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Composed: 1822-1824

Length: c. 65 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contra-bassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (cymbals, triangle, bass drum), strings, solo quartet, and chorus

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 9, 1926, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

About this Piece

Beethoven lived in a revolutionary era, the time of the American and French revolutions and those of Mexico and other Spanish colonies in the New World. His music also overturned the rules and boundaries of previous orders, and it created fresh paradigms that have influenced the arts ever since. Beethoven has become a representative symbol of the individual genius pushing limits, the artist-as-rebel. 

An astonishingly radical new work for its time, the Ninth Symphony certainly supports that defiant loner image of Beethoven. Yet paradoxically, it celebrates the unity of humanity with a vast, all-inclusive embrace. It is not just a landmark in music history, but also a touchstone work for public occasions and anniversaries such as this, joyfully affirming universal ideals. 

The basic arc of the piece is from chaos and struggle to serenity and jubilation. That mirrors the course of its creation. The poet Friedrich Schiller published his Ode to Joy in 1785, and Beethoven was much moved by this ecstatic vision. The young composer may have tried to set it to music even before he left his hometown of Bonn in 1792, and he made at least two other attempts before 1817, when he decided to fold it into a symphony in D minor that he had already been sketching for three years. He worked on this new concept for another six years, finishing most of it in 1823. The work finally had its premiere on May 7, 1824, the famous concert at which the now-deaf composer had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause he could no longer hear.  

The Ninth Symphony opens in hushed anticipation, from which an elementally simple theme soon erupts violently. The dynamic energy and scope of the ideas in this movement suggest creation myths to many, or scientific theories such as the Big Bang.  

At this point, Beethoven changed the usual order of symphonic movements, placing a Scherzo next. A scherzo is typically a dancing, often humorous movement with a contrasting middle section. Beethoven’s dark Scherzo here is relentlessly concentrated, its insistence intensified by fugal imitation. The contrast is supplied by a graceful hymn that suggests the ultimate joy of the finale. 

The slow movement (Adagio) is the peaceful balance to the preceding furies. Beethoven develops two themes to increasing levels of yearning through sophisticated variations. 

The introduction of voices in the finale is Beethoven’s most obvious innovation, although he had models in French revolutionary symphonies, and it is still an electrifying moment when the baritone first sings. The chaos of the symphony’s opening returns at the beginning of the movement, from which Beethoven recalls the main themes of the preceding movements, before the baritone calls for new tunes. The composer’s decades-in-the-making setting of Schiller’s ode—which he freely cut and reordered—emerges at last as an immense and triumphant set of variations, expressing the highest aspirations with music of life-affirming exaltation.

—John Henken