Beethoven’s greatest gift to mankind (2)
This magnificent final work was created by a deaf composer
Ludwig van Beethoven (pronounciation: loodvig fan bate-hof-an) was arguably the greatest composer that ever lived, and many of of his works were the greatest works 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 equaled 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, but continued to compose — highly accomplished musicians are able to hear music in their minds. His greatest work was created between autumn 1822 and February 1824, when Beethoven was completely deaf.
I described the first half of this monumental work in part one of this article. We now turn to the second half of the final movement, the “symphony within a symphony,” where the composer’s defiant message to the world was “So I am deaf, but I’m going to show you what I can still do. I’m going to blow you minds away!”
The first half of the final movement ended with a sustained note and a pause in the internal symphony of the Fourth Movement. The next part is a scherzo in military style (Beethoven’s instruction: “alla Marcia”). Tenor Jorma Tapio Silvasti from Finland does a great job of the “Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen” aria. After that there is an orchestra interlude, ending with the reintroduction of the full chorus, beautifully done with a French Horn (at 3:20 min into the video):
The chorus is rousing, and notable for its copious use of preteen singers, including boy sopranos (like Aksel Rykkvin — take a minute to listen to that extraordinary lad). This is the climax of this section:
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.
In the final section, 10/10, the four lead singers join the chorus and the symphony winds down to a beautiful, intricate finish. If you have, like me, heard this movement about thirty time in your life (and ten more times while writing this piece) you will know every harmony and every counterpoint, every intriguing interweaving of voice and instruments.
The final moments of the symphony are depicted very poignantly in the film Immortal Beloved, when Beethoven (played by Gary Oldman) does not know that the audience behind him has broken into thunderous applause. Watch it here — the YouTube video should start at the key moment (3:55 min).
When the symphony ended Beethoven, who was standing on the stage quietly trying to conduct the music he could not hear, didn’t realize it was over and remained facing the orchestra — he could not hear the thunderous applause of the audience. This is very well played in the Immortal Beloved scene, though a tiny correction is required: it was not the conductor who turned Beethoven around, but the mezzo-soprano soloist Caroline Unger, who tapped his arm so he would turn around and see the crowd’s response. The audience acclaimed him in five standing ovations, throwing hats and handkerchiefs into the air so he could at least see the ovation gestures.
If I have inspired you to listen to Beethoven and his supreme musical composition you can search for many excellent renditions in YouTube or try the following recommended recordings:
Herbert von Karajan Vienna 1955
Leonard Berstein’s Concert 1989, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein auspiciously replaces “Freude” (Joy) with “Freiheit” (freedom).
Finally I would like to mention that in 1959 Beethoven’s Ninth was performed for the first time by an all-Chinese orchestra and sung in Mandarin. Listen to a key passage here — it is strangely impressive and moving. It also shows us how this music can overcome the greatest of cultural barriers. And if you are looking for something truly inspiring, watch this video of the final part of the Ninth Symphony, which has a special twist:
Japan has a very intense relationship with Beethoven’s Ninth, which is affectionately called “Daiku” and played throughout Japan in every December. In 2011, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami, the Ninth was performed in Osaka with a chorus of — ten thousand singers! Jump forward to 6:50 min in the video for an experience you will never forget.
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