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Beethoven’s 9th

Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, Germany May 7, 1833; d. Vienna, Austria April 3, 1897)

Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Opus 54 (1871)

Following the first triumphant performances of Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem in 1868, he visited his friend Albert Dietrich, who had arranged the Requiem's premiere. It was in Dietrich's library that he discovered an early copy of Friedrich Hölderlin's poems, and thirty years later Dietrich remembered the impact one of these in particular made on the composer.  Inspired by classical antiquity, Hölderlin's Schicksalslied or 'song of destiny' contrasts the lives of the "blessed ones" in Elysium with the plight of mere mortals on earth, caught in a perpetual and unavailing struggle against Fate and Destiny.   Brahms had a pronounced streak of melancholy, and gripped by the poem's theme, he immediately began to outline a choral and orchestral setting.

Unexpectedly, the composition was to give him a good deal of trouble.  He had no problem capturing the happy rapture of the Elysian spirits in the poem's first verse, nor did he find it difficult to depict musically the sufferings of earth-bound mortals.  The poem's unsparing conclusion, however, presented Brahms with a dilemma.  Despite his own melancholy spirits, he could not bring himself to accept the poet's spirit of gloomy resignation.  It took three full years before he reached a solution that he felt would not betray Hölderlin's tragic vision, and he finally completed the work in May of 1871. 

From its first few measures, the Schicksalslied arrests our attention. Expressively scored woodwind chords over the hushed, yet insistent throb of the timpani draw the listener into the blissful calm of the blessed spirits.  Strings are silenced and the alto vocal line enters, accompanied only by flute, oboe, clarinet and horn, in a moment of musical imagination that perfectly conveys the ethereal peace of these heavenly beings. 

Closely following the poem's text, the middle section of the work is violently agitated, graphically suggesting the tormented human condition. At the text "doch uns ist gegeben, auf keiner Stätte zu ruhn" ("yet there is no place to rest"), for example, the vocal parts intertwine among the orchestra's relative calm chords to give an impression of restlessness, of there literally being no place to settle. The score is filled with similar instances of direct textual inspiration, culminating in the wild outcries from the chorus and orchestra that represent humans mercilessly flung from one tragedy to the next just as water is dashed from cliff to cliff. 

After much hesitation, Brahms decided to end the work with an Epilogue that quotes the music from the first verse, played in a major rather than a minor key.  The quiet orchestral ending, with its upward-shifting horns, clarinets, and flutes, serves to contradict the conclusions of the morose poet, moving beyond them to suggest an essential optimism.   Despite the care and concern that Schicksalslied cost him, the final result is one of Brahms's most original and profound compositions.

Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Opus 54

German Text

Ihr wandelt droben im Licht
Auf weichem Boden, selige Genien!
Glänzende Götterlüfte
Rühren Euch leicht,
Wie die Finger der Künstlerin
Heilige Saiten.
Schicksallos, wie der schlafende
Säugling, atmen die Himmlischen;
Keusch bewahrt
in bescheidener Knospe,
Blühet ewig
Ihnen der Geist,
Und die seligen Augen
Blicken in stiller
Ewiger Klarheit.
Doch uns ist gegeben,
Auf keiner Stätte zu ruhn;
Es schwinden, es fallen
Die leidenden Menschen
Blindlings von einer
Stunde zur andern,
Wie Wasser von Klippe
Zu Klippe geworfen,
Jahrlang ins Ungewisse hinab.

English Translation
You wander above in the light
on soft ground, blessed genies!
Blazing, divine breezes
brush by you as lightly
as the fingers of the player
on her holy strings.
Fateless, like sleeping
infants, the divine beings breathe,
chastely protected
in modest buds,
blooming eternally
their spirits,
and their blissful eyes
gazing in mute,
eternal clarity.
Yet there is granted us
no place to rest;
we vanish, we fall -
the suffering humans -
blind from one
hour to another,
like water thrown from cliff
to cliff,
for years into the unknown depths.

Ludwig van Beethoven (b. Bonn, Germany December 16, 1770; d. Vienna, Austria March 26, 1827)

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125 (1817-1823)

A performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 can never be an ordinary event, never just another concert. In the 9th, Beethoven created a work that redefined the nature of symphonic ambition, carrying to new heights the concept of what a symphony could be. Additionally, beyond the musical innovations found at every turn in the work, Beethoven intended his Symphony No. 9 to be a powerful ethical statement.  As a prolonged and profound hymn to brotherhood and humility before God, it expresses Beethoven's personal philosophy more eloquently than
anything else he composed.  Challenging and complex, Beethoven's music and message are as inspiring today as they were at the Symphony's premiere performance.

During the winter of 1823, word began to circulate in Vienna that Beethoven was composing again, after a long hiatus.  As rumors flew that Beethoven was planning to premiere his new works in Berlin, the following appeal appeared in the local Viennese newspapers, signed by thirty of Vienna's leading musicians and encouraging Beethoven to hold his premieres in his adopted city:

Do not withhold longer from the popular enjoyment a performance of the latest masterworks of your hand.  We know that a great sacred composition has been associated with that first one in which you have immortalized the emotions of a soul…We know that a new flower glows in the garland of your glorious, still unequaled symphonies.  For years, ever since the thunders of the victory at Vittoria ceased to reverberate, we have waited and hoped to see you distribute new gifts.

The appeal touched Beethoven and resulted in the first subscription concert he had held in eleven years.  As it turned out, the concert on May 7, 1824 at the Hoftheater adjacent to the Kärntnerthor Theater was the last concert triumph Beethoven ever had.  The concert included the premiere of the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei from Beethoven's newly composed Mass, the Missa Solemnis, and the premiere of his new symphony, along with the Consecration of the House Overture. 

By 1824 Beethoven was completely deaf, and while he stood on stage beating time and turning the pages of his score, Michael Umlauf provided the real conducting for the evening.  The Kärntnerthor Theater orchestra and chorus were augmented by members of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and boy sopranos.  The string section ultimately included fifty-eight; twenty-four violins, ten violas, twelve cellos and twelve basses.  The size of the wind section at the first performance is not clear, but the choir included approximately ninety voices. 

Because of the busy schedule of the Kärntnerthor Theater and the performers, the manager of the theater allowed only two full rehearsals. The first three movements of Beethoven's 9th all generally fall into the framework of a typical eighteenth-century symphony.  The first movement plays out a scenario of heroic tragedy, while the second movement takes that tragedy and makes it into a farce.  The third movement is intense yet serene and focuses on exquisitely lyrical melodies.  Each of these three movements includes innovations that suggest that Beethoven was fighting against the limitations of the instruments available to him.  For instance, there is a particularly difficult French horn solo in the Adagio movement that would have been almost impossible for the traditionally valveless French horn that was in use during Beethoven's day. 

The fourth movement is rhapsodic. It often said to include a recapitulation of the first three movements, completely exploding the traditional prescriptions for a final symphonic movement and powerfully foreshadowing the direction that the Romantic symphony would later take.  The forceful, jarring, almost painfully clashing tutti orchestral chord that begins the movement rudely shatters the serene ending of the third movement.  Some early critics were sure that this
calamitous chord was sad evidence of Beethoven's deafness, while others hailed it as a mark of his genius.  Beethoven then proceeds to recall themes from the first three movements, each time discarding the repetition as though throwing aside the old in a cosmic psychological struggle to grasp a new idea dangling just out of reach.  An extended recitative passage for the cellos and contrabasses follows, an eloquent soliloquy that leads first into the bass solo and finally to the choral section based on Schiller's famous Ode to Joy.

May 7 fell well after the close of the Viennese concert season and many prominent people had already departed Vienna for their summer retreats. Nevertheless, the theater was packed.  Despite limited rehearsals, the inclusion of many amateur performers, and the intense difficulty of the music, the response to the concert was wildly enthusiastic.  An anonymous review in the best musical journal of the time, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, stated that Beethoven's "inexhaustible genius had shown us a new world, revealing the magical secrets of a holy art that we had never before heard or imagined!" 

Although the concert was a great musical and popular success, financially the event was a near-disaster.  After paying for the use of the Hoftheater location, for the numerous changes in copying the parts, and for the vocal soloists, Beethoven's profit was minimal; one reviewer commented "People showered the genial master with applause and testimonials of praise, but molto onore, poco contante [much honor, little contentment]."

The first performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony is one of the most significant dates in musical history because of the work's sheer artistic genius. It is notable for another reason as well. From this time on, symphony performances, once the sole province of the courts of nobility, moved permanently onto the public concert stage.  Both the symphony as a genre and its performance venue – signifying in turn its intended audience -- would never be the same.

Program notes by Dr. Beth Fleming
Ode to Joy

German Text
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere
anstimmen, und freudenvollere!

Freude, 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!

Freude 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.

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
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!
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.

English Translation
Oh friends, not these tones!
Let us raise our voices in more
pleasing and more joyful sounds!

Joy, fair spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
Drunk with fiery rapture, Goddess,
We approach thy shrine!

Thy magic reunites those
Whom stern custom has parted;
All men will become brothers
Under thy gentle wing.

May he who has had the fortune
To gain a true friend
And he who has won a noble wife
Join in our jubilation!

Yes, even if he calls but one soul
His own in all the world.
But he who has failed in this
Must steal away alone and in tears.

All the world's creatures
Draw joy from nature's breast;
Both the good and the evil
Follow her rose-strewn path.

She gave us kisses and wine
And a friend loyal unto death;
She gave lust for life to the lowliest,
And the Cherub stands before God.

Joyously, as his suns speed
Through Heaven's glorious order,
Hasten, Brothers, on your way,
Exulting as a knight in victory.

Joy, fair spark of the gods,
Be embraced, Millions!
Take this kiss for all the world!
Brothers, surely a loving Father
Dwells above the canopy of stars.

Do you sink before him, Millions?
World, do you sense your Creator?
Seek him then beyond the stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.



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Supported, in part, by a Cultural Affairs grant from the City of San José