Program Notes: Beethoven’s Ninth

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Jacksonville Symphony Commission World Premiere | June 10, 2022; Jacksonville, Florida
Tarik O’Regan (b. 1978)

Closing the season is the first in a multi-year series of commissions from some of today’s most esteemed living composers: the world premiere of Trances by the British and American composer, Tarik O’Regan. “Trances is another fast-paced work for orchestra and will conclude a trilogy of works which actually began with Raï. These are pieces in which I meditate upon North African popular and folk music forms. Rather than being ethnographic studies, in these works, I am interested in how I recall the music of my youth and of my own heritage through the haze of memory. Specifically, in Trances, I’m trying to define a texture of reminiscence,” said O’Regan.

O’Regan is the newly appointed Composer-in-Residence with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, where he is also overseeing an ambitious new commissioning initiative. O’Regan will have several of his works premiered by the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony, among many others. O’Regan’s work has been recognized with two GRAMMY® nominations and two British Composer Awards, has been recorded on over 40 albums, and is published exclusively by Novello.


Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (“Choral”)

Ludwig van Beethoven
Born 16 December 1770, in Bonn, Germany
Died 26 March 1827, in Vienna, Austria

According to Richard Wagner, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony signaled the death knell of the symphony. Fortunately, for modern orchestras and audiences, that dire prophecy proved inaccurate. Wagner was correct, however, in his prediction that symphonic music was forever changed. The Ninth is enormous even without its splendid finale. Each of its movements is written on an extremely large scale. So different are Beethoven’s four movements in mood and musical content that their philosophical breadth seems to encompass the universe. In his stormy first two movements, Beethoven grapples with mighty challenges while the slow movement shimmers with celestial beauty. For the finale, Beethoven selected Friedrich Schiller’s poem “To Joy” because of its message of universal brotherhood.

  • The Ninth Symphony is Beethoven’s most grandiose work.
  • The stormy movements get a lot of attention, but the sublime slow movement has its own heavenly power.
  • This was the first symphony to include chorus and vocal soloists.
  • The inclusion of text in the finale adds emotional and spiritual depth to the music.

What makes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so memorable? Entire books have been written to answer that question, and many more will doubtlessly follow. The immediacy of a live performance enhances the symphony’s impact, and the Ninth always provides a revelation whether it’s to a first-time listener or the veteran concertgoer.

Beethoven was revolutionary in incorporating Schiller’s poem, “To Joy,” a first in symphonic literature. His pacific message, as expressed in the choral finale with the “Ode to Joy,” is as appropriate to end our subscription season as it is to close his magnificent symphony.

A poem with a punch

Schiller wrote his poem “An die Freude” [“To Joy”] in 1785. Beethoven read it in his youth and felt a strong affinity with Schiller’s philosophy of the joy that unites all humankind in brotherhood. He considered setting the text as early as 1793. By 1818, he had come up with the revolutionary idea of incorporating voices into a symphony. Finally, in 1822, his thoughts germinated in the finale to the Ninth Symphony. Selecting about half of Schiller’s 18 sections, Beethoven rearranged and repeated stanzas to suit his musical needs. The result is a very personal interpretation of the poem, emphasizing the call to universal brotherhood.

The Ninth is inextricably identified with its choral finale, but to overlook the massive impact of the first three movements is impossible. Each segment of this enormous symphony broke musical ground in a striking way.

About the music

At the outset, the strings outline a groundswell of open fifths, stark and rumbling, before the main theme erupts in a decisive D minor downward unison swoop. The battle has begun in this section, which is the longest of all of Beethoven’s opening movements. He takes time for sweeping, majestic music, culminating in the breathtaking coda. At the very point of emotional exhaustion, when we are certain that the power and drama of this movement is played out, Beethoven hammers home the darkness of D minor with thunderous finality.

Only in this symphony did Beethoven place his scherzo second rather than third. Listeners of a certain age still associate this movement with NBC-TV’s Huntley/Brinkley Report (1956-1970). The Molto vivace concentrates the storm of the first movement into sheer nervous energy. A virtuoso showpiece, it is both a brilliant five-voice fugato and a fully developed sonata form. Timpani tuned in octaves underlines its principal rhythmic motive with electrifying effect. Some relief from the rhythmic and harmonic tension occurs in the D-major trio section.

All volcanic rumblings and dark clouds dissipate in the slow movement. Beethoven’s architecture starts to become clear. He transcends the earthly struggle of the symphony’s first half in an Adagio of ineffable, heavenly beauty. After the thunderclaps of the scherzo, the tranquil woodwind chord that opens the Adagio is an oasis of beauty and calm. The music that follows is deeply tender and emotionally intense−this is Beethoven at his most human and loving.

Famous finale: a call to brotherhood

A cacophonous shriek opens the finale, shattering the celestial calm. The music leaves no doubt that what will follow is of major importance. Beethoven briefly alludes to the three previous movements before presenting the Ode melody. This bold gesture makes his Ninth one of the first cyclic symphonies and heightens the dramatic effect of the Ode. By the time the orchestra delivers the simple, stepwise melody, it has the effect of a rainbow. From there, Beethoven declaims several orchestral variations on the theme before introducing the bass recitative and the chorus.

After the buildup to a climactic pause, Beethoven’s sense of humor surfaces in a march for German military band. The double fugue that ensues is the last section for orchestra alone. Fiendishly difficult, it serves as a brilliant transition. When the chorus re-enters, it sings forth with the most exuberant declamation yet of praise and thanksgiving. Through his four heroic movements, Beethoven wages a struggle between minor and major, with an ultimate victory by major mode. The emergence of triumph out of tragedy – the triumph of universal brotherhood – is the essential message of this miraculous symphony.

The “Choral” symphony is scored for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, and strings. The finale adds a quartet of vocal soloists plus mixed chorus.


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2022

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