Ludwig van Beethoven: Painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Beethoven 9: Musical world cultural heritage

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony conjures up the equality of all men as no other work does.

Where should we start with this symphony that everything already seems to have been said about, and cannot be put into words anyway? The symphony with which Leonard Bernstein celebrated German reunification with two concerts in East and West Berlin a month after the Berlin Wall came down, on which the European anthem was based (declared part of the world’s cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2001), and which even found a place in pop culture: in a magnificent but shocking way in Stanley Kubrick’s film  »A Clockwork Orange«, and in the most vacuous form imaginable in Spanish singer Miguel Ríos’s hit »A Song of Joy«. The symphony whose length once defined the playing time of a CD (74 minutes – that was the timing of Furtwängler’s 1951 recording). The symphony that is always played when there is something to celebrate – on New Year’s Eve, for example, or at the inauguration of a new concert hall – and thus always runs the risk of degenerating into an empty shell that people forget over their after-concert drink…

Back in 1901, Claude Debussy had to admit that the pedestal on which posterity had placed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, on which it continues to stand, was at the same time its undoing:

»It has been shrouded in a fog of lofty words and decorative epithets. Like the Mona Lisa’s smile, which people continue to describe as ›mysterious‹, it is the masterpiece about which the most nonsense has been written. One cannot help but be surprised that the massive amounts that have been written about the Ninth have not long since buried it beneath their collective weight.«

Beethoven at the Elbphilharmonie

The story of a worldwide success

The history of Beethoven’s Ninth goes far beyond the story of its actual composition, and stretches over several decades. Beethoven already fell under the spell of the »Ode to Joy« written by the poet Friedrich Schiller, who was just 11 years his senior, as a young composer in his hometown of Bonn. He noted in one of his sketchbooks: »Let us sing the words of the immortal Schiller!« And in 1793 a friend of Beethoven’s, legal scholar Bartholomäus Fischenich, wrote from Bonn to Charlotte Schiller that he could »tell of a young man whose musical talents come in for widespread praise, and whom the Elector is now dispatching to Vienna to learn from Haydn.«

»He is going to set Schiller’s »Joy« to music – every single verse. I expect something perfect to come of it, for I know him to be a creator of great and sublime music.«

Bartholomäus Fischenich

Friedrich von Schiller
Friedrich von Schiller © Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum


However, another 30 years were to pass before Beethoven felt up to the task, and the form of the work was to change as well. In 1817 he started to think about composing a symphony with vocal elements, but we not until 1822 do we find the entry »Finale: Freude schöner Götterfunken« in his sketchbook. Now the idea of a choral finale with the Schiller text had taken concrete form.

Beethoven’s declaration of belief

In other words, Beethoven’s decision to use Schiller’s poem for the final chorus of his symphony was not triggered by a whim of the moment, nor was it the outcome of musical considerations; rather, it was his declaration of belief in a text that had accompanied him throughout his life. Oddly, the attention that the composer gave to the »Ode to Joy« is at contradiction with the poem’s own history: the ode was »just« an occasional piece dashed off in a moment of exuberance in the summer of 1785. Schiller was 26 at the time and didn’t intend it for the general public, but for a friend and his Masonic Lodge. Luckily for posterity, Beethoven went against Schiller’s plan, thus bringing together »two fellow sufferers,« as cabaret artist Dieter Hildebrandt summed up, »who sing a song of comfort to each other in a joint work about what has been missing in their lives: joy«.

Autograf von Beethovens Neunter Sinfonie (Beginn)
Autograf von Beethovens Neunter Sinfonie (Beginn) © Berliner Staatsbibliothek

Once he had decided on the composition, things suddenly moved ahead at speed: Beethoven completed the Ninth Symphony surprisingly quickly in 1823. For the finale, he took the central statements out of the poem’s nine verses (plus one refrain each) and arranged them in a new order. The score was ready at the beginning of 1824, and the symphony was given its first performance, together with the overture »The Consecration of the House« and parts of the »Missa solemnis«, on 7 May that year in Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor. People’s response was enthusiastic, but by this time Beethoven was completely deaf, and he had to be prompted to turn around to face the wildly applauding audience, according to eye-witness reports. The performance was repeated on 23 May, and it wasn’t long before the symphony was being played in many other cities – London among them, where the work had originally been commissioned by the Philharmonic Society.

Unlike the public, the critics didn’t all agree: Giuseppe Verdi later complained that the finale was »poorly written«, while Richard Wagner saw in the Ninth »the human gospel of the art of the future«. And it was to remain for a long time the only work that was allowed to be performed apart from Wagner’s own operas in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

A new world through music

For all the attention focused on the choral finale, with which Beethoven broke the boundaries of the purely instrumental genre of the symphony with lasting effect, people often forget that there are three other movements preceding the finale. And these, too, eclipse everything that Beethoven had written hitherto: »One can imagine an opening movement more monumental, a scherzo wilder and more Bacchanalian, or an adagio more rapt and soulful,« – thus Martin Geck in his »Beethoven-Handbuch«. And there is no denying that the way Beethoven evolves the opening of the first movement somewhere between major and minor, pianissimo, as if out of thin air – that this is one of the most inspired moments in his entire oeuvre.

»Freude schöner Götterfunken« :Grand Opening of the Elbphilharmonie (2017)

But when it came to describing the fourth movement, musicologists had a tough time of it. American music professor James Webster sighed in resignation: »The form of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth doesn’t exist, and it cannot exist«. One critic described the first performance especially aptly:

»The passionate character of the finale, struggling with all the elements and powers of music, does indeed evade comprehension at a first listening. Beethoven’s genius pays no heed to boundaries of any kind, but creates its own individual world; and in this it moves with such colossal power and freedom that we can see how the world hitherto seemed too small to him, so that he had to build himself a new one with completely new forms.«

James Webster


When composing the finale, Beethoven himself appeared initially to be unsure whether his decision to include a vocal element was the right one. He produced additional sketches of a purely instrumental finale at least – although at a length of more than 200 bars, the orchestral introduction is already like a movement in its own right. He was particularly preoccupied by the question of how to convincingly bring in the vocal parts with the famous »Joy« melody after the orchestral introduction. In the end, he opted for the insertion of a recitative for which he wrote the text himself. With the words »O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere«, the preceding menacing and shrilly dissonant »fanfare of terror« (Richard Wagner) is dismissed and the way paved for the hymn of joy. What comes after that speaks for itself.


Text: Simon Chlosta, last updated: 3 Mar 2022

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