Beethoven's 9th: The Original Mashup
koppie — Mon, 07/09/2012 - 21:41
I don't think you realize just how awesome Beethoven's 9th really is. Beethoven was a rebel in his day - the original punk rocker - and he broke so many rules with his 9th Symphony it's amazing they didn't take away his baton. (Actually they did; he co-conducted the first performance of the 9th but the "real" conductor told the orchestra to ignore Beethoven.)
We think of Classical music as something staid and old fashioned, something to be enjoyed by people who know the difference between High Tea and Afternoon Tea. But we forget that Beethoven was a pop artist, writing and performing popular music using modern instruments. Not just modern - he broke the mold. He was the Trent Reznor of the 19th Century.
When he wrote his 9th Symphony, there were "rules" about how a symphony was supposed to go. The second movement was supposed to be slow and the third movement was supposed to be faster. Beethoven was cooler than that, so he switched them. 15 minutes into the first performance, when the tempo suddenly picked up, everyon said "what the hell?" (I'm making it up, but I'm sure it happened.) Beethoven had used this trick before, in shorter works, as had his teacher Haydn, but never in a symphony. (Haydn was to Beethoven what Muddy Waters was to the Rolling Stones, but more so.)
But Beethoven wasn't done playing with the audience. In the 4th movement, singers suddenly appear. What the hell is this? This is a symphony. There's no singing in a symphony. This was a well-defined rule; essays had been written on the subject. Singing was done in choral works, or operas; the symphony was instrumental. But then, all of a sudden, in the last movement, Beethoven stops the instruments and a man says: "Oh friends, not these tones!" And then he recites a poem by Friedrich Schiller. Set to music. With vocal and orchestral accompanyment.
Beethoven had just invented a new type of music: the choral symphony.
The 4th movement itself is a "symphony within a symphony" - much longer than a typical movement, and it has four distinct movements within it, including the singing.
I just heard the 9th performed live for the first time, by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, at the Stern Grove Music Festival. (It was also Nathan's first concert; he now refers to Beethoven as his music.)
Beethoven insisted on conducting the first performance himself, even though he was deaf and hadn't been on a stage in 12 years. So he got up on stage with the "real" conductor and waved his baton around. At the end of the symphony, he was several measures behind, and someone had to tell him to stop and turn around. The audience made a point of standing up, raising their hands, and throwing handkerchiefs, so the deaf composer would know he was being applauded.
But Beethoven wasn't done. He continued breaking the rules, with a series of five string quartets (two of which were written simultaneously). Some of them were meant to be played without breaks; 40-50 minutes of continuous music. Think Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick," 19th Century style. It left everyone flabbergasted. One musician said "we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is." Stravinsky referred to one of these "Late Quartets" as "an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever." Schubert's take: "After this, what is left for us to write?"
Beethoven's 9th isn't the greatest piece of music ever written just because it's really really good (although it is that too). It's great partially because it's bold, it's new, it's cool, it's ground-breaking. Try listening to the 4th movement and pretend you're not expecting vocals. When that guy pops up and says "Friends, not these tones," allow yourself to be surprised. It will be as mind-blowing as Beethoven intended.