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200 years of Beethoven's '9th Symphony'

Interestingly this was the first symphony to introduce and incorporate vocal soloists, a revolutionary step thus transforming the symphonic genre which had until then been a purely instrumental exercise.
Last Updated : 28 June 2024, 23:56 IST

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Ludwig van Beethoven, a genius of Western classical music, is being celebrated this year for the bicentennial of the première of his ‘9th Symphony: ‘Ode to Joy’, first performed at the Hof Theater am Kaertnertor (Vienna Court Theater) in Vienna on May 27, 1824.

Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ was composed in 1823, which was the choral finale of his ‘9th Symphony’, with lyrics inspired by the legendary German poet Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem ‘Ode an die Freude’. Schiller’s poem celebrates the universal spirit of humanity and brotherhood.

Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ was adopted as the official anthem of the European Union in 1972.

According to the folklore, Beethoven went ahead with the premiere despite financial and practical hurdles. He was nearly deaf whereby he couldn’t hear the thundering applause of the audience of nearly 2,500 people. One of the singers present at the concert turned Beethoven around to witness a spectacle of enraptured members of the audience who had leapt on their feet waving handkerchiefs.

Interestingly this was the first symphony to introduce and incorporate vocal soloists, a revolutionary step thus transforming the symphonic genre which had until then been a purely instrumental exercise.

Beethoven’s ‘9th Symphony’ holds a special fascination for me with its magical spell and the intensity and power of its composition. What is it about the ‘9th Symphony’ or ‘Ode to Joy’ that holds so many of us spellbound?

The mystical and powerful lyrics of the song that translates to ‘All men are brothers’ and for me personally ‘Thy magic reunites’ which indeed lives up to the ideal of Schiller’s ‘Kiss to the whole world.’ This poem by Schiller was an ode to freedom, equality and brotherhood with the pursuit of peace and happiness.

Today a good two centuries later, the ‘9th Symphony’ stands for values of freedom, peace and solidarity.

In a recent Deutsche Welle (DW) programme, ‘Why the World Loves Beethoven’s Ninth’, musicians from diverse locations across the world — Kinhasa, Shanghai, Osaka, Ukraine, Italy and Austria — engage in a conversation about their personal connect with the ‘9th Symphony’ to explore the mystique of the symphony.

Tan Dun, the eminent Chinese music composer from Shanghai, speaks about abandoning all structures, notes and traditions and reaching out to Beethoven from his heart, ears and eyes. He termed it as the ‘drumroll for humanity’. This resonated with me while playing the ‘9th Symphony’ as a rustic rendition. I instinctively took liberties with ‘gaps’ and ‘accents’ on the piano chords.

Dun feels that the traditional approach came in the way of complicated matters in the brain hindering true appreciation of Beethoven. Hence the message for musicophiles is to just appreciate the ‘9th Symphony’ with your heart and soul and not get caught up with technicalities.

One of the most remarkable conversations in the DW Program was with the most deserving heir to Beethoven, the young and energetic Ukrainian conductor, Oksana Lyniv, who is battling all the terrible odds of a war zone to keep the spirit of ‘9th Symphony’ alive. Oksana is the founder-conductor of the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. 

What struck a deep chord with me was her idea that through the Symphony one can hear voices of nature and that the entire planet coalesces in an unfettered jubilant mood. She terms conducting the Symphony as an ‘unforgettable experience’ and that this is more than a Symphony with a grand message of humanism. 

Oksana insists that the task which Beethoven set out to accomplish for universal brotherhood remains incomplete. 

A ponderous question is raised towards the end of the DW program; that if there still exists a last small secret which is yet to be ‘cracked’ about the ‘9th Symphony’.

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Published 28 June 2024, 23:56 IST

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