By Michael Dirda
Thursday, June 17, 2010; C03
Beethoven and the World in 1824
By Harvey Sachs
Random House. 225 pp. $26
Fifty years ago, it was a truth commonly, if not universally, acknowledged that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was the greatest composer of all time. With his granite visage and wild Einsteinian hair, he looked every inch the musical titan.
His famous Fifth Symphony opened with the most thrilling four notes in the repertoire -- four hammer blows, like Fate pounding on the door of the soul. The "Eroica" (Symphony No. 3) was only slightly less famous, in part because it had originally been dedicated to Gen. Bonaparte, until Napoleon decided he'd rather be emperor. The sweet Sixth (the "Pastoral") has always had its admirers, too, though some connoisseurs have long preferred the Seventh, which Richard Wagner characterized as "the apotheosis of the dance."
In recent years, however, Mozart has gradually edged out Beethoven as classical music's favorite poster boy. In truth, the multi-talented Mozart is a far more lovable genius than the prickly romantic-revolutionary, whose compositions could never be used as background music for a dinner party.
This is particularly true of Beethoven's introspective late works, written at the end of his life when he was completely deaf, in particular the last five string quartets and the final symphony, the great D Minor. Sometimes called the "Choral" Symphony because its last movement requires soloists and a chorus, the Ninth begins in darkness and chaos and rises to a transcendent celebration of universal brotherhood.
As Harvey Sachs reminds us in his study of this masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony -- and especially the "Ode to Joy" that is at the heart of its conclusion -- has become our go-to music for occasions of deep solemnity: "The opening of the United Nations, the signing of a peace treaty at the end of a war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the consecration of a new concert hall: It is perceived as a vessel for a message that confers a quasi-religious yet nondenominational blessing on all 'good' and 'just' people, institutions, and enterprises -- in short, on 'our side,' whatever that may be."
In "The Ninth," Sachs -- author of a fine biography of conductor Arturo Toscanini and several other books -- looks at the symphony from various perspectives. In Part 1 he situates the work in Beethoven's life and career, with a detailed account of its first performance in Vienna in 1824. He reminds us that Beethoven was the first composer to think seriously about posterity, to intend his music to survive him. In near-suicidal despair over his deafness, he wrote in his "Heiligenstadt Testament": "It seemed impossible to leave the world before I had brought forth all that I felt destined to bring forth."
In Part 2, Sachs sets the work in its time. Through a series of potted biographies, he presents a tour d'horizon of the romantic movement in 1824, a year that included "the Ninth Symphony, Byron's death" -- fighting for Greek freedom, by the way -- "Pushkin's Boris Godunov and 'To the Sea,' Delacroix's Massacre at Chios, Stendhal's Racine and Shakespeare, and Heine's Harz Journey and North Sea Pictures." He notes that "if there is a hidden thread that connects Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to the works created in and around 1824 by other significant artists, it is precisely this quest for freedom: political freedom, from the repressive conditions that then dominated Europe, and freedom of expression, certainly, but above all freedom of the mind and spirit."
Part 3 is largely given over to an extended verbal analysis of the music itself. Sachs apologizes for even attempting to "describe the indescribable" without resorting to technical musical terminology. He does a superb job. "The first movement of the Ninth neither beguiles nor coerces us; it befalls us." Listeners, he enjoins, "must approach this piece of music -- probably the most courageous orchestral composition ever written, and the most horrifying one -- obliquely, circumspectly, lest it crush them."
Later, of the Ninth's third movement, Sachs asserts that "nothing more beautiful . . . has ever been written for the symphony orchestra." Again he quotes Toscanini: "One ought to conduct it on one's knees." Only in the glorious fourth and last movement does Beethoven introduce his chorus and soloists -- and the words to Friedrich von Schiller's "Ode to Joy": "Freude, schöner Götterfunken/Tochter aus Elysium" -- "Joy, beautiful divine spark/Daughter of Elysium." The music gradually builds to a proclamation of universal human equality with "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" -- "All men become brothers."
Here Sachs pauses to describe the challenges Beethoven imposed on his soloists: "The tenor is forced to cross both the alto and the bass lines at various moments, and each of the singers has such long, florid passages that the only alternative to breathing in the middle of individual words would be learning to breathe through the ears. The composer knew that he was demanding the impossible but went ahead and demanded it all the same."
In Part 4 Sachs offers another survey, this time tracing the impact of the Ninth Symphony on 19th-century composers born before 1824, Berlioz and Wagner in particular. Because they were born after his cut-off date, Sachs omits Brahms, Bruckner and Mahler -- all three of whom, he admits, were haunted by the shadow of the Ninth. This was, in my view, a bad call, and their symphonies should have been discussed.
Finally, in a "postlude" Sachs recalls his own boyhood discovery -- in Cleveland -- of Beethoven and touches on the composer's importance to him. Not just the Ninth, he concludes, but Beethoven's music in general "adds to the fullness when life feels good, and it lengthens and deepens the perspective when life seems barely tolerable. It is with me and in me. And I suppose that this book is a vastly oversized and yet entirely inadequate thank-you note to Beethoven."
It's more than that. "The Ninth" isn't a profoundly scholarly work, but it will send readers to their CD players. There are many magnificent performances of this masterpiece, but stand-outs include Wilhelm Furtwängler's classic 1951 recording and the 1994 version on period instruments by John Eliot Gardiner.
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