Beethoven Symphony Basics at ESM

Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 “Choral” (1824)

The Basics

General Information

Composition dates: 1822-24; sketches beg. 1814-15, or 1819.   

Dedication: King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia.

Instrumentation (II, IV=mvts in which they play): Strings, PicIV. 2 Fl, 2 Ob, 2 Cl, 2 Bsn, CBsnIV, 4 Hn, 2 Tr, ATBTbnII, IV, Timp, TriIV/CymIV/BD IV, SATB SoloIV, SATB ChorusIV.

First performance: 7 May 1824, Kärtnerthor Theater, Vienna. 

Orchestra size for first or early performance: 12+ winds/80-100 in chorus.

Autograph Score: Staatsbibliothek, Berlin (incomplete).

First published parts: 1826, Schott, Mainz.

First published score: 1826, Schott, Mainz.


Movements (Tempos. Key. Form.)

I. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso (MM=88). D Minor. Sonata-Allegro (no slow intro.).

II. Scherzo. Molto vivace—Presto (MM=116). D Minor/D Major. Scherzo/Trio (ternary), with the scherzo section a Sonata-Allegro form.

III.  Adagio molto e cantabile—et al (MM=60). B-flat Major (VI). Theme & Variation w/development.

IV. Finale. Presto (MM=96)—Alla Marcia. Allegro assai vivace (mm=84)—Andante maestoso (mm=72)—Allegro energico, sempre ben marcato (mm=84)—Allegro ma non tanto (mm=120)—Poco Allegro, stringendo il tempo, sempre più Allegro—Prestissimo (mm=132). D Minor-Major. Sonata-allegro/Rondo/Theme & Variation/(Sonata cycle).


Significance and Structure

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D, Op. 125 “Choral” is among the most commented upon pieces of music in history.  Since its first performance in May 1824, its political, religious, cultural, and artistic traits and ramifications have resonated through the entire world like no other single musical work, and it continues to be called upon to symbolize human experiences and lofty ideas to this day.  It has appealed to the widest variety of individuals because of the clear message of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” text (note: link includes entire Schiller text and English translation) which Beethoven used for the last movement, and because of the skill with which the great symphonic composer of the early nineteenth century—the “giant” as Johannes Brahms famously dubbed him, whose symphonic footsteps were always present—manipulated, formed, reformed, and gave dramatic life to, the materials of the art of music.  The Ninth Symphony would be a catalyst for so many composers of orchestral works in the next century, and even be credited by Richard Wagner as a crucial stone in the foundation on which he built his music dramas.  (See “Others’ Words” essay below.)  It would be impossible to address every important issue related to Symphony No. 9 in this essay.  However, an interesting and informative introduction to this masterpiece might be best served by exploring the symphony’s hermeneutic, aesthetic, and musical characteristics in light of two perspectives:  1) its status as the only symphony from Beethoven’s so-called “Late” style period, spanning roughly the last decade of his life, including the specific Late-period characteristics, innovations, and influences on the next generations of Romantic composers, and 2) its role as the culmination of Beethoven’s symphonic development pressing the heroic outlook during his “Middle” style period, encompassing Symphonies Nos. 3-8, as well as most of his concert overtures, the incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont, and his opera Fidelio, and the quest during this time and through these works to generate a fuller, more compelling dramatic impact using the musical language he inherited from symphony predecessors such as Haydn and Mozart.

The profound ideals present in Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” written in 1785 at the height of the Enlightenment, struck Beethoven deeply.  He found a kindred spirit in Schiller, and considered setting the Ode as early as 1793.  While Schiller’s descriptive poetry appears only in the finale, it generated an urge for additional programmatic story lines for the first three movements.  Critics had engaged in this practice for some of Beethoven’s earlier symphonies, most notably E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1810 description of Symphony No. 5 (see also Symphony No. 5 “Others’ Words” essay), but Beethoven himself encouraged this practice more directly and immediately in the Ninth by clear and recognizable recall of earlier movements at the beginning of the finale (see below Finale Part I: The “Sinfonia” and “Prologue”). Schiller’s ideas thus became the impetus for Beethoven’s shaping innovative and more traditional compositional techniques of the symphonic genre to serve a per ardua ad astra—“through struggle to the stars”—teleologically-generated artistic objective, raised to a level of dramatic impact that could mimic and rival the literary model of the heroic Bildungsroman, so central to the emerging Romantic aesthetic. With the Ninth Symphony, his last symphonic masterpiece, Beethoven put a final touch on this artistic goal.  And who is his final hero? Considering Beethoven’s treatment of Schiller’s text, it is humanity that is the ultimate hero, but a humanity imbued with perfect joy that can only come from unity, achievable through seeking a loving and merciful Creator, from whom the spark of this joy came in the first place, and under whose protective wing it can remain. 

Innovations and Late-period characteristics

Beethoven’s Late period is sometimes spoken of as one of introspection, focused on more personal artistic goals, particularly related to the stretching of the communicative and dramatic possibilities of the musical language he inherited. Similar to certain phrases from the 1803 Heiligenstadt Testament and his “new way” statement to Krumpholz that signaled his “Middle” period stylistic change (see Symphony No. 3 “Beethoven’s Words” essay for details), Beethoven would write statements in letters during and after the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) that indicated a new, more cerebral compositional direction, sometimes even at the expense of audience comprehension. (See the “Beethoven’s Words” essay below for more details.)  Fortunately for history, Beethoven intended his more “public” works such Symphony No. 9—his only Late-period symphony—to have a comprehensibility that could communicate his grandest thoughts about humanity.

The most obvious and important influential Late-period innovation in the Ninth Symphony is the inclusion of a poetic text sung by solo and choral voices, through which specific dramatic meaning is brought to the musical journey. Such a bold stroke crossed the generic boundaries of stage-dramatic music (i.e. opera and incidental music for plays) and instrumental music, and became a model for the Romantics, particularly Felix Mendelssohn, and perhaps most importantly, Richard Wagner. (See “Others’ Words” essay below.) The effect was to bring to the listener’s experience a greater degree of literary specificity to instrumental music’s metaphorical language.  For his finale, Beethoven ingeniously and clearly conveyed the story of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” text (note: this link includes only the parts used by Beethoven in the symphony and an English translation), written in 1785 at the height of the Enlightenment, using familiar rhetorical devices to convey the text’s meaning, along with inherited structural processes such as theme-and-variation, fugue, and elements of sonata-allegro form and the symphonic cycle.  Beethoven weaved these familiar rhetorical devices and structural processes together into a form generated by the Ode itself, thus creating a uniquely innovative overall structure (outlined below), and most crucially, relating a clear message stemming from Beethoven’s mind, offered to humankind.


[The following description of the Symphony No. 9 Finale contains timings and demonstrative links for this video of John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra at Lincoln Center, July 27, 1996.]

Finale Part I: “Sinfonia” and “Prologue” (0:00-6:44). Moving towards a New Way

Like an overture or “sinfonia” that raises the curtain in an opera, the movement opens with instruments alone. It begins with a pungent, dissonant chord built from the tonic triads of the two most prominent keys of the symphony: D minor, the overall key of the symphony, and B-flat major, the secondary key of the first movement as well as the key of the slow movement.  These keys have been struggling with one-another throughout the symphony, and are here violently thrust together to initiate what Wagner called the “Horror Fanfare” (0:00-0:11). The fanfare is followed by another innovative stroke: cellos and basses play a melody patterned upon vocal recitative style, making an undeniable connection between instrumental music and what should be texted, sung music.  The recitative is interspersed with moments of “movement recall,” where chunks of material from each of the first three movements, and the finale’s “Horror Fanfare,” remind the listeners where they’ve been, and give them a foretaste of the “Joy” theme yet to come (0:11-2:38).  Of particular note is the cello-bass melody’s opening upward leap a-to-e, the two pitches that began the whole symphony both harmonically and melodically in downward leaps nearly 45 minutes earlier, at the beginning of the first movement. This recitative style in the instruments, although not without precedent—Haydn used an accompanied recitative style in the second movement of the “Le midi” Symphony No. 7 (1761), leading to a “love duet” between the violin and cello soloists—would have been a bizarre experience for Beethoven’s audience. However, the introduction of and elaboration on the lovely main “Joy” tune (2:39-5:54) that followed certainly brought back some familiarity. After a return to the movement’s opening “Horror Fanfare,” the solo bass is the first human voice heard in the symphony. From a functional standpoint the introductory “sinfonia” continues, but now as a dramatic prologue. His melody is the same as that of the cello-bass recitatives from before, but now Beethoven’s own words are sung to those passages: “O friends, not these tones! Rather let us tune our voices more pleasantly, and more joyously.” This time there is no recall of earlier movements—“not these tones!”; they have been rejected (6:02-6:44). Through retrospective attention, then, the bass soloist gives direct meaning to the bizarre instrumental music and movement recall from before: let us move forward in a happier, simpler way, leaving behind the struggles and darkness of the past, following the wise guidance of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” It is here that the movement takes up the Schiller Ode text, the first strophe replacing what had before been the instrumental introduction and elaboration of the “Joy” tune.

Finale Part II: The Ode (6:44-20:13).  Schiller’s wisdom, Beethoven’s wish.

With the completion of the bass soloist’s recitative on Beethoven’s words, and a calling out to “Freude” (Joy), Schiller’s Ode text enters, beginning the drama-proper. Carefully selected strophes of Schiller’s text are set in a theme-and-variations structure, with some dramatic interruptions to the variations here and there. Beethoven cleverly used recognizable rhetorical gestures to enhance the meaning of the text. Each variation becomes gradually more complex, building to the final variation that combines two strophes into a grand double fugue.

ThemeVariation 1Variation 2 (6:44-9:07): Joy: divine spark, goodly wife, Nature’s intoxicant.

The bass soloist shouts for Joy—“Freude!”—echoed by the chorus. The Ode begins, with the first three strophes moving one to the other without pause, formulating the Theme and first two Variations.  In this portion, each strophe is treated similarly, with solo voice(s) singing the first part of each strophe, and the chorus joining to repeat the last four lines of the strophe. Beethoven’s music here takes its rhetorical cues from one of the basic ideas presented in each strophe’s text.  (The following English translations are by Steven Ledbetter. My italics emphasize specific ideas in Beethoven’s setting.) 

The Theme sets the first strophe:

Joy, fair Divine spark,
daughter of Elysium,
intoxicated with fire, we enter,
O Heavenly One, your sacred shrine.
Your magic once again unites
all that Fashion had sternly divided.
All men become brothers
where your gentle wings abide.

It is simple, folk-like tune, moving along in steady quarter-notes, full of joy and hope.  Rightfully, it begins on the pitch f-sharp, the major third of the tonic triad, affirming the “more pleasant, . . . joyous” tone of D major, which now supplants the dark D minor of earlier movements. Woodwind obbligato solos highlight the natural, folk character of the tune. When the chorus enters for a repeat of the last four lines, its response is in a simple unison, with the sopranos absent.

The reason for withholding the sopranos in the first choral response becomes evident in Variation 1, setting the second strophe:

Whoever has won in that great gamble
of being friend to a friend,
whoever has found a goodly woman,
let him add his jubilation!
Yes-even he who can call just one soul
on earth his own!
And he who had never done it, let him
steal, weeping, from this company.

Beethoven’s setting focuses on the joy present in human friendship, and particularly exemplified in marriage to a “goodly woman.” The variation begins with the alto, tenor, and bass soloists, who sing the first two lines. Finally, the soprano soloist enters as the goodly woman, and full chorus, including the sopranos, complete this variation, with sopranos singing melody (although “led” by the basses who enter ½-beat early), supported by harmony in the other voices, thereby generating a more complicated choral response than before. 

Now that all are present, Variation 2, at least at first, takes its cue from the wine culture surrounding Vienna, but it is Joy that is the intoxicant:

All creatures drink of joy
at Nature’s breast,
All, whether good or evil
follow her rose-strewn path.
She gave us kisses and vines,
a friend, proved faithful unto death.
Delight was given even to the worm,
and the cherub stands before God.

Meandering melodic lines in the tenor and bass solos, joined in turn by alto, then soprano, depict a drunken stupor, confirmed by quick trill figure “hiccups” in the strings.  The chorus enters with the same drunken staggering, amplified by the horns joining the party. However, as the last line of text shifts attention to standing before Almighty God, the musical imagery takes a serious turn.  All sober up, and a hymnlike passage adamantly and assuredly shouts (fortissimo) the words “stands before God,” while reaching gradually heavenward.  With the last “God,” the f-natural of D minor, and dominant of B-flat major, returns, and everything comes to a halt. Now that the Creator-God has been approached, the relationship of the music to the text grows even more complex, and specific.

Variation 3Variation 4Battle FugueVariation 5 (9:07-12:33): The Battle, Siegessymphonie or “Joy Victorious.”

Following the abrupt, sobering halt fitting to the sublime picture of standing before God, the next strophe that Beethoven set is a four-line chorus from Schiller’s original poem:

As joyously as His suns fly
across heaven’s splendid map,
follow, brothers, your appointed course,
gladly, like a hero to the victory

The dramatic focus of this strophe is battle, which is established by a resurgence of the “opposing” key of B-flat major as a compound-meter (6/8) instrumental march in the textless Variation 3 (9:07-9:39). The addition of the marching band wind instruments piccolo and contrabassoon, and Janissary percussion instruments triangle, cymbals, and bass drum, along with basic b-flat-to-f (tonic-dominant) bugle calls, enhance the march character, and suggest inclusion of another culture in this brotherhood—that of the Ottoman empire, which had long been the enemy of the Viennese. While the words for the strophe have not yet entered, the listener is drawn into the music of a marching band leading an army, setting the course “like a hero to the victory.”

Variation 4 (9:39-10:24) carries this theme forward, with the tenor soloist—the voice type associated with heroic roles in late-eighteenth-century operas—singing the lines of the strophe, whose call to arms is answered by the chorus (minus sopranos) repeating the last couplet, as brother soldiers joining in the march’s “appointed course.” An intense Fugue follows (10:24-11:51), depicting the violence and confusion of the battle in sublimely disquieting complex counterpoint, but also as a battle of keys. It begins in B-flat and works its way back towards D, ending with octave-leap figures in the strings on f-sharp in a move to reestablish D major. Distant horn echoes answer the string octaves, and the winds attempt to restart the “Joy” melody, until finally a grand crescendo leads to a victorious return of D major and the main theme, functioning as a recapitulatory double return, to begin Variation 5.  The first strophe of the Ode, too, reappears (a triple return?), sung by the “alle Menschen” of full chorus as a banner waved by the victors returning from the battlefield.  In the course of this variation “alle Menschen” is sung fortissimo, and enters before the downbeat, creating an extraordinary exuberant emphasis of “all people.” This variation functions as a Siegessymphonie—a “Victory symphony”—reminiscent of one Beethoven supplied in his incidental music to Goethe’s play Egmont in 1810, and which is also the coda to its Overture. Clear homophonic texture relieves the intense counterpoint of the battle fugue, and D major gains its final victory over B-flat.  The Janissary instruments have long-since dropped out, and cavalry-inspired trumpet fanfares confirm that Joy has been victorious in the battle.

Sacred InterruptionVariation 6 double fugueFantasia (12:33-20:13): A Te Deum laudamus, Joy through seeking the Creator, affirmation.

Variation 2 ended with humanity soberly standing before God, where for the first time in the movement specific words beyond the general rhetorical idea of the whole strophe received individual attention.  Recognition of the Creator returns following the battle and “Victory symphony” as a Te Deum laudamus lifted up in praise after the battle, in this most sacred strophe, imploring humanity to search for and recognize the Creator as the all-embracing, loving Father:

Be embraced, ye millions!
This kiss to the whole world!
Brothers—above the canopy of the stars
surely a loving Father dwells.

Do you fall headlong, o millions?
Do you sense the Creator, World?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
Above the stars He must dwell.

Significantly, Beethoven’s musical treatment of this sacred strophe—alone and combined with the first strophe—is the longest and most complex of the movement, lasting more than twice as long as any other Ode section. Its length is generated by multiple text repetitions, musical painting of individual words and phrases (rather than just one idea as in the earlier sections), and especially its weighty double fugue. The sum of these aspects signifies this as the goal of the entire piece, both musically and, by extension, the overall dramatic message Beethoven wished to convey.

The sacred topic of this prayerful Interruption (12:33-15:37) is immediately indicated by the entrance of the bass trombone playing in unison with cellos and double basses, and with the tenor and bass choir singing the first two lines of text in the style of Gregorian chant. Trombones, particularly the alto-tenor-bass trombone trio, had a sacred/supernatural association due to their centuries of use in church music to double choral parts.  While they made a brief and subtle appearance in the trio of the second movement, this is their first prominent entrance in the Ninth Symphony; withholding them until now makes the sacred character of this moment all the more effective. Adding to the sacred topic is the 3/2 time signature, and the melodic content of this first chant-like passage which, although appearing to be in G major, came from a strongly D-major section, moves down to d as its lowest note, and ends on the d an octave higher, thus giving the impression of a D-mixolydian (Mode VII) ecclesiastical modality. Sopranos and altos, along with the alto and tenor trombones, then join to repeat the text in a chorale style, continuing the sacred topic. The next two lines of text follow the same pattern.  An “old style” orchestration of divided violas and cellos, and wind instruments as the sound of an organ, lead to a choral hymn that first drops “headlong” to its knees in supplication, then gradually rises upwards to seek the Creator in the heavens. Here Beethoven famously depicted the starry canopy above which God must dwell, using high, soft orchestral sounds, sparkling with repeated pitches.  (Supplication to celebration: one is reminded of the end of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio.)

A return to D major begins Variation 6, a remarkable double fugue combining the melody and text of this strophe with those of the Theme and first “Joy” strophe (15:37-17:18). This most sacred of styles, and most complex and weighty of musical procedures, identifies the heart of the piece in Beethoven’s mind: the seeking of the Creator-God is necessarily interwoven with the ideal of bringing about a solid and all-inclusive human bond that can finally realize true Joy. This central, definitive message is affirmed by the following quasi-Fantasia (17:18-20:13) where chorus, soloists, and orchestra reiterate the main points of the first and last strophes by clear word painting and rhetorical gestures, leading to a beautiful soloist recitative passage moving to B major, destroying and remnant of B-flat major or D minor that may still reside in the listener’s ear, and recognizing the Creator’s protective wing.    

Finale Part III: “Epilogue” (Codas) (20:13-21:50).  Joy, the Divine spark, sealed with a kiss.

With this final move to D major, the structural coda begins.  D major is confirmed by soft unison b-to-a figures in the strings and finally the winds (20:13-20:20), spilling into the brilliant fortissimo orchestral celebration that for the first time combines (in D major) all of the instruments of the piece, including the sacred trombones, march-music piccolo and contrabassoon, and Janissary percussion instruments—“alle Menschen!” (20:20-20:23). Chorus confirms the “alle Menschen,” and offers the whole world its kiss over and over again, as they continue to affirm the loving Father that dwells above the stars (20:23-21:04).  Finally, with its last words, the chorus reminds the listener that the first descriptive identifier for Joy was, after all, the “Divine spark” (21:04-21:33): it originated with the Creator and has now gone full-circle in its recognition by the created, leaving “alle Menschen” in ecstasy. As the whole movement began with just instruments, a second coda for the orchestra alone carries the sentiment forward, bringing the work to a brilliant conclusion (21:33-21:50).


Another innovative structural twist wonderfully prepared the audience for this grand finale. Beethoven switched the traditional order of second and third movements, so that the vivacious Scherzo movement would continue to drive forward the rhythmic intensity and D-minor darkness of the opening Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso movement, thereby delaying the repose expected in the slow, serene Adagio molto e cantabile, in B-flat major.  Once this repose finally arrives, it is maintained and conspicuously sets up the explosive and bizarre opening of the finale movement.  As with the instrumental recitative, this was not the first time internal movements would be flipped in a symphony. Many symphonies from the 1750s and ‘60s, when symphonies were more closely connected to diversionary music such as the divertimento and cassation, follow this movement order—for example Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 37 in C of 1757, 15 in D and 32 in C of 1760.  But these works would likely have been forgotten by 1824, and the dramatic impact of Beethoven’s switch proved most convincing to the teleological thrust of the piece.

Three musical details of interest for Beethoven across his Late-period oeuvre effectively carry forward the drama of the Ninth Symphony: 1) use of dotted and double-dotted rhythms to generate relentless dramatic intensity, 2) the careful control of rhythmic motion and meter changes to bring about a sense of increasing or decreasing tempos, which sometimes, but not always, are enhanced by actual tempo changes as part of his variation concept within a single movement, and 3) a focus on fugue and variation procedures, i.e. the procedures that most overtly and completely deal directly with melodic details and the tools the art of music.  All of these characteristics had been used to some degree by Beethoven in his earlier works, but they take on a new emphasis and creative outlook in Beethoven’s Late period pieces, and play a part in the dramatic logic of his Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven’s completed his Piano Sonata No. 32 in C, Op. 111 in 1822, just before he undertook steady work on the Ninth Symphony. The sonata opens with a  series of double-dotted rhythms, conveying a majestic intensity rooted in the fantasia or improvisatory style. The incessant dotted rhythm is also a dominant feature of the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 (1826), originally intended as the finale of the String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130. While the dotted figure had long been related to royal and military (march) rhetorical topics, in these cases, as with other Late period works, Beethoven exploited the suspension—i.e. lengthening—of the dotted note to create an unnerving rhythmic tension, thereby suggesting a sublime aesthetic of itself, outside of inherited rhetorically connected meaning. In the Ninth Symphony, the dotted rhythm’s sublime tension is characteristic of the driving D-minor thematic material of the first and second movements. In the first movement it interrupts the nebulous open-fifth opening, building to the violent first theme in D minor following the first tonic pitch d played by the bassoons and B-flat horns as a dissonance with the prevailing harmony; the dotted material is restated in the key of B-flat major, thereby establishing the D minor/B-flat major principal key struggle that pervades the entire symphony. It roars back at the recapitulation, now in D major, but in the trappings of terror rather than victory.  Returning dotted rhythms in the Scherzo, pounded out first in a D-minor triad by the strings and timpani—tuned to an octave on the all-important f-natural—and making up most of the material of the Scherzo’s development and closing passage, retain the first movement’s tension, enhanced with surprising silences, and continue to be characteristic of the prevailing D-minor materials.  Like Op. 111 (opening of the Arietta last movement) and Op. 130/133 (Cavatina movement preceding the original Große fuge finale), in the Ninth Symphony the sublime intensity of the dotted rhythms is juxtaposed to beautiful cantabile, hymn-like material as part of Beethoven’s dramatic outlook: the sublime gives way to the beautiful. The D-major trio of the Scherzo movement is a simple folk tune played by the winds, similar to his earlier symphonies, and leads to a curious chorale-like chordal cadential passage, the sacredness of which is verified by the initial entrance of the three-trombone choir, before being violently interrupted by the return of D-minor Scherzo.

The final overcoming of the intense dotted rhythms of the first and second movements is finally achieved by the simple and steady quarter-note motion of the D-major “Joy” theme of the finale, devoid of dotted rhythms except at three of the four cadential points, and grounded in four-voice hymn style. The utter simplicity of this tune has been remarked upon by many critics, including one in a Providence, RI newspaper in 1868 saying, “It opened with eight bars of a commonplace theme, very much like Yankee Doodle.” (Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective, 52.)  Nonetheless, a sense of overcoming is generated by the profound rhythmic simplicity of the “Joy” theme.  Although dotted rhythms return during the finale, they serve the rhetorical, topical references of the text in more traditional ways—first representing the battle context of the “hero going to conquest” (“Janissary” Variations 3 and 4 in B-flat major) and then the majesty of the Creator-Father as the “Joy” text is combined with the most sacred strophe in the supremely important double fugue (Variation 6 in D major, discussed in more detail below)—and so have surrendered their sublime, unnerving effect in order to serve the rhetoric of text setting. 

But before the finale tune’s overcoming of the rhythmic intensity, a respite is offered by the serene third movement in B-flat major, marked Adagio molto e cantabile (in a singing manner). Chamber music combinations sing beautiful melodies that push back against the full-throated intensity of the Scherzo. These melodies are set in a free variation form that displays the second Late-period characteristic that Beethoven used in this symphony: the pacing of the variations is carefully controlled through rhythmic manipulation, metric changes, and written tempo changes. The Op. 111 finale contains the same rhythmic control in its variations. Tempo and meter changes are also part of Beethoven’s variation procedures in the Ninth’s finale.

The third Late-period characteristic that serves the drama—a focus on fugue and variation procedures, i.e. the procedures that most overtly and completely deal directly with melodic details and the tools the art of music—pervades the score. Beethoven’s letters from 1817 onward show an increased interest in the music of Bach and Handel, and of the Renaissance, and his Late-period compositions focus on variation and contrapuntal materials to a degree far surpassing those of his earlier works.  (See “Beethoven’s Words” essay below.) Variation is the principal formal procedure in movement three and in the finale, as discussed above, and requires no further comment here. In the Classical tradition Beethoven inherited, fugue writing was often used to convey battle and sacred topics, the former being served by the aural complexity created by the simultaneous melodic lines, and the latter by the tradition of choral and organ fugues central to the music of the church.  Beethoven followed these rhetorical situations in his use of fugue. Battle is suggested most prominently in the Scherzo’s main theme, where the contrapuntal writing carries forward the driving intensity of the first movement, and again in the finale’s Battle Fugue following Variation 4 which sets the Schiller verse urging all to “run your race, as a hero going to conquest.” Of course, the pinnacle of the last movement, and the place to which all matters point, is the combining of the strophe which most fully expresses the sacred with the opening Ode text in a grand double fugue, as Variation 6. While the listener had already been taken into the sacred topic by the trombone entrance, time signature, and chant-like singing when the sacred strophe began in the preceding Sacred Interruption section, holding back the fugue style to signify the sacred topic at this point offered Beethoven the opportunity to bring special weight and emphasis to combining the two texts, thereby sanctifying (re-sanctifying?) Joy—Divine spark.  


Culmination of the “Heroic” style: Characteristics from earlier symphonies reused and reconsidered.

While the Ninth Symphony was certainly groundbreaking and innovative, it also contains many characteristics that Beethoven explored in Symphonies 3-8, from his Middle or “Heroic” period.  The reuse and reconsideration of these characteristics and techniques in the Ninth Symphony to compellingly and effectively convey the message of the work make it, in many ways, a culmination of Beethoven’s effort to generate a more profound, clearly dramatic symphonic genre that can appeal to the broadest audiences with directness, intelligibility, and coherence.  The success of this goal relied upon Beethoven’s special ability to balance traditional treatment of the symphonic style he inherited with an keen sense of the dramatic possibilities that lay within that musical language if stretched, twisted, and reconsidered in light of his communicative desires, stemming from a recognition of art’s ability to improve the human condition.  As Wilfred Dunwell wrote: “Beethoven in his turn brought a new freedom, not by discarding an artistic convention, but by bringing within its scope a new range of human experiences.” (“The Age of Goethe and Beethoven,” in William Hays, ed., Twentieth Century Views of Music History, 297-98.) Some of the more relevant characteristics and techniques from earlier symphonies that Beethoven reconsidered in the Ninth Symphony are described below, and include references to their use in earlier works. For more information regarding their uses in earlier symphonies, the reader is directed to the essay pages at this site for each symphony.

Instrumentation. Beethoven’s instrumental outlook, particularly regarding the winds, brass, and percussion, is among the most dramatically compelling characteristics of his symphonies, and never more crucial to his dramatic goals than in the Ninth.  He takes care in using instruments to convey topical aspects as he inherited them, but he stretches these connections ever further. Symphony No. 9 is the only symphony in which he used four horns rather than the more traditional two in symphonic works, but his Middle-period overtures and other directly dramatic works generally had four, and of course, the Eroica Symphony used three horns to enhance its heroic character, particularly in the horn calls of the third movement’s trio.  Other non-traditional instruments in the symphonic repertoire—three trombones, piccolo, contrabassoon—were added for their topical identity, but they, too had appeared in earlier works, particularly the finale of Symphony No. 5 (all of them), and the storm movement of Symphony No. 6 (piccolo and two trombones). Beethoven had used “Janissary” percussion instruments in his Wellington’s Victory to depict the Battle of Vitoria, and reuses them the Ninth’s finale. But Beethoven’s genius in the use of these unusual instruments is not simply that they are there, but that, as in his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, he withholds them until they can be most emphatic to the story’s desired effect. In the Fifth Symphony, these instruments did not appear until the triumphant finale opening, and in the Sixth Symphony the pastoral, relaxed quality is maintained by an orchestra that withholds even trumpets until the third-movement trio, and timpani, trombones and piccolos until the fourth-movement storm scene, thereby taking full advantage of their dramatic colors. In the Ninth, the intensity of the scherzo movement’s violent counterpoint could have been made more frightening if it included some of these loud instruments, but Beethoven withheld them until the finale, where they could most compellingly convey to the audience the topics to which they were associated, thereby making the message of his symphony as vivid as possible.

There are too many instances where Beethoven treats individual instruments in ways that reflect the culmination of his development from the First Symphony forward, but one deserves mention here.  In the scherzo movement, Beethoven directs the timpani to be tuned in octave fs, rather than the expected tonic-dominant d-a to suit the key of the movement. These octave fs ring out in the opening bars of the movement and return at several crucial moments, most notably as the first theme recapitulates following a developmental section that explored several different keys. In each case, the roar of the timpani pitch f insists that the prevailing key and character is D minor, not D major (which would use f-sharp rather than f) or some other tonal area.  Symphony No. 8’s last movement had the same f-octave tuning for the timpani, so this was not the first such instance in the Beethoven symphonies.  But in the Eighth Symphony the intent is quite different: the unusual timpani tuning is a joke that carries forward the jocular scherzando character that pervades the symphony, and is highlighted by its playing of the octave-leap motive introduced in the first movement and which can be heard throughout, as here in the finale, doubling the bassoon.  (See Symphony No. 8 “Significance and Structure” essay for more details.)

Formal manipulations—“crossing the boundaries”.  Beethoven’s development of the symphonic genre has long received attention and praise for the stunning ways that Classical structural and formal boundaries became clouded and reconsidered in order to bring about more compellingly dramatic instrumental masterpieces. Clearly, the structures Beethoven inherited remained part of his formal thinking, but they were taken in new directions.  Here are some of the more prominent examples of structural “boundary crossings” that had been pursued in earlier symphonies, and appear in the Ninth:

Key relationships based on thirds (other than relative major-minor) rather than on fifths (dominant, subdominant):  Throughout the Ninth, D minor/major and B-flat major are in conflict, although reconciled in finale.  This conflict is introduced very quickly in the first movement, as the first theme first appears in D minor, then is immediately restated in B-flat major, which becomes the key of the second theme.  The slow movement’s tonic is B-flat major, and the culmination of the B-flat key is the “battle” variations of the finale, emphasized by the addition of the march and Janissary instruments. Third-related keys were prominent features in many Beethoven works, notably the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies from 1811-12.  (See the essays in Symphony No. 7 and Symphony No. 8 for details.)

Switching of expected movement order: As has already been discussed above, Beethoven decided to swap the expected order of the internal movements, placing the usual second movement—slow, more subdued, often of a pastoral topic, in a different key—as the third movement, in order to calmly prepare the audience for the explosive opening and dramatic grandeur of the finale, and the usual third-movement scherzo—jocular or intense parody of the minuet, return to tonic key—as the second movement, thereby continuing the restless, even violent character of the first movement even further, making the sense of some relief offered by the slow movement more profound because of its delay.  In his earlier works, especially Symphony No. 5, the third-movement scherzo gives the effect of re-establishing disquietude after the subdued second movement, which then builds into the grand finale—while still teleological in its push to the end, a very different dramatic trajectory than the Ninth.

Four movements, two “acts”:  In Symphony No. 5 and Symphony No. 6 Beethoven used attacca indications to continue from one movement on to the next without pause, with all of the movements following the completion of the slow movement connected as one mega-movement. This suggests that Beethoven conceived of the multi-movement symphonic cycle in a two-part division, much like two acts of a drama, with the second act pushing to the end without pause, following the respite of a first-act-ending pastoral scene.  Other than the attacca continuity, internal musical evidence also supports this dramatic concept.  In Symphony No. 5, the third-movement scherzo reestablishes the stormy darkness of C minor following the more relaxed A-flat-major second movement, and continues without pause right into the victorious C-major finale by using a bridge passage based upon the return of the scherzo following the trio.  This connection is confirmed at the end of the finale’s development section, where this scherzo bridge passage returns in order to set up the recapitulation.  The first two movements of the “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 use only pairs of woodwinds and horns with the strings, helping to maintain a relaxed pastoral character, right through to the end of the reposed second movement, which Beethoven suggestively labeled “Scene by a Brook,” and which contains the most direct mimetic references to natural things such as birds. As Berlioz suggested, the “program” of these first two movements are devoid of humans, other than the observer. (See “Others’ Words” essay on the Symphony No. 6 page.) With the third movement, other humans enter the drama—peasants joyfully dance until their revelry is interrupted by a storm, which eventually subsides, giving way to hymns of thanksgiving—in a series of three connected movements that also change in orchestral color by adding trumpets, timpani, piccolo, and trombones in turn to enhance the drama. Symphony No. 9 follows this two-act model in its own way, with the gargantuan finale being the “second act” of itself.  It includes the addition of text and voices, and other instruments not in the first three movements—the “first act.”  And similar to the Symphony No. 5 finale’s return of the scherzo passage, there are substantial reminiscences of the three movements that comprise the scenes of “first act.” The “act one” materials are rejected in order to move forward in the “new, more joyful tones” of “act two.”  And as with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, this two-act structure follows the completion of the subdued slow movement, made possible because of Beethoven’s reversal of the internal movements’ expected order. 

Movement I formal twists that reflect earlier experimentation:

Introduction or not?: While it was very unusual for a minor-key first movement to have a slow introduction (none of Haydn’s or Mozart’s minor symphonies included one), the nebulous opening of first movement suggests an introductory function by its sparseness, avoidance of the tonic key (tonic pitch d doesn’t appear until bar 13 as a dissonance in the B-flat horns and second bassoon), and avoidance of what could be considered a tune. The “first theme” emerges from this unusual opening without the traditional signal of tempo change. Beethoven presented many options for connecting tissue between introductory material and exposition themes even in his First Symphony, with notable “solutions” in his Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. But in each of these cases (all major keys), a tempo change—slow to fast—guided the ear to the new section, with a connecting motive spanning the tempos.  In the Ninth he does away with the tempo change, but the slow-moving harmonies of the opening create an introductory function, eventually organically giving way to thematic, i.e. expository material, only to re-emerge in an new key (B-flat major) and seemingly start all over.

No repeat of the Exposition: For the first time in his symphonies, Beethoven wrote no repeat sign for his exposition, with the development beginning as if the exposition was starting again.  Overtures to operas in sonata-allegro form had followed this practice, as exemplified in those by Mozart (e.g. Overtures to Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro) and Haydn (e.g. Il mondo della luna), among others, and Beethoven’s own Leonore/Fidelio overtures as well as his overtures to plays and ballets (Creatures of Prometheus, Egmont, Coriolanus, King Stephen) continued this non-repeat tradition. Other than the use of voices and text in the last movement, perhaps there is no better indication of Beethoven’s wish to cross the boundaries of symphony and stage music than in this structural twist.

Development section new “theme”: Traditionally, developments were designed to experiment with exposition thematic-motivic material for heightening dramatic tension.  However, as early as the Eroica Symphony, and continuing in the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Symphonies, Beethoven would introduce a new theme during the development, often to draw attention to significant keys other than tonic. Most famously, in the first movement of the Eroica Symphony in E-flat, a new theme is heard in the distant key of E minor, highlighting this key struggle. In the Ninth, a new theme in the development calls attention to the key of A minor and then A major, one of the few instances of the “dominant” key being used in the work, just before the recapitulation begins.

Recapitulation opens quite differently in character than exposition: A thunderous, full orchestral, fortissimo announces the return of the first theme in the tonic D, now major, to begin the recapitulation. This has a quite different effect than the first theme had at the beginning of the movement. Rather than a satisfying return to the tonic and first theme that usually characterizes the beginning of the recapitulation, here it is disquieting, requiring resolution at a later time—the finale.  The tonic pitch d is not in the bass, as would be expected, but the cellos and basses (and bottom viola part) play f-sharp as the lowest note of the chord, while all of the other instruments scream the pitches d and a (including a thunderous d roll in the timpani).  It is as if the lower instruments are trying to move the music to a satisfactory major-mode sound, but fail to overcome the roaring of the rest of the orchestra, and finally concede to D minor. The first movement of Symphony No. 8 showed a similar delayed resolution at the recapitulation, characterized by the melody being played by cellos and basses, and the entrance of the F major tonic chord with the c in the bass, emphasized by the timpani on that pitch.  The resolution to a relaxing tonic chord was there delayed until the end of the first theme’s melody.

Movement II formal twists that reflect earlier experimentation:

The Scherzo movement, too, contains some structural designs that reflect earlier experimentation taken to the next level.

Sonata-Allegro form:  Minuet movements in Haydn’s symphonies had shown a growth in the sections following the first repeat sign—the B section of the rounded binary form—both in the complexity of melodic materials and the exploration of many different keys.  These same works would also begin to expand the A section of the rounded binary to include more than one musical theme. Beethoven’s earlier symphonies continued and expanded upon this trend in scherzo movements, with a notable leap in such development occurring in the Eroica Symphony No. 3 but growing ever more through Symphony No. 7. (The Eighth Symphony, notably, has a simpler structure for its Menuetto.)  With the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven included thematic material in the A section in two different keys, followed by a full-fledged development section and restatement of all A-section themes in the tonic key of D minor, thus pushing the rounded binary form to a complete sonata-allegro form.

Fugue: The trio in the Fifth Symphony’s third movement had been based on contrapuntal writing, with a fugue subject beginning in the cellos and basses, and gradually working its way up through the rest of the strings and winds. This use of more complex fugue writing was in stark contrast to the more usual wind-based folk-like music of Beethoven’s other trios, thereby helping to make this third movement more “weighty.” The scherzo of the Ninth Symphony takes this idea even further, with the whole scherzo section based on fugue style. The fugue scherzo is balanced by a very different style in the trio: the more common wind-instrument sound is present, but in a “sacred” 2/2 time signature, and the addition of trombones in a closing chorale-like passage. So two completely different characters—one intense and contrapuntally complex, and one more hymn-like and joyful—contradict each other in the movement. Beethoven had used material in different time signatures in one other earlier scherzo movement, that of the Sixth Symphony.

Movement III form:

While the principle of variation is the binding formal element of the cantabile third movement, the overall form remains a topic of debate.  Lewis Lockwood sees it as “a free adaptation of the alternating variations scheme that Haydn had employed in some of his late works, notable the ‘Drum-roll’ Symphony No. 103.” (Lockwood, Beethoven’s Symphonies, 213.)  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is again a model. Its slow movement is based on two themes alternating in varied forms—one in A-flat major and one in C major.  In the Ninth slow movement, a B-flat theme is followed by a D major theme. In both of these slow movements, the usual strictness of this alternation is broken, and as Lockwood stated, treated freely.  In the Fifth, the C-major theme disappears for the last couple of variations, with only the A-flat major material remaining.  After the introduction of the two themes in the Ninth, subsequent D-major-theme variations are in other keys, leaving the key of D major behind.  The B-flat theme does have variations in other keys, but the movement ends with this theme returning in its proper key.  


The structure of the whole of Symphony No. 9 is unique, and begs for a narrative description that brings the textless first three movements into the narrative fold suggested and fulfilled by the finale.  As stated earlier, there have been many attempts at defining the character and unusual structural aspects of the instrumental movements by way of descriptive “programmes,” including those by Berlioz and Wagner, and more recently by Tovey, Taruskin, and McCleary, among others.  Several of these descriptions are summarized here, and conductor John Eliot Gardiner calls upon some of their ideas in his fine discussion of the Ninth, which can be viewed here.  But Beethoven did not leave us a narrative drama that accounts for the first three movements, despite clearly aiming our minds towards the specific story told in the finale.  He expected us to build our own understanding of the music, based on our unique experiences, until his final symphonic movement urges us to join together as one human family, under the Creator’s protective wing.  It is hoped this discussion will enhance your own understanding of Beethoven’s wonderful last symphony, and thus make your own experience of its music even more satisfactory, and thrilling.

Contributor: MER


Beethoven’s Words

“Persevere, do not only practice your art, but endeavor also to fathom its inner meaning; it deserves this effort.  For only art and science can raise men to the level of gods. . . . The true artist has no pride.  He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps be admiring him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.” Letter dated July 17, 1812 to “Emilie M.,” a girl of probably 8-10 years of age, who had written Beethoven a letter of admiration. (Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, no. 376.)


As has been demonstrated in the above essay on Significance and Structure, while the musical language Beethoven inherited relied on rhetorical and topical gestures to convey meaning, Beethoven stretched this language in new expressive directions that asked ever more of his audiences.  Mark Evan Bonds recognized the change in the reception of orchestral music that occurred during Beethoven’s lifetime.  Comparing it to that of Haydn, Bonds states, “Haydn’s music was perceived—consciously or unconsciously—within a rhetorical tradition, whereas Beethoven’s music . . . was heard within an entirely different, non-rhetorical framework, one based on the idea that music reflects a form of truth that we, as listeners, must strive to comprehend.” (“Rhetoric vs. Truth: Listening to Haydn in the Age of Beethoven,” in Beghin and Goldberg, eds., Haydn and the Performance of Rhetoric, 111.)  Bonds goes on to explain that the shift in the symphonic genre’s reception is, essentially, from rhetorical argument to philosophical inquiry.  He demonstrates the point by highlighting the verbs E. T. A. Hoffmann used in his 1810 essay on Beethoven’s instrumental music (see Symphony No. 5 “Others’ Words” essay): Hoffmann described Haydn’s and Mozart’s works as “leading the listener” as a great rhetorician forms an argument, but of Beethoven’s music, the listener is “opened up to” the possibility of deeper understanding, as a philosopher opens a door of wonderment towards seeking truth. (“Rhetoric vs. Truth: Listening to Haydn in the Age of Beethoven,” 121.) 

Beethoven himself seems to have recognized and even promoted this emerging perspective.  Letters from 1812 onward, including the one quoted above, contain ever-increasing references to music and art as capable of pursuing truth—the proper activity of what he called “empire of the mind” in this letter written to Prague lawyer Dr. Johann Nepomuk Kanka dated autumn 1814, as the Congress of Vienna was getting underway:  “I have been compelled, and still am compelled, to set bounds to my inclination, nay more, to the duty which I had imposed on myself, i.e. to work by means of my art for human beings in distress—I shall not say anything to you about our monarchs and so forth or about our monarchies and so forth, for the papers report everything to you—I much prefer the empire of the mind, and I regard it as the highest of all spiritual and worldly monarchies.” (Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, no. 502.)

The practical outcome of such lofty goals can be seen in his Late style works from the last decade of his life.  In his words and in his late compositional style, Beethoven showed a growing interest in more deeply understanding the possibilities that lie in the language of music itself, particularly in the study and application of Baroque and Renaissance counterpoint.  A letter to his student and patron Archduke Rudolph, dated July 29, 1819, makes clear his thoughts on the matter (Anderson, Letters of Beethoven, no. 955; italics are Beethoven’s):

The chief purpose is rapid execution united to a better understanding of art, wherein practical considerations, however may of necessity admit certain exceptions; in which connection the older composers render us double service, since there is generally real artistic value in their work (among them, of course, only the German Händel and Sebastian Bach possessed genius).  But in the world of art, freedom and progress are the main objectives. And although we moderns are not quite as advanced in solidarity as our ancestors, yet the refinement of our customs has enlarged many of our conceptions as well. 

It is perhaps not an accident that this greater interest in studying the counterpoint of the past coincided with Beethoven’s work on the Missa Solemnis, Op. 123, which was intended for the installation of the Archduke as Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820, but left unfinished until 1823. But Beethoven’s study of counterpoint went deeper than its obvious topical association with sacred music. Counterpoint is the most thorough study of the science of music, which can uncover layer upon layer of ways the smallest musical ideas can be treated.  To be sure, Beethoven’s music had always shown a fascination with motivic connections and aspects of melodic variation. The short-short-short-long motive that pervades the Fifth Symphony, and the hefty theme-and-variations form of the finale of the Eroica Symphony, testify to this.  Yet, in the Late style period, Beethoven’s fascination with variation and contrapuntal writing, particularly fugue but also in hymn-like vocally inspired passages, take on a new prominence, and become the central compositional procedures of his music—a “back to the basics” outlook.  All of Beethoven’s works of the last ten years of his life contain substantial portions, even entire movements, wherein variation procedures and fugue writing generate the form and dramatic thrust of the piece. Perhaps most notable among them are the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 (1824), and the Grosse Fuge, Op. 133 (1826), but each of the late piano sonatas, opp. 109 and 111, and string quartets, opp. 127, 131, 132, and 135, rely heavily on variation, fugue, and hymn-like settings of vocal-style melodies.

In Symphony No. 9, fugue and variation writing seems to be everywhere, particularly in the last two movements, but also prominently features in the Scherzo.  Beethoven found in these procedures an ability to stretch the smallest ideas into grand expression.  The open fifth harmony and falling fifth motives of the opening bars of the first movement become the basis of nearly all of his musical ideas, but not as a recurring bit as in the Fifth Symphony.  Instead, throughout the Ninth these motives are expanded and treated in ever-increasing complexity, leading to the grand double fugue of the finale’s “sacred” Variation 6. One can argue, of course, that the Ninth’s use of fugue especially, but also variation, follows the structural and rhetorical expectations of the Classical style. For example, slow movements of Haydn often used variation forms, and battle and sacred topics often utilized fugue style. But in the Ninth, Beethoven’s mastery of these procedures for their own sake—music as music—results in a masterpiece that carries the listener well beyond the rhetorical and structural principles of earlier works, in both quality and quantity.  Rather than “lead” the listeners to the various states of mind and heart of the drama, it “opens them up” to the greater, more profound idealistic goal of ultimate human Joy, that Divine spark, conceivable only in the “empire of the mind.”

Contributor: MER


Others’ Words

“And the hero is none other than—Beethoven. . . . [Beethoven] sought to bound the limits of the ocean, to find the land which needs must lie beyond the watery wastes. . . . With might and main he willed to land on this new world, for toward it alone had he set sail. Staunchly he threw his anchor out; and this anchor was the Word. . . . . This was the word which Beethoven set as crown upon the forehead of his tone-creation; and this word was: ‘Freude!’ (‘Rejoice!’) With this word he cries to men: ‘Breast to breast; ye mortal millions! This one kiss to all the world! And this Word will be the language of the Art-work of the Future.’ . . . The Last Symphony of Beethoven is the redemption of Music from out her own peculiar element into the realm of universal Art.” Richard Wagner, The Artwork of the Future (1849), trans. William Ashton Ellis, 126.


Between 1849 and ’51, Richard Wagner wrote three documents— Art and Revolution, The Art-Work of the Future, and Opera and Drama—in which he laid out what he proposed as an “art-work of the future.” Wagner’s ideas on this future, more universal art form were complex, and full of precise details.  He promoted bringing about a new type of art that would have a most profound influence on the betterment of humanity, much like the Greek dramas of antiquity, and like those dramas, was built by the careful combination of all arts, with particular emphasis on music, dance, and poetry. Each of the several arts would in effect give up their separate considerations in order to blend into a greater, universal art form. In the above quote, Wagner indicates that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 took a giant step in that direction, because Beethoven’s own symphonic outlook evolved to a point where he necessarily had to “throw himself into the arms of the poet” in order to make clear to the audience, i.e. humanity, the full meaning of his musical language.  Thus, Beethoven began to break down the barriers between music genres such as symphony, sacred music, and stage music, creating a new, more expressive artwork in which music and poetry served a dramatic intent beyond mere entertainment, entering a new, redemptive artistic expression conveying a social-spiritual guidance hinging on religion.

While Wagner suggested this new approach to art would be universal, Beethoven’s choice to use text in the finale of the Ninth symphony and the manner in which he chose to set this text using rather straightforward rhetorical musical references were far from receiving universal approval.  From its earliest performances, many critics and musicians were decidedly against this new approach of going beyond the structural expectations of the symphonic genre, judging it to be un-artistic, cheap, overly obvious, and pandering to the lowest capabilities of understanding by a mass audience. Here are a few examples of such criticisms:

The chorus . . . is in many places exceedingly imposing and effective, but then there is so much of it . . . without any decisive or definite meaning—and to crown all, the deafening, boisterous jollity of the concluding part. . . . Beethoven finds from all the public accounts, that noisy extravagance of execution and outrageous clamor in musical performances more frequently ensures applause than chastened elegance or refined judgment. (Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, London, 1825.)

We heard lately in Boston the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. . . . But is not worship paid this Symphony mere fetishism? . . . The Finale is to me for the most part dull and ugly. . . . I admit to the grandeur of the passage “und Millionen!” But oh, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music!  The unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune, “Freude, Freude!” (Philip Hale, Musical Record, Boston, 1899.)

Perhaps the most famous condemnation came from violinist, composer, and Romantic music icon  Louis Spohr, who wrote in his autobiography published posthumously in 1861:

I confess freely that I could never get any enjoyment out of Beethoven’s last works.  Yes, I must include among them even the much-admired Ninth Symphony, the fourth movement of which seems to me so ugly, in such bad taste, and in the conception of Schiller’s Ode so cheap that I cannot even now understand how such a genius as Beethoven could pen it.  I find in it a confirmation of something I had already noticed in Vienna, that Beethoven was failing in his aesthetic cultivation and his sense of Beauty. (Louis Spohr, Selbstbiographie, Cassel, 1861.)

Beethoven himself seems to have had doubts about the finale.  Early sketches of the symphony show that Beethoven intended an instrumental finale.  Student and confidante Carl Czerny reported to Otto Jahn that on more than one occasion following the first performance, Beethoven expressed to friends that the choral finale was a mistake—an inappropriate movement for a symphony—and he would write an instrumental last movement to replace the choral finale for its publication. 

In any case, nearly 200 years after the first performance, it is fair to say that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, especially its choral finale, has seen a larger universal appeal than perhaps any other piece of music. Since the late twentieth century the piece has become a symbol of unity across national borders.  In 1972 the “Ode to Joy” tune and first strophe launched the Europe Day campaign, and in 1985 the EU heads of state adopted it as the official anthem of the European Community, which would become the European Union in 1993. Emerging independent countries such as Rhodesia in 1974 and Kosovo in 2008 have used it as a temporary national anthem. It has been performed in a number of cross-national and international sporting events, including Ryder and FIFA Cup competitions, and in every Olympic Games since 1956, culminating in the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, when Seiji Ozawa conducted a performance by choirs all over the world, linked via satellite.  Among the most memorable performance occasions for Europe in the last half of the twentieth century was the Berlin Concert, Christmas 1989, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth, with “Freiheit” (Freedom) replacing “Freude” (Joy), reflecting the newly reunified Germany freed from the tyranny of Communism. Wagner’s assessment of the Ninth as a step towards a new universal art may, indeed, have been accurate to some degree.

Contributor: MER


Topics and readings for further inquiry

General perspectives on the Ninth Symphony
Alexander Rehding. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.  Available as an ebook.  Chapter 2 gives an informative and interesting assessment of historical political perspectives related to the piece, including changes to Schiller’s ode text. 

Harvey Sachs. The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824. New York: Random House, 2010.

Beethoven and Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”
Olga Baird, “Early settings of the ‘Ode to joy’: Schiller–Beethoven–Tepper de Ferguson,” The Musical Times 154 (Spring 2013), 85-97.  Available at JStor.

Alexander Rehding. “Chapter 2: Making History.” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.  Available as an ebook

Changing political perspectives of the Ninth Symphony
Lewis Lockwood. “Ch. 20. The Celestial and the Human,” in Beethoven: The Music and the Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003. 

Alexander Rehding. “Chapter 2: Making History.” Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.  Available as an ebook

Wagner on Beethoven
Richard Wagner.  Beethoven (1870). Translated and edited by William Ashton Ellis.

Beethoven’s Late style period
Martin Cooper.  Beethoven: the Last Decade.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Maynard Solomon. Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Janissary Music in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
Catherine Schmidt-Jones, “Janissary Music and Turkish Influences on Western Music.” Accessed 09/09/2020.

Beethoven and Orchestration
Leon Botstein, “Sound and structure in Beethoven’s orchestral music,” in The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, edited by Glenn Stanley, 165-85 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Cambridge University Press link.


Select Online Resources

Early Editions of Score and Parts
Schott Score first edition.

Modern Edition of the ScoreDover Edition.

Recordings available online
Period/HIP Performances—
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner.
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement
Video of 4th Movement

Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Harnoncourt.
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement
Complete set of Beethoven Symphonies

Academy of Ancient Music, Hogwood.
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement

Orchestra of the 18th Century, Brüggen
1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement, 4th movement
Complete Set of Beethoven Symphonies by Orchestra of the 18th Century and Brüggen

Hanover Band, Goodman.

Modern Orchestra Performances—
Berlin Celebration Concert, Christmas 1989. Leonard Bernstein, conducting.
Celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  “Freiheit” (Freedom) replaces “Freude” (Joy) in the performance, reflecting the newly reunified Germany freed from the tyranny of Communism.

1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games opening ceremonies.  “World Chorus” performance, conducted by Seiji Ozawa.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ricardo Muti conducting. 2015 performance.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conducting.

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus, Ricardo Chailly conducting.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan conducting.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, 1951, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting.


Descriptions available online (videos, program notes, etc.,)
Columbia University Module.  Compiled by Marlon Feld. 
Includes interpretations and descriptions by Wagner, Sullivan, Tovey, Taruskin, and McClary.

“Up above the stars He must dwell,” John Eliot Gardiner discusses Symphony No. 9.
Final installment of Gardiner’s discussion of the Beethoven symphonies, with demonstrative excerpts by the Revolution and Romanic Orchestra.

E.C. Lewy and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Premiere.
Article about the orchestras and players in Vienna in the early nineteenth century, particularly horn player E. C. Lewy.

Wikipedia article on the Symphony No. 9
Good analysis and some useful historical information.

Cleveland Symphony Prometheus Project. “Putting it Together: Beethoven Symphony No. 9.”

Phillip Huscher, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program Notes: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Tom Service, The Guardian, “Symphony Guide: Beethoven’s Ninth.”