Celebrating Beethoven and the 200th Anniversary of his Ninth Symphony
Why You Shouldn't Miss It
This all-Beethoven concert opens with Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, based on a pair of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, another visionary in his time.
Then, join us as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Beethoven's magnificent Ninth Symphony.
The final "Ode to Joy" movement will showcase our Symphonic Choir plus talented local high school choirs and the Great Falls College Community Choir for a "wall of sound" that will take over the Mansfield Theater!
Single Tickets Now Available!
The 1992 note delves into the characters of the first three movements:
An atmosphere of awe is generated in the opening bars of the first movement by shimmering tremolos in the violins. The full orchestra then swells to a ‘proud affirmation of the spirit.’ What follows is a ‘development of fabulous proportions, overwhelming in passion and intensity, alternating between the bitterness of struggle and the intoxication of victory.’
The second movement ‘is all lightning movement, rhythmic momentum.’ The middle section - the trio - is, by contrast, an upward sweeping hymn-like melody.
The Adagio is ‘surely one of the noblest movements in music.’
While the 2018 note describes the opening of the fourth:
The finale begins with one of the most famous chords in the repertoire, an exceedingly violent clash that Richard Wagner named the “terror fanfare.” But the most astonishing moment happens shortly after: the music “breaks the fourth wall,” with the low strings acting as a kind of narrator, commenting on the music as if they have been listening to it themselves. Themes from the earlier movements reappear, and each time the cellos and basses reject what they hear, only relenting when tentative fragments of the Ode to Joy are proposed. Later, when the terror fanfare returns and the vocalists (finally) enter, the solo baritone confirms what the low strings have been saying: “Oh friends, not these sounds! Rather let us give voice to something more pleasant and more joyful.” The contrast between the sophistication of the earlier movements and the naivete of the Ode to Joy is shocking: how can this little tune compete with what came before?
The 1980 note is even more skeptical:
From a purely musicological perspective, the choral movement does not fit with the orchestral movements of the work. Yet the choral movement is the most famous and celebrated part of the work.
But perhaps it is this discrepancy that gives Beethoven’s Ninth its impact. From 2018:
It could even be argued that its “unreasonableness” is in fact what gives it its power: somehow, after these three immense, complex, all-encompassing movements, we find on the other side of the journey such a simple song of innocent sincerity. It is a remarkable, even defiant, act of optimism, in the face of all the messiness, the storms, the sorrows, the prayers, in the face of everything we know about the world and humanity, to declare without pretense:
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
We enter your sanctuary!
All men shall become brothers,
Wherever your gentle wings hover.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
The 1980 program puts it more simply:
In the first three instrumental movements of the symphony, Beethoven builds to a tonal magnitude never before imagined. When the listener is so submerged in sound that there does not seem to be anything more the music can do, the choral finale bursts forth with triumphant praise of joy.
And even simpler still, from 1992:
Nowhere else did Beethoven “produce such a feeling of humanity, spirituality and exaltation as in the Ninth.”
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was arguably the most influential cultural figure of his day, widely read and respected as an artist, scientist, and statesman. In fact, his impact was so deep and broad that it’s difficult to come up with a modern parallel. (You’d have to imagine some kind of mash-up of Christopher Nolan, Stephen Pinker, Colin Powell, and Oprah Winfrey.)
This is the GFSA’s first performance of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, but it isn’t the first time Beethoven and Goethe have appeared on stage together (figuratively) at the Great Falls Symphony. Our 2011 program (for a performance of Egmont, another of Beethoven’s Goethe settings) provides a Beethoven quote which illustrates why Beethoven would return to Goethe texts for multiple projects:
Goethe’s poems exert a great power over me not only by virtue of their content but also their rhythm; I am put in the right mood and stimulated to compose by this language, which builds itself into a higher order as if through spiritual agencies, and bears within itself the secret of harmony. Then burning enthusiasm drives me to cast forth melody in all directions.
Goethe’s muse-like effect on Beethoven was no accident: Goethe deliberately wrote his poems with the understanding that they might later be set to music, and many composers - Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler, Wolf, among many others - took the bait. In fact, the two poems that create the basis of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage also inspired a piece of the same name by Mendelssohn.
It was a Christmastime audience in 1815 Vienna that first heard Beethoven’s setting, and as many modern commentators have pointed out, they would have understood that, in a world of sailing ships, a Calm Sea is a very bad thing - hence the line “Deathly terrible stillness!” It is thus the end of this calmness which brings about the Prosperous Voyage: “The winds whisper, the sailor begins to move, the waves divide, the distance nears; already I see land!”
Symphony No. 9
199 years and 355 days ago, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered at the Kärntnerthor Theater in Vienna. Since then, it has been performed countless times all over the world, including three earlier performances by the GFSA, and now this one in the spring of 2024, in celebration of its 200th anniversary.
It would take a book-length volume to untangle why Beethoven’s Ninth has achieved the cultural significance that it has - indeed, entire books have been written attempting to do exactly that. While our earlier program notes haven’t been nearly so ambitious, they may still hopefully shed some light on the matter. Our 2018 note provides some background:
Beethoven had been planning a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” since at least 1795, perhaps 1792. Several abortive early attempts to do so still exist, but the project got a jumpstart in 1817 with an invitation from the London Philharmonic Society to write a symphony for them.The Londoners’ request was renewed in 1822, and later a Berlin count would ask for a symphony as well. This proved enough impetus for Beethoven to complete his symphony, complete with Schiller’s ode in the finale, but a final complication remained: higher-ups in the Viennese music scene got wind of the new work and decided that the symphony ought to be premiered in Vienna. After receiving a frankly sycophantic letter from these patrons and musicians, Beethoven agreed to keep the performance in Vienna. The May 7, 1824 premiere would be Beethoven’s first symphonic premiere in 10 years.
The 1980 note adds:
It was greeted with frenzied acclamation. Cheers and applause echoed through the Kärntnerthor Theater, but Beethoven was unaware of the adulation of the audience: he was totally deaf.