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Beethoven’s Ninth – before and after

I have already quoted from and commented on The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 a couple of times here. Now I’ve read it. Unless I’m being paid to read a book, I only read it to the end if I’m enjoying it, so point one to make about this book is that I wasn’t paid to read it. Samizdata writers and readers are not brought together by a shared fascination for classical music and the world in which it was created and had its first impact, so I don’t know if you would also enjoy reading this book. But I can say a bit about why I did.

I know Beethoven’s music, and the Ninth Symphony in particular, quite well, possessing as I do a large classical CD collection containing lots of Beethoven and more than a few recordings of the Ninth. A painlessly entertaining way to learn more about classical music in general, and Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony in particular, is, for me, always welcome. This book was painless partly because it is all written in a language I can easily follow, English. Many books about classical music use lots of musical notation. I can just about decipher such symbols, but seldom with the fluency that is necessary immediately to get the points an author is trying to make with them. Sachs could easily have peppered his text with such hieroglyphics, having himself been a conductor before he became a writer. He did not. He relied on words. He also avoids using Italian words, saying very loud rather than fortissimo, and so on.

This book is also painless in being quite short. 225 pages, including all the extras. I’m a slow reader, so that, for me, was another plus. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony itself famously includes words, in its particularly famous final choral movement, as well as just orchestral music. It is therefore entirely proper, when pondering the meaning and impact of this symphony, to think also about the general artistic atmosphere – involving such things as poetry and literature – that surrounded its creation and reception, rather than just, say, Beethoven’s earlier pieces and the other music being composed at the time. More so, if anything. Nobody else was then writing music like Beethoven’s, but the wider artistic ambience definitely chimed in with what Beethoven was trying to say with the Ninth. The Ninth, in its turn, reinforced these tendencies by setting them to music.

How accurately Sachs describes this general artistic ambience, I am not educated enough to say. But he at least convinces me that he knows what he is talking about. That I was doing something to fill a big gap in my knowledge of a crucial time in cultural, political and economic history, was yet another reason for me to be glad to have read this book.

The political story Sachs tells is of a continent aroused into radical enthusiasm by the French Revolution, but then disappointed both by that revolution’s subsequent Napoleonic nature and then by its defeat by a coalition of anti-radical powers. The Napoleonic Wars were followed by a period of political reaction, all over Europe. In such a world, the liveliest minds shied away from real world politics and instead turned inwards. Instead of challenging the powers-that-were with riots and revolutions, they challenged them with Art, asserting the primacy of Great Artists over merely aristocratic inheritors of power. Power from within would trump the inherited privilege of the old aristocracy who remained, temporarily, in political command. (If that reminds you a bit of the history of the USSR, Sach agrees with you.)

The contemporary of Beethoven who came most alive for me, as a result of reading this book, was Byron. Poet, scored with lots of women, died fighting in Greece for … something or other. That was pretty much the limit of my knowledge of Byron. I don’t know a lot more now, but I do know a bit more. The point of Byron’s Greek enthusiasm being that supporting Greek resistance to the Turks was just about the only kind of radical enthusiasm you could publicly indulge in, and get away with. On the back of this peculiar gust of political emotion, Byron, himself a hereditary aristocrat (although he didn’t know he would be that until he suddenly became that), became that very modern sort of figure, an international celebrity, with no official position but lots of influence. As Beethoven had already become. Other early nineteenth century artistic celebrities whom Sachs also writes about are: Stendal, Hegel, Pushkin, Delacroix and Heine, about all of whom, as with Byron, I now know a bit more than extremely little.

Like their confreres of our own time, these Great Artists were typically very scornful of those other sorts of new men, the money grubbing capitalists. Heine is quoted expressing lofty disdain for these mercenary oafs and their contemptible preference for mere entertainment over Art. This despite the fact that it was the new money of these mere tradesmen that, then more than now, was providing the Artists with their new found clout, either directly, or indirectly via the spending power of the greater number of state bureaucrats that their endeavours were making possible. The first performance of the Ninth was staged for a paying audience, and at least partly with the idea of easing Beethoven’s money worries (so much for the notion that artists don’t fret about mere money), rather than commissioned and all paid for by an aristocrat. The contrast with how the Eroica Symphony (number three of Beethoven’s nine symphonies), as shown in the film Eroica that I referred to in an earlier Beethoven posting here, was extreme. The Eroica Symphony first exploded into the world, assuming Eroica has the story roughly right, in a large room in an aristocratic mansion, in front of an audience that was outnumbered by the orchestra. The premier of the Ninth differed from a classical concert nowadays in that the audience responded to the music more in the manner of a jazz audience nowadays, but nevertheless it was a much more modern occasion.

Not that Sachs spends much time describing that concert. He describes the music itself, in English, but now so much how the audience first received it. Describing classical music in English is a lot like writing about sex, being awfully liable to provoke unintended mirth, but Sachs does it pretty well. However, I learned more about the actual event itself, as opposed to the music, by reading the sleeve notes of one of those Ninth CDs of mine. Sachs is more concerned to describe the Ninth itself, the world that gave rise to the Ninth, and the impact upon the world that the Ninth then had. He writes about a great many years besides the year 1824, and many more afterwards, and includes a very good short biography of his hero.

As far as Beethoven’s and the Ninth Symphony’s impact is concerned, the personality who, for me, came most alive from reading the bits in this book about the decades after the Ninth Symphony was created was Richard Wagner. Sachs (perhaps his name got him paying particular attention to Wagner from an early age) entertainingly quotes Wagner patting Beethoven on the back for showing the world the way towards the artistic perfection that was “Music Theatre” (which is something entirely different from the Italian trash known as “opera”). Beethoven dipped his toe in the process of setting significant Words, expressive of profound philosophical ideas and profound spiritual and emotional sentiments, to music. Wagner perfected the process. According to Wagner, that is. Fair enough. When Wagner said the things Sachs quotes he was well into creating his great body of op … sorry, works of Music Theatre. Wagner’s Great Artist posturings were all part of what made him a great artist, just as such ambitions did the same for Beethoven himself. Had Beethoven not stormed the musical heavens, would Wagner have been able to? We will never know, but the question is a good one, because it gives us a sense of Beethoven’s colossal influence on everything that followed.

What I hadn’t really taken in before, although I am sure I read through such things in all those CD sleeve notes of mine, was just how obsessed Wagner was with Beethoven’s Ninth, his Ninth in particular, mentioning it constantly in his voluminous writings, and being constantly mentioned talking about it, right up to his own death, in the diaries left to us by Wagner’s wife. Wagner launched the building of his brand new Bayreuth … Music Theatre in 1872 by performing this symphony, his point being: this is where Beethoven ended, and where I, Wagner, have taken over.

For somewhat different reasons, when the Bayreuth Festival was relaunched (following that embarrassing Nazi interlude) in 1951, Beethoven’s Ninth was again performed. The point of that being that the impeccable Beethoven brand, as we would now say, would help to purge the much sullied Wagner brand.

As Sachs notes at both the beginning of and at the end of his book, Beethoven’s music generally, and his Ninth Symphony in particular, is felt by almost everybody who responds to it to communicate and to represent all that is good about humanity and human aspirations. Every good cause of our own time (by which I simply mean a cause that thinks it’s good) that can afford to (EUrope being the most famously obtrusive current example) basks in the moral aura cast by the Ninth. That so many of the great political villains of the twentieth century, of the sort alluded to in my previous paragraph, who between them did so much (as Sachs notes) to make us all think again about worshipping Great Men, used this music to confer moral grandeur upon their mega-slaughters, seems to do nothing to change this.

Sachs concludes his book with a little autobiographical essay along the lines of: What Beethoven Means To Me. Way back when he and his friends were protesting against the Vietnam War, Beethoven provided Sachs with his inspirational soundtrack. Again, fair enough, given that, crucially, Sachs does not say that Beethoven would, had he been alive now, have been on Sachs’s side. Sachs merely says that it felt like that, as I am sure it did. Beethoven still sounds as if he is on your side, whoever you are. And no piece of his music did more to make this true than the Ninth.

11 comments to Beethoven’s Ninth – before and after

  • Andrew Duffin

    It is to be deplored, too, that those would-be imperialists of the 21st century the EU, have also “used this music to confer moral grandeur” upon their shady endeavours.

    And on a point of order, Mr. M., you state that “Nobody else was then writing music like Beethoven’s” – surely the correct statement would be that nobody has EVER written music like Beethoven’s?

  • lucklucky

    9th is too much religious for my tastes.

    I am listening to Bocherini and ancient regime Rameau and Lully…

  • Andrew

    I am so glad someone read this posting, and that I now have a comment to reply to. Thanks!

    On the EUrope thing, I did give that a mention, in my second last para. Agreed.

    As to your observation that nobody ever wrote music like Beethoven’s, which you offer as an improvement on my observation that nobody at the time was writing music like his, well, there I dissent a bit. First, my point was specifically to compare and contrast the music of Beethoven’s own time with the general artistic output of his time, which is why I concentrated on the music of his contemporaries.

    What you say does not, of course, contradict me, but it does add something I preferred not to add. In the sense of writing music with Big Words attached, and vast choruses and abrupt changes of mood and general romantic enthusiasm and ecstasy and tragedy, etc. etc., of a sort that would have had an eighteenth century aristocrat telling the composer to tone it down and just write nice melodious, harmonious music, and then leave by the servants entrance, might I suggest: Wagner, whom I mentioned a lot in the posting; and Mahler, whom I did not. See in particular: Mahler Symphonies 2 and 3.

    Of course the music of Mahler and Wagner is not identical to the music of Beethoven, any more than Mahler and Wagner are identical to each other. But, there is an argument to the effect that your generalisation (not ever) is more questionable than mine (certainly not then). Which was not an argument I wanted to get into. I preferred to emphasise the huge influence Beethoven had, the Ninth in particular, in the sense of the approximate sort of music that subsequently got written, which was indeed a bit more like Beethoven than, say, Czerny’s (a Beethoven contemporary) music was, in the sense I have sketched in.

    But whatever. Basically, thanks for the response.

  • “following that embarrassing Nazi interlude”

    I think it a little more than “embarrassing”!

    Verdi said of Wagner, “He has wonderful moments but dreadful half-hours”.

    I agree.

  • Hey Brian, I too read your posting! If I didn’t comment it was because it was more or less all new to me

    I remember the Samizdata posts by Findlay Dunachie were often very scholarly, and touched upon areas of history that were almost entirely unfamiliar. My usually high opinion of my own historical general knowledge would emerge bruised and battered at the end of one of his posts, and I would be quite unable to supply one of my usual “yes, but” or “another aspect you missed is that – ” comments. That didn’t mean I wasn’t interested, far from it.

    Anyway, this was the same, that’s high praise, so stop yer complainin’.

    The only handle I have on Wagner is Bernard Levin’s columns. He was a Wagner worshipper, almost, when it came to the music, but was nonetheless very much aware that Wagner generally did not like people called Levin very much. I bet you’ve read them. But if you haven’t, you should.

  • The other composer I should have mentioned alongside Wagner and Mahler is Berlioz, whom Sachs writes about at some length. Berlioz was greatly encouraged by Beethoven’s example.

  • I read your posting too, Brian. (I read all of them. except for the cricket ones – and I even dissented from that rule recently). The reason I didn’t comment was similar to Natalie’s – and unlike her, I have no justification whatsoever to have anything like a high opinion of my non-existent knowledge of history.

    There’s a particular reason why I read this particular post with particular interest: I adore Beethoven’s symphonies (and his piano sonatas, but that’s beside the point), and yet I simply don’t get the 9th. It falls almost totally flat for me, at least as far as Beethoven’s symphonies go. I have no idea why, and I know everyone else feels quite the opposite. FWIW, I am totally the 7th person…

  • Laird

    Excellent review, Brian; thank you. I have added this one to my book list.

    I’m with Alisa on the 9th: it always seems a bit “over the top” for my taste. I don’t need all those “Big Words” and “vast choruses”. But there’s no denying the effect it (and, for that matter, the rest of Beethoven’s oeuvre) had on Wagner, Mahler, and all those who followed him (Shostakovich, even Stravinsky). Tracing the arc of Beethoven’s musical output is a fascinating exercise; one can witness the transition from the Classical to the Romantic eras. He’s the bridge from Mozart to Brahms.

  • Tracing the arc of Beethoven’s musical output is a fascinating exercise; one can witness the transition from the Classical to the Romantic eras. He’s the bridge from Mozart to Brahms.


    But there’s no denying the effect it (and, for that matter, the rest of Beethoven’s oeuvre) had on Wagner, Mahler, and all those who followed him (Shostakovich, even Stravinsky).

    Now I know why it doesn’t do it for me – it all went downhill from there…:-)

  • Beethoven’s Ninth either astonishes me, or bores me half to death, depending on the performance and, I suspect, my mood. I heard a superbly played performance of it at the Proms a few years ago. I couldn’t wait for it to finish. The perfection of the playing (by the Los Angeles Philharmonic) only made it, to me, all the more boring. Was it me? Was it the performance?

    Recently, because of reading this book, I played various CD performances of the piece through. Two (including one conducted by Abbado that got rave reviews all round) sounded totally boring, and made the thing sound downright ineptly composed. Then, just when I was ready to agree with Alisa that this is a ridiculous piece, I put on another CD and, perhaps because I was expecting only more tedium, was suddenly gripped, right to the end. It seems that the Ninth either grabs me by the soul, or else flops pathetically. There seem to be no half measures. I never think it’s quite good, or for that matter quite bad. Either wondrous, or absurd. Either heaven storming, or ridiculously plodding and primitive and tuneless (apart from the last movement with The Tune) and oafish. Either Beethoven’s best symphony, or by far his worst.

    Very strange.

  • Like I said, it’s still a Beethoven symphony, with all that it implies. It’s like watching your favorite director’s worst flop: if it was a movie made by anyone else, you’d call it a gem…

    The 9th last (tunish) movement suffers from the same problem the 1st one (tunish) of the 5th does: it has been played to death.