Beethoven and His Ninth Symphony

Ludwig van Beethoven began his life at an enormous disadvantage, being born some fourteen years after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In that year of 1770, Mozart had already set the palaces and concert halls of Europe on their collective ear. By the age of five, he was dazzling the royalty of Europe with his virtuosity on both the piano and violin, and he was already composing. At the time of his death in 1791, at the young age of thirty-five, he had composed more than six hundred works.

Arguably the most prodigious artistic genius who has ever lived, like many great artists Mozart became highly proficient at what existed at the time and then redefined the entirely of it, and to such an extent that nothing was ever the same again. Quite simply, Mozart makes one feel joyful and deeply grateful to be alive. I’m no musical scholar but there is a sound to something of Mozart’s that is nearly always unmistakable. It just lifts the spirit in ways that no other music can. Kurt Vonnegut once said to me that the function of art is simply to make people happy. Listen to the overture to his opera, The Magic Flute, and you will need no further explanation.

Then there’s Beethoven. By all accounts, Beethoven was a pianist of phenomenal talent. He was a great admirer of Mozart from the earliest age and was haunted by a quiet despondency, right up until his death in 1827, that he was just not as great as Mozart. That nagging thought might have been the thing that drove him, unyieldingly, toward perfection all of his life. The fact that Mozart was actually alive, and at the very height of his powers until Beethoven was well into his career at age twenty-one, clearly helped keep Beethoven on the edge of despair, and he spent more than thirty years trying to overcome it. I don’t believe he ever did.

There’s great controversy among historians about the circumstances of an actual meeting of the two men, if one occurred at all. Some music historians say they did meet on one occasion in 1787, when Mozart, by varying accounts, either praised the seventeen-year-old prodigy or rejected him entirely. What’s certain is that Beethoven left Vienna and returned to his home in Bonn to tragic circumstances. While Mozart was being toasted in the courts of Europe as the great genius of the age, Beethoven was faced with a dying mother, an alcoholic father, and two younger siblings for whom he was forced to assume responsibility. It wasn’t until five years had passed that he was able return to Vienna. During those five years he was beginning to find his voice as a composer. But his life continued to present enormous challenges, one of which can only be described as catastrophic for a man of music. By 1798, still in his twenties, Beethoven became aware that his hearing was diminishing and, by the age of forty-four he was, in fact, totally deaf. He managed to communicate with close friends by the use of notebooks in which they would write and he would respond. But his terrible frustration at his predicament, and his caustic fate, made him embittered and very isolated. The challenges to his ability to play and compose could surely not be overstated.

Unlike Mozart, who wrote in great flourishes of inspiration, Beethoven was more of a toiler. He seemed to do battle with concepts in his head, sometimes for many years, before he could feel satisfied in a result. There was no piece that presented a greater struggle than that which became his final, vaunted Symphony No. 9. As a young man he’d happened upon a poem that became central to his conception of that symphony, “Ode to Joy” by fellow German Friedrich Schiller. In so very many critical ways, poetry and music are creative counterparts, each comple­menting and inspiring the other. Schiller’s ode, despite its 
references to a divine maker and familiar references to religious imagery, might have been one of the very first truly humanistic poems. It spoke of universal brotherhood, the celebration of living, 
of human freedom, and of the transcendent gifts of nature. Beethoven was haunted by a vision for most of his life, which was to set this to a musical masterpiece and in doing so elevate Schiller’s words to never-before-considered heights.

To do it, he employed the deepest recesses of his creativity, employing musical fireworks never before attempted in a symphonic piece: a full orchestra, with several double basses, the rumble of tympani, and an enormous choir of voices behind four soloists. I’ve been fortunate to have seen the Ninth performed on four different occasions, and simply seeing it all being assembled on stage—the enormous orchestra seated as the choir files in, then the soloists, and finally the conductor—is enough to make the spirit quiver with anticipation before the first note is heard. More than two hundred people perform, and one can become quickly overwhelmed considering the first music lessons as young children and the individual efforts over a lifetime each of the singers and musicians took to gain the proficiency to do their small part in the performance.

As for the symphony itself, I simply consider it to be the singular creative achievement in human history. Beethoven, through his suffering and his determination, manages to describe, in music, what it means to be human. And, in the final movement, with the human voice as instrument, he lifts us skyward. I have sat and listened to various performances of the Ninth over a hundred times. It is, and has been, my most potent restorative. No matter what’s happening in my life, it is the place of retreat where I can relocate my center and remind myself what really matters. When I went to see it performed for the first time in 1998 I was afraid that I would simply collapse into weeping at the beauty and overwhelming essence of it there in front of me, and I nearly did so. I still cannot listen to many of its passages without feeling my eyes well up, repeatedly catching my breath.

I took my children to Carnegie Hall to see Daniel Barenboim conduct it in the year 2000. When it ended, there was an ovation that went on for nearly thirty minutes. The audience in New York would not let them leave the stage. That was nearly as important for my young children to hear as the music itself, and when my daughter asked when we were going to leave, I said we’d go right after the last person stopped applauding, hopeful that one day that would make sense to her.

I’m not someone who believes in miracles, but were I to believe in a single miracle it would be this: Beethoven wrote every single note of that symphony without being able to hear any of it beyond what was in the chambers of his own head, in his own heart. As the story goes, at age fifty-three and nearing the end of his life and magnificent career, he premiered his Ninth Symphony on May 7, 1824, in Vienna. To the surprise of no one he insisted on conducting and he did. The actual conductor instructed the musicians to not watch Beethoven but to keep their attention on him, as Beethoven, in his deafness, was unable to keep the time correctly. One of the musicians later wrote that Beethoven stood in front of the conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor. He flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts. When the symphony concluded, the house erupted with cheers. Beethoven stood, silent and exhausted, facing the orchestra until someone reached up and touched his shoulder so that he might turn around and see the enormity of his accomplishment. Tragically, he was the only person in the Kaerntnertor Theatre that evening who hadn’t heard it.

NPR music critic Ted Libbey might have said it best when he described the Ninth as Beethoven at his most revolutionary, transforming the symphony into an act of moral philosophy. I might even say an act of humanist philosophy.