Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, his last symphony, is widely known as the "Choral Symphony," because the final movement involves a large chorus as well as four vocal soloists. At the time this symphony first came out, the use of choir and singers in a musical genre that showcased the possibilities of pure orchestral music was unusual, if not revolutionary.
Naturally, the idea was taken up by any number of subsequent composers, most notably Gustav Mahler, whose "Symphony of a Thousand" (No. 8) owes much of its large number of performers to the chorus. Plus, Mahler's Second stands next to Beethoven's Ninth as a cornerstone of the choral-symphony repertoire. So throwing a choral fantasy (comparable to an earlier work by Beethoven called, go figure, "Choral Fantasy") into the finale of his final symphony was not a unique idea. It broke ground that others after Beethoven continued to cultivate.
A few years ago, I was enjoying a Memorial Day cookout with some friends with KFUO-FM ("Classic 99") playing in the background. At that time of year, KFUO is always wrapping up its "Top 99 Countdown" of most-requested classical hits. When Beethoven's 9th turned up in the Number One spot, no one was surprised. Someone even remarked that it usually ends up there. Nevertheless, my friends were taken aback when the famous "Beethoven's Ninth" tune didn't turn up at the beginning of the symphony, or in any of the first three expansive movements.
Just as some people's knowledge of Beethoven's Fifth extends no further than the first movement, the same people hold the misconception that Beethoven's Ninth consists entirely of a huge choral movement with an unforgettable tune. And some of those people become impatient when asked to wait over 40 minutes for that tune to appear. But that's what I challenge you to do as you get to know this awesome symphony, the crown of Beethoven's symphonic career.
Plus, to know Beethoven's Ninth is to understand better many of the symphonies of later composers, who were profoundly influenced by this key work. Allowing the human voice to break in at the end wasn't the only revolutionary gesture Beethoven made in this work. In fact, I think the word "revolutionary" goes right to the essence of Beethoven's music as a whole, and of this work especially. It is a musical world of manly courage, explosive passion, noble tenderness, and vastness of conception.
I think the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth is, next to that of his Third Symphony, the master's most perfect and most powerful symphonic allegro. Clocking it at just under fifteen minutes, it is certainly no lightweight. It has to be great, in proportions if not in grandeur, to counterweight the finale, which is as long as some symphonies all by itself. But grandeur it has.
The symphony opens in a famous passage reminiscent of an orchestra tuning up, with open fifths and fragments of a broken-triad theme. Unlike many symphonies that begin with an emphatic statement of a theme, or even a ponderous introduction, this one seems to coalesce out of a vague background, until a strong, dramatic theme is announced. This type of symphonic opening is another feature of Beethoven's Ninth frequently aped by later composers, such as Bruckner.
As dominant as this first theme is, the movement goes through a variety of moods and contrasting ideas. Sometimes it sounds a little strange, and other times downright harsh, as Beethoven strains the limits of the orchestra's powers and pushes the boundaries of classical harmony. Don't blame this on his deafness (which was pretty much complete by the time he wrote this symphony). He was a musician through and through, and knew what sound to expect. The trouble, as with many of his other symphonies, was that no one had heard those sounds before, and orchestral players had never been asked to make them. What may have seemed next-to-impossible at the time, became possible as new players rose to the challenge and developed techniques to meet the composer's revolutionary demands.
The second movement is an expansive scherzo, marked Molto vivace (very lively, or really fast). This is the type of music critics would like to call "quicksilver" but can't, beause it is so solid and massive. What begins as a flitting, racing tune develops into an all-out kicking, screaming, musical panic. Now and then this shifts abruptly into a mood of joy, and even strains of revolutionary, humanistic optimism - particularly in the trio - but the main impression this movement leaves is one of frenetic, even frantic energy unleashed at high volume and high speed. After the scherzo returns, Beethoven teases us with a feint toward repeating the trio, before bringing the movement to an abrupt end.
Movement III, Adagio molto e cantabile (really slow and songlike), is a gorgeous, double set of variations on a broad, stately, graceful first theme, first heard in B-flat, and a moderate-tempo second theme first heard in the contrasting key of D. The first theme has a tendency to echo the ends of each phrase. Perhaps the most memorable moment in the piece is an explosively emphatic, fanfarelike statement in E-flat, very near the end of the movement.
The finale opens with chaos and panic. Cellos and basses then speak up in a kind of instrumental recitative (like when a character is singing dialogue in an opera). This wordless commentary reminds me of the times when an adult character speaks in a Peanuts animated special, and the adult's voice is played by a muted trumpet. It's up to your imagination to supply the text, though Beethoven leaves some hints. The recitative is broken up by musical "thumbnails" of the preceding movements, to which the cello-bass "speaker" seems to respond with dismissive gestures. The final passage of recitative establishes a firm D-major tonality, suggesting a sense of affirmation, as if to say, "Aha! I've got it!" The orchestra then softly introduces the famous "Choral Symphony" theme, which grows through a series of variations.
Too soon, this avenue seems to reach its end, and another panic breaks out, similar to the very beginning of the movement. Finally, a solo baritone gives words to the last line of the cello-bass recitative: "O friends, not these strains, but let us strike up more pleasant and joyful ones!" Finally the chorus arrives, and Beethoven builds up a massive, 20-minute oratorio-society anthem on themes of (once again) revolutionary humanism. The words come from Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy. In true "choral fantasy" style, this piece goes through a succession of sections, beginning with variations on that ever-popular tune, but also involving other themes and tonal centers. The vocal performers get a terrific workout; never mind what I said about new performers rising to the challenge, singers to this day curse Beethoven's name for the strain he puts on them, all the way to the extremely loud, rapid, and triumphant end. But they put up with it because audiences want to hear this symphony more than any other single piece of fine-art music, and the vocal part has been the focal point of over 150 years of widespread awe and delight.
IMAGES: Beethoven; the autograph score of Beethoven's 9th; part of the opening of Movement I; a Japanese performance of Beethoven's 9th; Beethoven's manuscript of the Ode to Joy.
EDIT: Here is Herbert von Karajan performing the first three (non-choral) movements of the Choral Symphony, with maybe the Berlin Philharmonic: