Beethoven scholars provide evidence that the gestation period of the D minor Symphony was a long one, dating back at least to 1799. Notes in the composer’s sketchbooks refer to the poem “Ode to Joy” by the German poet and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805).
In 1817 the newly-inaugurated Philharmonic Society of London invited Beethoven to visit, with a commission to bring two new symphonies with him. The Society forwarded £50 to him on account, but he chose not to come – nor did the Society receive any manuscripts. Beethoven made many excuses, especially the burden (not least financial) of the legal wrangling over his guardianship of his nephew. Also, his deafness and general health were becoming more troublesome. At least the London commission acted as a stimulus, and he gave more thought and time to what would prove to be his last completed symphony – a symphony that would extend the limits of the genre. Never before had the human voice been included in what had hitherto been the exclusive province of instrumental forces.
Hints of the Symphony’s harmonic and thematic material, especially the final choral movement, may be traced through the Choral Fantasy of 1811, “Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage” (a cantata setting of words by Goëthe of 1815), and the last scene of the opera Fidelio, a final version of which appeared one year earlier. In the Missa Solemnis of 1823, the tonal ambience of the opening of the Gloria and the work’s rather abrupt ending are moments which again seem to anticipate the Choral movement.
The Symphony is in four movements. Voices are not introduced until the last movement. Beethoven himself conducted the first performance in Vienna on the 7th May 1824. The Philharmonic Society of London received a copy of the score early in 1825, and the first London performance followed on the 21st March.
In the latter quarter of the 20th Century, Beethoven’s great Theme of Joy and Schiller’s words have been hijacked by the European Community as their anthem.
1st Movement Allegro, ma non troppo, un poco maestoso
The ‘sotto voce’ opening beckons one to listen, to anticipate an ‘invocation’. The music’s opening bars are not in D minor, as advised in the Symphony’s title – are they in A major; A minor? Beethoven is teasing his listeners, for it is not until the fourteenth bar, when the bassoon enters on an A and slips down to a D in the next bar that D minor is established. Now with the dynamic rapidly rising, the full orchestra proudly states in unison the movement’s first theme. The music progresses until the 1st violins’ and violas’ descending demi-semi-quaver scale passages restrain proceedings. Bassoons and horns soon unsettle matters with an ambiguous sustained chord, followed by a restatement of the theme, which then adjusts to Bb major.
With the key of Bb established, a new theme is heard. This evolves as a dialogue between the wind ensemble and semi-quaver figures in the strings. This is just four bars in extent, but the ornamental repetition that follows, moving between major and minor, is a delightful touch.
Although we are into the realm of the second subject, a fragment of the first interrupts. It is identified by the rhythmic skips of quaver, dotted semi-quaver, demi-semi-quaver, the key vacillating between major and minor. There is a brief encounter with the unfamiliar key of Cb major. Meanwhile, the strings have taken the bit between their teeth in a falling and rising chromatic semi-quaver passage. Out of this a third theme emerges, again vacillating between Gb and G minor, with the lower strings providing a syncopated accompaniment and the timpani tapping out the above rhythm. As the excitement increases the woodwind take over the syncopation.
While the strings progress with more demi-semi-quaver passages, horns and trumpets are heard to effect. The whole orchestra subsequently joins in with distinctive trills. Following appogiatura from bassoons and strings, a broad calming descends on the movement’s progress. Thereafter tremolo semi-quaver sextuplets by the second violins and celli herald the development section.
Throughout the development, Beethoven takes the opportunity to indulge himself in his creativity. For example, the bassoons reintroduce the movement’s opening theme in a more legato style, only to be interrupted by horns and trumpets leading to a brusque fanfare. Then the oboes pick up the second part of the theme, only to be interrupted by the “fanfare”, which is followed by a shift of key. So the development continues, with the exposition’s material tossed to and fro throughout the orchestra. A further marker is the fugato passage which, with a slight application of the brakes, starts low down in the celli and basses. The second violins offer a counter-melody, and the soprano instruments make their contribution.
The music then subsides into a question-and-answer episode, leading to a rash of semi-quavers from crescendoing strings and woodwind. The recapitulation is now reached, with an emphatic restatement of the movement’s opening theme, followed by the second theme, which proceeds with a strong rhythmic drive until the Coda is reached.
The Coda is introduced gently over four bars, imitative of the movement’s opening hush. Then, to quote Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams: “a miracle happens; the clouds lift; a mirage of a vision of Joy”. Note the second and third bars of the movement’s theme, which are heard in the major for the first time. They are now given to the solo horn, ably abetted by oboe and bassoon. From there on, the music gains an ever-increasing density, with repetitive tremoloing strings, repetitive phrasing underpinning a theme which derives from the opening. The movement ends quite brusquely.
2nd Movement Molto vivace
The outstanding feature of this movement is its constant, insistent, rhythm: a “Perpetuum Mobile” in a sonata form, in two repeated sections.
In D minor and 3/4 time, the movement bursts with its dotted crotchet-quaver-crotchet figure. At the ninth bar the music sets off in earnest. The first violins take the dotted crotchet figure and the introduce the second feature – rows of staccato crotchets. The music rises and falls over six bars and, as the other instruments join in, a five-part fugato develops.
Our interest is held as both theme and rhythmic pulse are distributed throughout the orchestra, with the timpani making themselves heard. The crotchet rows seem to have things all their own way for some 48 bars. A new, broader, theme is then introduced over eight bars by the woodwind, accompanied by insistent dotted crotchets in the strings.
Out of those eight bars the woodwind have landed on a new theme in C major – the second subject. This is in marked contrast with the previous one, but the insistent dotted crotchet figure is maintained by the strings. Following three silent bars, a repeat of the first section is marked in the score.
After the marked repeat, and an eight-bar transition which again includes three silent bars, the music leads into a passage which moves on by tonal steps and pauses on a rather strange chord. From this point a fugal section commences, with the bassoon leading into a three-bar rhythm. The timpani make themselves heard, with their solo bars seeming to occur in the wrong place. The development proceeds over a dominant pedal of D minor – the rhythmic phrasing alternates between three- and four-bar phrases. Horns and trumpets now assist the timpani, and the music drives on to a tremendous climax, the point of recapitulation, and the marked repeat of the second section.
Following the end of the repeat, two stabbing bars (during which the trombones make their first contribution) presage an acceleration and falling dynamic into a 2/2 Presto, which leads into the Trio section.
The Trio is in marked contrast, and turns out to be a set of variations on a rather simplistic theme, with enriching harmonic and orchestral accompaniments. With a final sigh from the violins, the repeat of the rumbustious Scherzo follows immediately. This leads into the Coda, during which the Trio theme is touched upon. Beethoven brings the movement to its finale with one telling silent bar, and three very brusque ones.
3rd movement Adagio molto e cantabile/Andante moderato
This movement must surely be one of Beethoven’s most beautiful creations. It has a flowing melody full of warmth, with perhaps a touch of melancholy, supported by rich harmonies.
Opening in Bb , a two-bar introduction from clarinets and bassoons leads immediately to the principal theme. This is entrusted to the first violins, and echoed by the woodwind at the end of each phrase.
A triple change – of key to D major, of tempo to andante moderato, and of pulse from 4/4 to 3/4 – moves the pace forward. A new figured theme is given out by the second violins and violas over a very discreet variant of the opening theme. The figured violin-viola theme is soon to be given a second hearing, supported by a beautiful counterpoint. Following a pause, we will be aware that the key and tempo have again shifted, for an ornamented variation of the theme.
An eighteen-bar andante in G now follows in a syncopated form. It is the responsibility of the woodwind, supported by the strings with a new counter-melody.
An adagio in Eb continues the movement. Clarinets embark upon a further variation, supported by bassoons, horns and then flutes. As the horn develops its part, the music slips into that rare key Cb major. Meanwhile the strings accompany, pizzicato and quite transparently. A brief semi-quaver cadenza from the horns leads the movement into a third variation.
The time signature has now changed to 12/8. Flutes and oboes spread the theme over three bars, and the first violins take the opportunity to fill the space with a filigree of semi-quavers. For a long while the other strings accompany pizzicato. The Coda is announced by a fanfare from the whole orchestra, interrupting the movement’s leisurely progress. The serenity continues, only to be interrupted a second time. The theme is continued in the bass, with sustained chords above: the whole combining into the atmosphere of a Chorale.
Over a nervously throbbing string and timpani accompaniment, the clarinets touch on a earlier variant. With a briefest recall of the opening theme, the movement finds its quiescence.
4th movementPresto – Allegro ma non troppo – Vivace – Adagio cantabile – Allegro – Allegro moderato – Allegro – Allegro assai – Presto – Allegro assai – Allegro assai vivace – Alla marcia – Andante maestoso – Adagio ma non troppo – Ma divoto – Allegro energico, sempre ben marcato – Allegro ma non tanto – Poco adagio – Prestissimo – Maestoso
This movement opens with what must be music’s most distinguished discord. In fact, it is nothing more than the chord of D minor with an added Bb from flutes, oboes and clarinets. Perhaps it would possess a greater impact if the Bb had been given to the horns and trumpets, but Beethoven was well aware of the difficulties that the brass instruments of his day had in playing particular notes of the scale in tune, especially Bb
The opening cacophony extends over eight bars. Celli and basses reply with an eight-bar rebuff in the form of a recitative. There is a second and third orchestral interruption, then a fourth – followed each time by a rebuff from the lower strings. However, the orchestral outbursts have not been idle musical “chatter”. Beethoven has been reviewing his past thematic material as follows: after the second rebuff the Symphony’s opening moment; after the third rebuff the Scherzo’s opening theme follows; and after the fourth just two bars of the slow movement are heard. But Beethoven, in his search for his “Theme of Joy”, rejects all this, and it is from the rebuffs intoned by the lower strings that the unmistakable “Theme of Joy” first emerges. Now surely there is no looking back. The joyous theme is shared out amongst the orchestra, until a few bars of aggravation occur. These lead directly into a truncated recapitulation of the movement’s opening dissonance, with the double bassoon and trombones adding their weight. This all leads into, and puts into perspective, the solo baritone’s opening recitative. He admonishes the orchestra for such unseemly behaviour with Beethoven’s own words “Not these severe sounds, let us raise our voices in Joy and Praise”.
Following the recitative, there is a steadying of pace and a change in tempo from 3/4 to 4/4. The woodwind lead the baritone soloist and choir’s lower voices into the first words of Schiller’s poem. What follows, musically, is really a continuing set of variations on the “Joy” theme.
The first verse is introduced by the baritone soloist, who is then joined by the other three soloists. It is a textural variant of the theme, with the choir joining in four-part harmony. The four soloists having played their initial part, the choir then sings through the poem’s first three verses. These terminate with fortissimo chords on the words “ver Gott” (before God), a well-held ear-shattering modulation from D major through A to F major.
The key drops to Bb for the next variant in 6/8, which takes on the character of a “quasi-Turkish march”. The orchestra assumes the character of a “German band”, ably abetted by the tenor soloist: “froh wie seine sornen fliegen” (glad as His suns, flying etc.). The choir join in, singing their way to a heady climax. Out of this, the orchestra lunges into a fugato of tremendous vitality leading to a reprise, by the choir, of the first stanza.
Following a pause, the pace drops to an andante maestoso in 3/2. For the first time since the Scherzo, the trombones are involved in the orchestral texture. They ably assist the lower strings in leading the choir, all in unison, into the words “seid umschlungen, millionen!” (O ye millions, I embrace you!). For the second half of this, the poem’s final verse, Beethoven adopts a devotional tone, drifting between minor and major but in a conviction of faith. A reverential pianissimo provides a moment for contemplation. Out of this “grows” an upgrading of tempo to 6/4, and the “Theme of Joy” re-asserts itself in the form of a double fugue.
Beethoven now proceeds with a rhythmical variant of his “Joy” theme, with the sung “Freude” added as a third element. The fugue develops into a testing time for the choir, where the sopranos hold their top A for twelve full bars. Then, reaching its climax, Beethoven powers in with “diesen kuss der Ganzen welt” (here a joyful kiss for all) and then in awe and wonderment “ihr Stürzt nieder millionen” (O ye millions, kneel before Him). Soft chords lead to the episode’s end, with a reflective pause on the words “Vate wonnen” (loving Father).
Now, with the increase of tempo, four bars of scampering quavers lead the quartet of soloists into a florid variant of the first verse. The choir joins in, climaxing on the words “alle Menschen” (all Mankind), then calming down into a contemplative mood. Then with a change of key the quartet of soloists (the soprano prominent with her high B) reiterate “dein sanfter flügel weilt” (Thy gentle wings abide). With the bass soloist sinking to a low A, the orchestra steps out of the ensuing pause into the home key of D and a time signature of 2/2. The music rapidly rises into a pattern of BABA’s, prestissimo of unrestrained “Joy”. To quote Vaughan Williams, as the choir sing Schiller’s final stanza: “no Sunday School about this, no angel choirs but real rowdy human beings: the drums thump, cymbals crash, trumpets blare and the choir sings an atrociously vulgar tune – a great inspiration”.
Beethoven does not lose control. He interrupts this act of rowdyism with a beautiful sensitive chorale episode in praise of the “Tochter aus Elysium” (Daughter of Elysium). Then without warning the orchestra sweeps again into its “thumping and blaring”, and within twenty bars and a final “thump” Beethoven ends his last symphony.
Acknowledgement: “Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Other Writings”, Ralph Vaughan Williams, OUP.
(Stanzas from Ode to Joy (Schiller) except for the first three lines which are Beethoven’s own words.)
O, Freunde, nicht diese Töne Sondern lasset uns angenehmere anstimmen Und freudenvollere. Freunde, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! Deine Zauber binden wieder Was die Mode streng geteilt; Alle Menschen werden Brüder, Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt. Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen, Eines Freundes Freund zu sein, Wer ein holdes Weib errungen, Mische seinen Jubel ein! Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele, Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund, Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle, Weinend sich aus diesem Bund.
Freunde trinken alle Wesen An den Brüsten der Natur; Alle Guten, alle Bösen Folgen ihrer Rosenspur. Küsse gab sie uns und Reben, Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod; Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben, Und der Cherub steht vor Gott. Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen, Durch des Himmels prächt, gen Plan, Laufet Brüder, eure Bahn, Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen, Brüder laufet eure Bahn. Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt! Brüder über'm Sternenzelt Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen. Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen, Ahnest Du den Schöpfer, Welt? Such ihn über'm Sternenzelt! Uber Sternen, muss er wohnen.