Beethoven’s greatest gift to mankind (1)
This magnificent final work was created by a deaf composer
Ludwig van Beethoven was arguably the greatest composer that ever lived, and many of his works were the greatest pieces of music ever created. The absolute pinnacle of his (and the world’s) music came with his Ninth Symphony, which was his last. It has never been equalled or surpassed — nobody came even close to doing so.
We need to remember that Beethoven was handicapped in the worst possible way for a musician and a composer — he was going deaf, starting in his late twenties. It was not just deafness, he also suffered, progressively, from a severe form of tinnitus. That is like a great painter going blind and losing the use of his trembling painting hand.
Well, not quite. Highly accomplished musicians are able to hear music in their minds. When Antonio Salieri, the Austrian imperial Kapellmeister, saw the score of the latest work of his rival (and nemesis) Mozart he wept over its beauty — without anyone playing a single note.
Beethoven took this ability to a much higher level. By his mid forties he was almost totally deaf and could only hear low frequency notes when they were played thunderously. I have seen a collection of his hearing aids (hearing trumpets) in Beethoven’s house, which today is a museum in Bonn, Germany. I also saw his death mask, close up—it stayed stuck in the foreground of my mind for weeks.
His greatest work — his greatest gift to mankind — was created between autumn 1822 and February 1824. At that time Beethoven was completely deaf. The Ninth Symphony premiered on 7 May 1824 in the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna.
I could spend all day describing this marvellous symphony in all its depth, and have in fact done so for hours on different occasions. But I will restrict myself to some aspects of the final movement. Beethoven, as I see it, was defiant and saying to the world: “So I am deaf, but I’m going to show you what is still in me. I’m going to blow you minds away!”
And that’s exactly what he did. The Fourth Movement, which lasts around 22 minutes, is actually a “symphony within a symphony,” as American pianist and writer Charles Rosen famously put it. I am going to describe certain points using a recording of the Ninth in the Théâtre Antique d’Orange, a Roman theatre in Vaucluse, France, with Kurt Masur conducting. I have a particular affinity for the German conductor, since I once saw him live and owned many recordings (on “LPs”) by him.
The Fourth Movement begins, after a trumpet flourish, to introduce themes and variations, mostly initiated by lower pitch string instruments. This ends with another trumpet flourish at 2 min 50 sec. There is a pause of a few seconds, and then the main theme, the “Ode to Joy” tune, which is perhaps the most recognizable in musical history, is introduced. It is not unleashed, as one might expect, but is played gently and profoundly, in very low pitch, by contrabasses (double basses) and cellos! If this doesn’t send shivers down your spine you need to seek medical attention. The accentuation that Mazur uses is perfect. At 3:40 into the recording the violas pick up the theme, and at 4:27 the violins join in, adding to the brilliance of the music. And at 5:13 min it’s the trumpets and percussions that drive it to the breathtaking climax.
The section ends at 6:19 min — don’t allow the YouTube player to take you back to an earlier movement after that. Stop it with “pause” and start the next phase in the player below:
26 seconds into this part we (well, the audience in 1924 Vienna) are in for a major shock: a bass singer, Franz-Josef Selig in this recording, stands up and provides the introduction to the main theme:
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,
Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones! This is a shock, since symphonies do not include the human voice. And Beethoven not only had four lead singer, but a whole dramatic chorus behind them. It is as if a modern concert suddenly had helicopters landing and elephants marching across the stage. Selig sings the first verse of Ode to Joy, An die Freude, a poem by Friedrich Schiller, one of the greatest German poets and dramatists. You can read it in German and English here. The bass is joined by the full chorus standing behind him.
At 2 min 02 seconds the second verse of Schiller’s poem starts, sung by Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Finnish tenor Jorma Silvasti, and by soprano Mélanie Diener, who was born in Hamburg, a stone’s throw away from where I am now. Listen to Mélanie join in (at 2:10 min) and prepare for more major shivers down your spine. Listen to the four main singers interweaving the theme with the magnificent chorus, and remember that all the intricacies, all this divine beauty, was created by a deaf man.
This second part of the YouTube recording ends with a sustained note and another pause in the internal symphony of the Fourth Movement. I will pause here as well, hoping you will have found the time and inclination to follow most of the above. And have been moved by it, the way I have so many times for so many years.
Part two of this article tells you how the symphony ends and describes one of the most moving scenes in musical history, wonderfully captured in film.