'joke,' with Donald Tovey describing it as "a comedy of manners," but it can also be considered as a bold musical experiment five years after Haydn's last symphony and twelve years after Mozart's final Jupiter Symphony. Unusually, it begins with a sequence of repeatedly accentuated dominant-tonic chord sequences, but in the 'wrong' key and leading away from the tonic, so that the listener only gradually realizes the real key (or home key) of the symphony. In accordance with tradition, however, the first movement is composed in exemplary sonata form. As a new element, Beethoven uses the more lyrical second subject to display and intertwine the woodwind with the string instruments. The elaborate development is mainly based on the first subject of the movement, exploring a long harmonic progression from A major, passing through F major, and reaching F major at the end. It also refines the juxtaposition and combination of woodwinds and strings; the recapitulation is almost coherent with the exposition; and the coda reminisces the motivic work of the development before closing the movement with strongly repeated chords played by the whole orchestra.

Due to Beethoven's metronome markings and the indication of con moto ('with motion'), the Andante of the second movement (in F major, the subdominant of the symphony's home key) is played considerably faster than normal. Beethoven uses the entire instrumentation of the orchestra, displaying a vast spectrum of sound in this movement, which is also composed in sonata form. The third movement is notable because, although it is indicated as Menuetto, it is also marked Allegro molto e vivace indicating it should be played so fast that it is essentially a scherzo. As an inherent element of the scherzo, it does not customarily display new melodies or motives, but instead uses musical scales and triads from the first movement as motivic material which vividly renders this movement's momentum and sense of humour.

The finale opens with another introduction consisting only of unusual scale fragments played slowly by the first violins alone, beginning on G and gradually adding more notes. After finally reaching an F, outlining a dominant seventh chord in C major, the real start of the finale Allegro molto e vivace begins in C major with a theme similar both in rhythm and character to the fourth movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G major. Again composed in a solid sonata form, Beethoven uses the scale as the prevailing motivic element in this movement, paying tribute to the customary finale established by Haydn in the preceding decades.

This musical structure accords largely with the established composing tradition of the era. The musical content, instrumentation, and tempi may be unusual, but they are hardly revolutionary, and remain strongly anchored in the coordinates of contemporary music making. With this work, Beethoven introduced himself uniquely and boldly as an advancing symphonic composer with little hint of the radical developments he would later introduce. It may seem relatively simple at first sight, but it is worth bearing in mind Robert Schumann’s reflections after listening to Symphony No. 9 - "Love him, love him truly, but do not forget that he reached poetic freedom after thorough study, years on end, and praise his restless moral power. Do not seek to extract the unusual, go back to the roots of creation, demonstrate his genius not through his last symphony … you can do this just as well through his first symphony."


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The Symphony No. 9 is Beethoven's final symphony and was first performed in Vienna in May 1824. It represents the apotheosis of Beethoven’s symphonies and tormented him for many years. Many musicologists consider it one of his greatest works and among the supreme achievements in the history of western music. It was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony. Dating as far back as 1809, there are notes of musical ideas which will be later used for this symphony. The material Beethoven gathered was ultimately used between 1822-1824 when the great symphony was elaborated with chorus and soloists. Its general tone is an exalted sense of happiness, which is why it has also been called The Symphony of Joy. The words sung during the final movement by four vocal soloists and a chorus were taken from Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy, a poem written in 1785 and revised in 1803, with textual additions made by the composer. Schiller’s poem caught Beethoven's attention as early as 1793 when he first sought to use it for a song, but the musical theme of Part IV was written only a year before the symphony's completion.

Since then, the Ninth Symphony's reputation has become a sort of musical benchmark, meaning many things to different listeners. One legend is that the compact disc was deliberately designed to have a 74-minute playing time in order to accommodate it. A commercial tug-of-war between the development partners, Sony and Philips, led to a settlement in a neutral diameter format of twelve centimetres and the release of its 1951 performance, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, was brought forward as the perfect excuse for the change. The Ninth Symphony is also arguably the single piece that inspired the methodology of musical analysis, a discipline of musicological close-reading of the score that tried to prove just how unified and coherent a conception this symphony is beneath its chaotically diverse surface. It has been held up as the central work of Western classical music both by those who imagine it as the ne plus ultra of symphonic, technical, and compositional imagination and mastery, and by those who argue that classical music should embrace the world outside the concert hall as well as within it, that the piece is a sounding bell of social change, emotional hope, and political reform.

Such reflections, however, must also come to terms with the ways in which the piece has been adopted as a manipulative ear-worm by some pretty unsavoury political regimes. The Ode to Joy tune - which Beethoven intended as an anthem for humanity itself, something much larger than the anthems of the nation states that had emerged by the early nineteenth century - has been adopted as a the motto of dictatorships as well as democracies. In the film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, the psychoanalytical Communist philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes that the Ode to Joy has been recruited by Nazism, Bolshevism, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the East-West German Olympic team, Southern Rhodesia, and Abimael Guzmán (leader of Peru's Shining Path revolutionary movement). As Beethoven’s most recent biographer Jan Swafford says, “how one viewed the Ninth … depended on what kind of Elysium one had in mind, whether all people should be brothers or that all nonbrothers should be exterminated”. Today, the Ode to Joy is the anthem of the European Union, the sound of New Year celebrations everywhere from Germany to Japan, and an annual fixture at the Proms, traditionally played on the penultimate night of the season. Some feel that Beethoven's vision of nearly universal brotherhood is kitsch at best, or politically dangerous at worst. When talking about the finale, conductor Gustav Leonhardt said simply: “That Ode to Joy, talk about vulgarity! And the text! Completely puerile!”

The Philharmonic Society of London originally commissioned the symphony in 1817, the main composition work was done between autumn 1822, and the completion of the autograph in February 1824. The symphony emerged from other pieces by Beethoven that, while completed works in their own right, are also sketches or rough outlines for the future symphony. The Choral Fantasy (1808), basically a piano concerto movement, brings in a choir and vocal soloists near the end for the climax. The vocal forces sing a theme first played instrumentally and reminiscent of the corresponding theme in the Ninth Symphony. An earlier version of the theme is found in the song Gegenliebe ('Returned Love') for piano and high voice, which dates from before 1795. According to Robert W. Gutman, Mozart's 1775 Offertory in D minor ('Misericordias Domini') also contains a melody that foreshadows the Ode to Joy. Another innovation consisted of Beethoven placing his scherzo before the slow movement. Although Haydn had also employed this arrangement in some of his own works (such as the String Quartet No. 30 ), and Beethoven had previously done so in his String Quartet no. 5, the Archduke piano trio, and the Hammerklavier piano sonata written a few years earlier, this was the first time such a construction had been employed in a full symphony.

The piece is divided into four movements, as follows:


1. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso

The first movement is in sonata form without an exposition repeat. It begins with open fifths (A and E) played pianissimo by tremolo strings, steadily building up until the first main theme in D minor. The opening, with its perfect fifth quietly emerging, resembles the sound of an orchestra tuning up. The theme returns at the outset of the recapitulation (which repeats the main melodic themes), this time played fortissimo and in D major, rather than D minor. The movement ends with a massive coda that takes up nearly a quarter of the movement, as in Beethoven's Third and Fifth Symphonies. A.N.Serov has commented -"This first somber introduction with epic character renders the bloody days of terror. The empire of freedom and union must be conquered. All the horrors of war constitute the musical substance of this first part."


2. Molto vivace

The second movement is a scherzoand trio. Like the first movement, the scherzo is in D minor, with the introduction bearing a passing resemblance to the opening theme of the first movement, a pattern also found in the Hammerklavier piano sonata. At times, Beethoven specifies one downbeat every three measures - perhaps because of the fast tempo - with the direction ritmo di tre battute ('rhythm of three beats') and one beat every four measures with the direction ritmo di quattro battute ('rhythm of four beats'). Beethoven had been criticized before for failing to adhere to standard Classical form for his compositions and used this movement to both rebut and antagonise his critics. Normally, a scherzo is played in triple time. Beethoven wrote this piece in triple time, but punctuated it in a way that, when coupled with the tempo, makes it sound as if though is in quadruple time.

While adhering to the standard three-part structure of a dance movement (scherzo-trio-scherzo or minuet-trio-minuet), the scherzo section has an elaborate internal structure. It constitutes a complete sonata form in itself, within which the first group of the exposition (the statement of the main melodic themes) starts out with a fugue in D minor on the subject below. For the second subject, however, it modulates to the unusual key of C major. The exposition then repeats before a short development section, where Beethoven begins to explores other ideas. The recapitulation (repeating of the melodic themes heard in the opening of the movement) further develops the exposition's themes, also containing timpani solos. A new development section leads to the repeat of the recapitulation, and the scherzo concludes with a brief codetta. The contrasting trio section is in D major and in duple time, employing trombones for the first time. Following the trio, the second occurrence of the scherzo, unlike the first, plays through without any repetition, after which there is a brief reprise of the trio, and the movement ends with an abrupt coda. At the symphony's premiere, Karl Holtz recounted that the audience burst into spontaneous applause after this second movement - "The instrumentalists had tears in their eyes. The maestro was constantly pointing the measure, up to the point when Umlauf, by a show of hands, pointed to the public. He looked around him and calmly bowed."


3. Adagio molto e cantabile

This is a slow, lyrical movement in B major (a minor sixth away from the symphony's main key of D minor) in a double variation form, with each pair of variations progressively elaborating the rhythmic and melodic ideas. The first variation, like the theme, is in 4/4 time, the second in 12/8. The variations are separated by passages in 3/4, the first in D major, the second in G major, the third in E-flat major, the fourth in F major, and the fifth in B major. The final variation is twice interrupted by episodes in which loud fanfares from the full orchestra are answered by octaves by the first violins and a prominent French horn solo is assigned to the fourth player. The third movement suggests a different atmosphere than the previous parts and we are left with the impression that a new cycle has begun. This is a moment of great lyricism, from which the composer eliminates any trace of doubt and conflict. The first theme can be considered a coral on a melodic construction, rendered by the chord instruments, and then followed by a secondary theme with a different structure in ternary meter. It has a dancing disposition resulted from the removal of certain motifs, giving the impression of an infinite, elliptical melody.


4. Finale

The famous choral finale is Beethoven's musical representation of universal brotherhood is in theme and variations form. It starts with an introduction in which musical material from each of the preceding three movements - though none are literal quotations of previous music - are successively presented and then dismissed by instrumental recitatives played by the low strings. The Ode to Joy theme is finally introduced by the cellos and double basses. After three instrumental variations on this theme, the human voice is presented by the baritone soloist, who sings words written by Beethoven himself - "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen, und freudenvollere." ('Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones!').

About twenty-four minutes in length, the last movement is longer than some entire symphonies of the Classical era. Its form has been disputed by musicologists, as musicologist Nicholas Cook explains - “Beethoven had difficulty describing the finale himself; in letters to publishers, he said that it was like his Choral Fantasy, Op. 80, only on a much grander scale. We might call it a cantata constructed round a series of variations on the 'Joy' theme. But this is rather a loose formulation, at least by comparison with the way in which many twentieth-century critics have tried to codify the movement's form. Thus there have been interminable arguments as to whether it should be seen as a kind of sonata form (with the 'Turkish' music of bar 331, which is in B major, functioning as a kind of second group), a kind of concerto form with bars 1-207 and 208-330 together making up a double exposition), or even a conflation of four symphonic movements into one (with bars 331-594 representing a Scherzo, and bars 595-654 a slow movement). Each interpretation contributes something to the understanding of the movement, but does not represent the whole story.”

In line with Cook's remarks, Charles Rosen has characterized the final movement as a 'symphony within a symphony,' played without interruption. This inner symphony follows the same overall pattern as the Ninth Symphony as a whole. It includes a first 'movement' with theme and variations in which the main theme, first in the cellos and basses, is later recapitulated by voices; a second 'movement' - scherzo in a 6/8 military style, beginning at Alla marcia and concluding with a 6/8 variation of the main theme with chorus; a third 'movement' or slow meditation with a new theme on the text "Seid umschlungen, Millionen!," beginning at Andante maestoso; and a fourth 'movement' or fugato finale on the themes of the first and third 'movements,' beginning at Allegro energico. The movement has a thematic unity in which every part is based on either the main "Seid umschlungen" theme, or some combination of the two. Rosen also notes that the movement can be analysed both as a set of variations and as a concerto sonata form with double exposition, the fugato acting simultaneously as a development section and the second tuttiof the concerto.

Many later composers of the Romantic period and beyond were influenced by the Ninth Symphony. An important theme in the finale of Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor is directly related to the Ode to Joy. When this was pointed out to Brahms, whose first symphony was both praised and derided as "Beethoven's Tenth," he is reputed to have retorted "Any fool can see that!" The Ninth Symphony also influenced the forms that Anton Bruckner employed for the movements of his Symphony No. 3, which is in the same D-minor key and makes substantial use of thematic ideas borrowed from it. The colossal slow movement of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 takes the same A-B-A-B-A form as the third movement and uses some figuration from the Ninth Symphony. In the opening notes of the third movement of his Symphony No. 9, with its falling fourths and timpani strokes, Antonín Dvořák pays homage to Beethoven's scherzo, while Béla Bartók refers to its opening motif to introduce the second movement of his Four Orchestral Pieces.

Cook described the cumulative effect as follows - “Of all the works in the mainstream repertory of Western music, the Ninth Symphony seems the most like a construction of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the values, hopes, and fears of those who seek to understand and explain it … From its first performance up to the present day, the Ninth Symphony has inspired diametrically opposed interpretations." Those interpretations include early commentators who thought that Beethoven had completely lost his compositional thread; that the piece, with its incomprehensible scale, nearly impossible technical demands, and utopian idealism in the choral setting of its final movement, amounted to madness. On the other hand, Hector Berlioz simply regarded it as the "culmination of its author’s genius."

The NZSO perform both of Beethoven's symphonies at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre on Friday, 24/11, and at Auckland's Town Hall on Saturday 24/11.

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