Beethoven’s ninth as never heard before

Beethoven’s ninth as never heard before


norman lebrecht

August 28, 2020

Welcome to the 109th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Symphony No. 9 in D minor op. 125 (part 2)

(See part 1 here and how to choose a Beethoven 9th here).

No sooner did the work exist than the world began wondering what it might mean beyond its music and words, what it signified for Germans as a nation and for humanity as a whole. The young Robert Schumann wrote that ‘with his Beethoven, the German forgets that he has no school of painting; with Beethoven he imagines that he has reversed the outcome of battles lost to Napoleon.’ Beethoven, in Schumann’s view, unlocks the fantasy German for whom history is a never-ending victory.

Richard Wagner, as a teenager, was overwhelmed: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony became the mystical goal of all my strange thoughts and desires about music. I was first attracted to it by the opinion prevalent among musicians, not only in Leipzig but elsewhere, that this work had been written by Beethoven when he was already half mad. It was considered the ‘non plus ultra’ of all that was fantastic and incomprehensible, and this was quite enough to rouse in me a passionate desire to study this mysterious work. At the very first glance at the score, of which I obtained possession with such difficulty, I felt irresistibly attracted by the long-sustained pure fifths with which the first phrase opens: these chords, which, as I related above, had played such a supernatural part in my childish impressions of music, seemed in this case to form the spiritual keynote of my own life. This, I thought, must surely contain the secret of all secrets, and accordingly the first thing to be done was to make the score my own by a process of laborious copying. I well remember that on one occasion the sudden appearance of the dawn made such an uncanny impression on my excited nerves that I jumped into bed with a scream as though I had seen a ghost.

The symphony at that time had not yet been arranged for the piano; it had found so little favour that the publisher did not feel inclined to run the risk of producing it. I set to work at it, and actually composed a complete piano solo, which I tried to play to myself. I sent my work to Schott, the publisher of the score, at Mainz. I received in reply a letter saying ‘that the publishers had not yet decided to issue the Ninth Symphony for the piano, but that they would gladly keep my laborious work,’ and offered me remuneration in the shape of the score of the great Missa Solemnis in D, which I accepted with great pleasure.

Wagner went on to revise Beethoven’s score for an 1846 Dresden performance (his version has been recorded for piano and voices here), inaugurated his Bayreuth theatre the the Ninth in 1872 and published an analytical essay titled The Rendering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. ‘Everything significant about this symphony comes from Richard Wagner,’ wrote Richard Strauss in his conducting score. The French composer Charles Gounod provoked a row by defending Beethoven’s original manuscript against Wagner’s amendments.

Gustav Mahler, who approved of Wagner’s changes, arguing that improvements had improved in efficacy and range since Beethoven’s time,  conducted the symphony in 1900 with 100 musicians and 500 singers in Vienna’s Musikverein – ‘carrying out Beethoven’s wishes,’ as he put in, ‘even in seemingly insignificant details and ensuring that nothing the master intended should be sacrificed or drowned ina general confusion of sound.’ He was fired soon after as chief conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic.

The symphony received its British premiere at the hands of Sir George Smart in March 1825, its French debut with Francois-Antoine Habeneck in March 1831. Hector Berlioz imagined himself conducting it on a ship on the high seas. Wagner inserted echoes of the Ninth in his opera, The Flying Dutchman. The Austrian socialist movement, taking its cue from Friedrich Engels’ passion for Beethoven’s fifth, staged concerts of the ninth performed by the working class. Nationalists blazoned the work as a token of Teutonic superiority. The Nazis ordered a performance of the Ode to Joy at the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Thirty-five years later, the Ode was adopted as the anthem of the European Union. At the fall of Communism, Leonard Bernstein conducted it amid the ruins of the Berlin Wall.

For reasons long inscrutable to the western mind, it became a fixture of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Japan, where it is known as ‘Daiku’ or ‘Big Nine’*. In December 2009 there were 55 performances of the Ninth in Tokyo alone, with choruses ranging in size from 6,000 to 10,000 voices.

The Japanese fascination with the Ninth apparently originated in 1914 with the capture of a German military garrison at Tsingtao in eastern China (Japan was on the Allied side in the First World War). Over the next four years, at a camp in Tokushima, German prisoners of war formed an orchestra. Ther guards were impressed by the ninth symphony and demanded peacetime concerts back home. By the 1930s Japan had several excellent professional orchestras, trained and conducted by Russian and German refugees, such as Klaus Pringsheim, Mahler’s former assistant in Vienna.

The New Year custom was started by a Polish-Jewish refugee Joseph Rosenstock, who conducted the Ninth on national radio on December 31, 1940 for the 2,600th anniversary of the creation of Japan. Someone, possibly Rosenstock, told the Japanese that there was a tradition at the Leipzig Gewandhaus to sound the symphony’s final chord one second before midnight. The myth appealed to Japanese sentiment and stuck fast. Rosenstock stayed on in Japan until 1946 when he got a job with New York City Opera. He is the true begetter of Japan’s New Year’s Eve traditions.A recent Tokyo recording by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan demonstrates significant stylistic deviations from the international norm, along with an irrepressible audience enthusiasm.

No other symphony in the entire western canon has obtained, for better or worse, such universal resonance. The separatists in Rhodesia used it as a flag of white supremacy. The Maoists sang the Ode in Chinese until Chairman Mao banned western music in the Cultural Revolution.

Penniless Jews in Polish ghettos sang it in Yiddish.

During the 2020 Coronavirus locked down, Egyptian musicians created a new realisation on Arab instruments.

There appear to be no barriers that this symphony cannot break down. But we are still no closer to defining an ideal performance.

More on this long-running quest tomorrow.

* Reader Kimiyo Watanabe points out:
You wrote ‘it became a fixture of New Year’s Eve celebrations in Japan, where it is known as ‘Daiku’ or ‘Big Nine’. It’s such a trivial thing, but I’d like to point out that in this context in Japanese, Daiku doesn’t mean Big Nine, but “Number Nine”. The pronunciation of both big and number (in this case) are the same and “ku” here means nine. And just “Dai-ku”, a little unusual way of pronouncing number nine, refers specifically to no other than Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Other composers’ symphony #9 you have to say, for example, “Mahler’s symphony dai kyuu-ban (ban is a counter word for serial number or turn/order)”, and as for Beethoven’s piano sonata, or violin sonata #9, “piano sonata dai kyuu-ban” or “violin sonata dai kyuu ban” respectively. This also shows how Beethoven’s Daiku has a special place in Japan’s culture.


  • mary says:

    1) “For reasons long inscrutable to the western mind…”

    But then you go on to explain succinctly and completely how that came about in Japan. So, please, don’t resort to the stereotype of the “inscrutable” Asian.

    (As for the 10,000 voice performance, I guess it was one of those “you had to be there” performances, because the 10,000 voices don’t come thru at all in the recording, especially because a small studio professional chorus was all miked up, and the orchestra and soloists were all miked up to the max, so there was no differentiating the scales of sound.)

    2) “A recent Tokyo recording by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan demonstrates significant stylistic deviations from the international norm…”

    Oh for heaven’s sakes, Suzuki and his whole Bach Collegium bunch were all trained and/or grew up in Vienna, so please, don’t resort to the stereotype of the exotic Asian (or is it the “deviant” Asian, I can’t tell). And plus, WHAT international norm? Between the originalists and the Furtwanglerians, there is no “norm” even in Germany.

    3) I’d like to hear Wagner’s version in a full orchestral recording.

    • Charles says:

      I’D like to hear the four or five added operas
      Wagner could have written if he hadn’t spent so much time writing social commentary and anti-semitic trash.

    • Po says:

      It‘s not the first time he has stereotype against Asians. Remember he accused Yuja Wang for her motivation on wearing sunglasses on the stage, without any evidence nor fact checking with her?

  • Schoenberglover says:

    “Daiku” in Japanese doesn’t mean “Big Nine”. It just means “The Ninth”.

  • Bostin'Symph says:

    The Japanese fascination with Beethoven’s Ninth is one of the reasons given for why Sony and Philips arrived at a standard for the CD capacity being around 74 minutes (based on Furtwängler’s slow account, apparently).

  • Yi Peng Li says:

    I know this post might be a bit long, but can I chip in with my thoughts on the different perspectives and some of the speeds in the period practice versions?

    I know that the Beethoven Choral is more compelling with the lens of Wagner and Bruckner. As such there is value and validity in the slower German Romantic approach and the choices that Furtwangler, Klemperer, Schmidt-Isserstedt and others have made in conducting the symphony. The fans of this approach might decry the period practice conductors like Gardiner or Dausgaard for promoting the hurry culture when they go close to Beethoven’s surviving metronome speeds for this piece. However, there can still be value and validity in the newer way. As much as the Choral symphony foreran the Romantic movement, it’s easy to overlook its Classical period traits. Also, the music becomes bestial, seething and less cossetted. You don’t need to cheapen the symphony or make it trite or ignoble.

    Beethoven’s tempo works if you beat the bar in larger units rather than in smaller units. In the first movement, which is in 2/4 time, the majestic marking works if you beat the bar in two and not four or eight. At the speed of 88 crotchets, the movement hearkens back to the French overture style. I know that it’s a challenge for the strings to handle their fast demisemiquaver runs, but the movement can be unflinching and the dark passages can still be bestial and brutish. Another case where beating the bar in 2 would work is in the first instance of the Joy theme. It’s a common time section with 80 minims. Most conductors would beat in 4 and not 2. However, the unit of the beat is a clue to feeling it in minims. The larger units make the theme more buoyant.

    I’ve also thought of how family likenesses could inspire some of the tempi in the symphony. Here I would like to highlight two cases: the slow third movement and the Turkish March section in the finale. In the slow third movement, we are used to hearing conductors draw it out in making it more meditative. The main theme of this movement is a common-time Adagio, and Beethoven sets the speed at 60 crotchets, which is much faster than we are used to hearing it. In this movement, it might be good if we remember the slow movement of the Pathetique sonata. Its main theme is akin to the main theme of the slow movement, and it is a duple time Adagio cantabile. It would be good if the slow movement of the Choral could go at a similar speed. Though this is a common time movement, most of the melody notes are in minims. This gives us the clue to beat the bar in two here. The metronome speed can now be 30 minims and you need not feel rushed when you are counting the tactus in larger units. I couldn’t help noticing this likeness as I cut my teeth on the Choral and first got to know the slow movement of the Pathetique when I was 9. I noticed that the slow movement of the Choral was slower than its counterpart in the Pathetique.

    I find it’s easy to misunderstand the Turkish March variation in the finale, which is an Allegro assai vivace in 6/8 time. We are used to hearing the Turkish March variation in the finale at around 120 dotted crotchets in a 6/8 bar. However, it makes sense to follow many new-school performers and go at close to 84 dotted minims. When Schott first published the Choral, it assigned the slow mark of 84 dotted crotchets to this section, but Del Mar’s Barenreiter version argues it was a misprint and suggests Beethoven meant 84 dotted minims. I am inclined to agree with his assessment for one very important reason. The choral finale of the Ninth is patterned after the Choral Fantasia op. 80. Both works have march variations. So it would be good if the march variation from the Choral Fantasia could offer a clue to the pace of this section. In the Clive Brown article Historical Performance, Metronome Marks and Tempo in Beethoven’s Symphonies (Early Music, May 1991), he justifies the likeness between the two sections. Although the march variation is in 2/4, Brown shows that two bars of 6/8 time are equivalent to one bar in 2/4. I know that this section could turn into a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song at this fast speed, as the tenor might risk garbling his words. However, the fast speed accords with the character of this section and the text about the heavenly bodies flying through the firmament. In addition, the fast-moving quavers in the ensuing fugue can sustain the momentum and the cathartic Freude outburst can emerge from the hurly-burly. Interestingly enough, in Furtwangler’s 1942 performance, he approached 84 doted minims late in the orchestral fugue and became manic when he reached the Freude outburst. There are similar fast sections in 6/8 for orchestra, including the Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture, which goes at 156 dotted crotchets, or 78 dotted minims. Also, Khachaturian’s Lezghinka from Gayane is faster, as it’s in 12/16 and goes at 98 dotted crotchets. If orchestras can manage the Berlioz overture at that speed, it would be good if they could give serious consideration to playing this section at this tempo.

    I was wondering if I could also show how the Ninth is still a coherent thought. It took me time to come to grips with it, but I have found it rewarding to show how Beethoven links the instrumental movements to the Joy theme and foreshadows it several times before its first statement. The winds hint it in the first movement when they transition to the secondary subject. Also, you could spot the little suggestions of the Joy theme in the Scherzo and Trio. The main theme of the Scherzo has an up-and-down line like the first phrase in the Joy theme. In the Trio the winds playfully intimate it. Then in the coda to the section, the lower strings latch on to the first part of the Trio subject and almost offer us a suggestion of the first statement in the finale. There are a few allusions to the Joy theme in the third movement because of the Andante tranquillo section and the way the flute and oboe quietly suggest it before the second group of fanfares.

    I’m sorry this post is quite long, and it’s the longest post I’ve written on the Lebrecht blog to date. However, I was wondering if I could chip in with my views on the Choral. I would like to give my unique views a bit more circulation.

    • Lunchtime O'Boulez says:

      Too many words. Ludwig only used just enough notes to express what he wanted concisely, something Anton Bruckner never learnt!

    • Jay says:

      Yi Peng Li does go on and on and on and reminds
      one of the story of the centipede. It seems this
      centipede meets an ant who asks the centipede
      how it remembers when walking which leg to put forward first. The ant goes its merry way but the
      centipede begins to contemplate the question
      begins to walk and promptly falls over while
      thinking which leg goes first.Enough already !

    • Rhonda says:

      I like your views.

      • Yi Peng Li says:

        Thank you very much for your encouraging words. I am sorry if this comment was unduly long. I had had a lot to say about the symphony after spending time with it. I felt I couldn’t bottle up my views. I felt they were unique and wanted to give them some circulation in a Beethoven discussion. I wish this could be part of a broader exchange about the piece.

  • Jay says:

    Let us pray that this deification of Beethoven as displayed here ends soon.There can be nothing more absurd than this continuous exploration of his works over and over,
    until they mean nothing except to the writer of the most
    recent article. If the truth be told he seems to have been a nasty little man who wrote some good music that has
    pleased a vast middle class public who love a good tune,
    and can attach a mythology to selected works to bolster
    their taste.Let’s get back to “music “.

    • Patricia says:

      I am not a fan of Beethoven and that last movement with its frantic tempo and screeching sopranos does nothing to endear me to the 9th. At least with period performance, the pitch is lower and the screeching is somewhat less obnoxious.


    marvolous, beutiful and full of emotion

  • Liam Allan-Dalgleish says:

    The chaos of the modern world

  • Edgar Self says:

    Conductor Klaus Pringsheim, longtime resident in Japan, was the twin of Thomas Mann’s wife Katia. They named their eldest son for him. The served in the U.S. Army in WWII, helped his sister Erika run a Berlin cabaret and literary magazine in the Twentie, and became a writer, like so many of his family that Katia, pressed for a memoir said, “There has to be someone in this family who does not write books” .

    A Japanese prince was an enthusiastic conductort, like one Danish king.

    Performing the Ninth at end-of-year and New year’s became a tradition in many cities around the world.

    It is a landmark in other ways. With the Eroica, Beethoven had doubled the proportions of the Classical symphony. In the Ninth, he re-doubled them. Tovey remarked that its tremolandi above a broad opening themes so struck Bruckner that he hardly knows how otherwise to start a symphony.

  • Lunchtime O'Boulez says:

    All reworkings, so called “improvements”,tarting up of Beethoven scores by Wagner, Mahler, Felix Mottl, Hans Richter, etc are acts of vandalism.

    Ludwig would be incandescent with rage if anyone tinkered with his music.

    • A.J. Ursic, Jr. says:

      I agree. I find it outstanding that Mr. Beethoven created such a wonderful work that changed music so dramatically. Perhaps this is why it has lasted so long and has been so deeply instilled in all students of music… serious music. My God in Heaven… even rock bands have played it. There is nothing… nothing like the original. Leave it alone. It is remarkable in it’s emotion, complexity, and, power as it is. Perfect.

  • Lunchtime O'Boulez says:

    Please kindly note and mark the comments Herr Prof Günter Wand makes when rehearsing Beethoven. He would be incandescent with rage if the score is tinkered with or had “improvements”!

  • Wrong Note says:

    This AMS monograph suggests Beethoven’s metronome was faulty or not calibrated correctly and hence the numbers are erroneous in the ninth. He was not good at sums and the copyist made an error.

  • sue Reid says:

    I was going to correct “Dai” as “number” just as Ms Watanabe wrote. Glad that someone pointed it out.