Liszt called it “stupendous,” the musical equivalent of the Great Pyramid. Brahms was intimidated by the impossibility of living up to it. Wagner chose to perform it when the cornerstone was laid at his opera house in Bayreuth—and Wilhelm Furtwängler chose it to purge that opera house of its Nazi associations when it was reopened after the Second World War. Leonard Bernstein, conducting an international orchestra of players from Germany, France, Russia, England, and the United States, chose it to celebrate the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. The main theme of its finale has become the National Anthem of Europe. Whatever else you can say about the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), it has, over the past hundred and fifty years or so, taken on incalculable cultural weight. As conductor Larry Loh points out, of all the symphonies ever composed, this is the one that casts the “biggest shadow” on later composers. And even today, for aspiring young conductors, “conducting the Beethoven Ninth—that’s your goal.”
It was not always thus. Beethoven had already cracked open the classical symphonic tradition when he composed his Third, the “Eroica,” in 1804. Twenty years later, in the Ninth, the now-deaf composer was more audacious still, more “revolutionary” as Larry puts it, causing one early critic to complain that the finale “takes place entirely in the unhappy dwelling places of those who have fallen from heaven.” What caused the consternation? The Ninth was, by a long shot, the longest symphony with the largest orchestra (not to mention vocal soloists and chorus) written up to that time. But the Ninth was a challenge less because of its sheer scale than because of what Larry calls its frequent “twists and turns” and because of its radical musical substance. The first movement, for instance, opens starkly, apparently from the mists, with open fifths that leave us in a state of ambiguity; in the rhythmically ferocious second, as Wagner puts it, “we are carried off in a dizzying and confusing whirl.” After a vast, serene slow movement (where, Larry points out, the conductor has to find just the right tempo so that “the passages with the sextuplets have a feeling of continuous motion”), we move into the choral finale. This begins with a blaring discord, after which the orchestra introduces, and firmly rejects, the music from the earlier movements before moving on, with the singers, to a vast setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” This exultation of international unity combines soaring lyricism, vigorous dance, rigorous counterpoint (there is a huge double fugue), and beer hall good spirits in a way that seems to break apart the very idea of symphonic writing. To add to all of this, in the orchestral and vocal writing, Beethoven was pushing the limits of what players could do. To give just one example: since, as timpanist Jeff Grubbs points out, Beethoven was “implementing innovations in orchestral timpani performance,” audiences at the time would never have heard a part as demanding as this one.
Over the years, the symphony has become less threatening to listeners, but it hasn’t lost its power. The drive of the second movement still has its dynamism; and even with familiarity, the finale is as uplifting as ever. Indeed, for all the flashy opportunities for challenging solo timpani work in the Scherzo, Jeff’s favorite moment to play comes in the finale, when he enters with the trumpets after the main theme has been announced by the strings: “Beethoven is here celebrating the best, most affirmative place to be emotionally within the realm of human existence.” No wonder that, even nearly two centuries later, any performance of the Ninth is more than just a “performance”—it’s an occasion. And it raises the question—what can you perform with it? Sometimes, it’s simply played on its own. Sometimes, it’s coupled with Beethoven’s First (to give an image of how far he came as a symphonist) or with his Fantasy for piano, chorus, and orchestra, which served as a rough draft for the Ninth. Tonight, we take a different tack, drawing on the symphony’s celebratory spirit, its internationalism, and its incorporation of poetry.
We open the concert with the Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Originally composed in 1947 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, it wasn’t performed until 1954. Unlike other Shostakovich works that were kept under wraps for their musical or ideological transgressions, however, this piece is musically straight-forward and apparently apolitical. Inspired in part by Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila Overture, it opens with a stately fanfare that seems to announce a work of some gravity. In fact, though, the fanfare is a modified version of the opening of a whimsical piece from his Children’s Notebook called “Birthday,” and in the Overture, it leads to a jolt of irrepressible forward energy that is more likely to remind you of the Keystone Kops than the Kremlin. The piece has become one of Shostakovich’s most popular, but it’s usually heard without the optional extra brass parts he throws in. Tonight, with the assistance of the Symphoria Youth Orchestra, you’ll have a rare chance to hear it in its full glory.
Energy of a different sort is heard in Ramal, composed in 2014 by the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom (b. 1971), and receiving its New York premiere tonight. Ramal fits well with the Beethoven Ninth in two ways. First, there is its humanist spirit. Dedicated to the memory of Palestinian literary scholar, public intellectual, and music critic Edward Said, it was commissioned by Daniel Barenboim for his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a group that gives Arab, Palestinian, and Israeli musicians a chance to work together as equals, to see each other outside the “prism of war” that might otherwise dominate their interactions. Ramal is not explicitly programmatic, but, says the composer, “its emotional drive and changing meters reflect the unsettled state of the world, specifically the devastating current situation in Syria.”
Those “changing meters” point to a second connection to Beethoven. Like the Ninth, it’s got a poetic inspiration—in this case, poetic rhythm rather than poetic text. “Ramal,” Roustom tells us, “is the name of one of sixteen pre-Islamic Arabic poetic meters used in classical Arabic poetry,” which, translated into musical terms, becomes a shifting metrical structure of 7 beats, 8 beats, 5 beats, and 8 beats. This pattern serves as the scaffolding of the piece—although Ramal is characterized by color as much as by rhythm, and you’re as likely to be enraptured by its contemplative beauty as you are to be caught up in its rhythmic force.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org