By Stephanie Eslake, TSO News, March 2022
Of all the symphonies in the world, Beethoven’s Ninth is the one we can all sing along to. Its famous Ode to Joy is taught to children in school bands, performed at global events to symbolise peace, and has been adopted into national anthems.
But did you know that it can be really, really hard to sing? That Beethoven sketched out 200 ideas before finally choosing the one he liked? Or that the Ninth carries with it a deadly curse?
In this blog, we’ll reveal a few facts about Beethoven’s Ninth so you can hear this epic symphony with fresh ears.
1: It’s notoriously difficult for singers
Ode to Joy is a catchy melody. It sounds easy enough – just about anybody could sing it, right?
Wrong. There’s a lot more to the story than the full-blown chorus you know and love. And it takes an expert like soprano Samantha Clarke or tenor Samuel Sakker to power through every melody and harmony of Beethoven’s final movement.
The vocal talent has the chance to present this resounding message of joy – but not before they’ve sat through the first three movements, waiting for the arrival of tumultuous vocal lines with little room for a proper warm-up. (Good luck if you’re performing al fresco.)
With an excessively large orchestral set-up, soloists must power through their lines to be heard over the instruments’ roar. And then they still need to be heard by listeners seated at the back of every concert venue.
Many musicologists have debated Beethoven’s ability to compose for voices at all. After all, composers didn’t tend to use voice in their symphonies, back then. Beethoven’s work was – entirely without irony – unheard of. Composer Giuseppe Verdi argued that the final movement of the Ninth was composed “badly for voices”. Similarly, in his Etude critiques des symphonies, composer Hector Berlioz wrote: “This symphony is the most difficult of all those by the composer to perform.” Berlioz highlighted the challenge of projecting vocal energy over the orchestra – and also thought such a large group of singers would drown out the instruments in return!
All this aside, Beethoven’s influence would run deeper than his criticism. Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Shostakovich are just a few of the composers who would write choral symphonies after this magnificent precedent had been set.
2: Beethoven’s fans had to work for the premiere
Many of Beethoven’s works had premiered in Vienna (symphonies 5, 6, 7, and 8 to name a few), and he didn’t want the Ninth to follow suit. He was conscious of local audiences leaning more towards crowd-pleasing Italian tunes, so he planned to take the first performance of his Ninth elsewhere.
Beethoven did not get his way. The reason is as simple as it is special: Vienna loved him too much to miss it. A group of friends, musicians, and aristocrats gathered to sign a petition: they demanded to hear a local premiere. After kicking up such a fuss for his music, how could Beethoven let down his fans?
Overcoming many an administrative hitch – from venue permissions to limited rehearsal time – the Ninth was presented on 7 May 1824 at Vienna’s Kärnthnerthor Theater. And the audience loved it. Beethoven couldn’t hear them cheer (he was at this time deaf, and couldn’t hear his own music under his baton). But he could see hats and handkerchiefs being waved amidst his standing ovations.
3: It literally shaped the compact disc*
Back in the ‘80s (the 1980s, not the 1780s), electronics giants Sony and Philips were preparing to take the world by storm, launching a new piece of technology for the masses: the compact disc.
There was one important thing they couldn’t agree on, and that was size. Should the standard CD be manufactured at 11.5cm or 12cm? And how many minutes of music would it hold? 97 minutes or 75 minutes?
Rumour has it that conductor Herbert Von Karajan (or maybe the wife of a Sony executive, or maybe the company president) had found the perfect durational measurement: Beethoven’s Ninth. It’s believed these Beethoven-loving higher-ups suggested the CD should hold 74 minutes worth of music – equivalent to Wilhelm Furtwängler's lengthy 1951 recording of Symphony No. 9.
Some believe this is a myth; others claim it’s an official history. Either way, technology would continue to evolve for another decade before this recording could actually fit on a single disc, because the master tapes with which CDs were produced could hold just 72 minutes of music – oops.
4: It spawned a bit of a curse
Beethoven died before he could bring to life his tenth symphony.
Schubert did, too.
And Bruckner, who had studied the music of Beethoven and Schubert.
Mahler didn’t make it through his tenth, either. And Dvorak put out only nine symphonies (you’ll certainly know his last – From the New World).
Vaughan Williams brought this curse into the mid-20th Century, with his ninth first performed in 1958 before he passed away just a few months later. (It was coincidentally written in the same key as Dvorak’s – E minor.)
But there is hope. Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 9 started out with a bit of a dark connection – it was premiered in 2012 at an Austrian venue called the Brucknerhaus (remember the cursed composer of its namesake?). But Glass knew about the jinx, and premiered his ninth and tenth in the same year. Smart.
Hopefully, Glass’ decision to blur the timeline has broken the curse, or at least confused it for a few centuries.
5: It was worth every crumpled page
It took years for Beethoven to put together his final symphony. It was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society in 1817, yet Beethoven had first read Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy in 1793. He was still in his early 20s when he started dreaming up some musical ideas to match the words; the seed had been planted long before the premiere in 1824.
Beethoven even mulled over a whopping 200 versions of his Ode to Joy before settling on the final sound that would complete his symphony. And when those pages of music were heard, they were revolutionary. They crossed the border between Classical and Romantic styles. They influenced the course of music history. They found new meaning as different nations used them as a symbol of peace. They would be immortalised through countless recordings and film soundtracks of the 20th Century.
Now, about 250 years later, we still feel moved by Beethoven’s Ninth. We still know how to hum along to Ode to Joy, and we still take ourselves into the concert hall to hear it performed live.