Beethoven’s Ninth — which the Seattle Symphony performs this week to inaugurate the New Year — has accompanied moments of historic upheaval around the globe with its message of universal harmony.
It was premiered almost two centuries ago. And Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 still feels as urgently needed today as ever.
Later this week Ludovic Morlot will lead the Seattle Symphony and Chorale, together with the Northwest Boychoir and four vocal soloists, in the mighty Ninth.
A continuation of the SSO’s ongoing cycle of the complete Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos, this outing with what may be the most potent classical-music icon of all comes at a time of heightened anxiety.
Seattle Symphony: Beethoven’s Ninth
7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 5, 7, 8) Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $28 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
The first performance took place on the evening of May 7, 1824, in a Vienna theater on whose site the luxurious, sachertorte-touting Sacher Hotel currently stands, just across from the imposing Staatsoper.
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Even before the concert took place, the sense of a big event loomed. Beethoven’s score demanded resources that were unprecedented for a symphony: full chorus and four vocal soloists alongside an enlarged orchestra. And it required diplomatic maneuvering to secure the premiere for Vienna — the composer’s adopted city, where he had not appeared onstage in a public performance since 1814 (to introduce his Symphony No. 8, a far more modest work).
The impetus to complete the long-gestating Ninth Symphony came not from Vienna, but via a commission from distant London. In the meantime, Beethoven considered giving the premiere to Berlin, beyond the Habsburg Empire. The composer believed Viennese taste had grown too inclined toward the superficial to make his latest music of interest there.
As a result, prominent patrons circulated a petition imploring Beethoven to keep the premiere in Vienna. Yet — musical capital though Vienna was — performance standards at the time would likely have appalled even the most undiscerning listener of today. Only two complete rehearsals were held of Beethoven’s complex new work.
“We’ve become so familiar with this music, but in 1824 it was an incredibly challenging score,” Morlot said in a recent conversation.
“I think Beethoven was making a statement about his own power as a creative artist. Maybe that is part of why people recognize the strength in it.”
Written during a period of reactionary entrenchment across Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic era, the Ninth developed a musical language that, according to Morlot, was revolutionary in its innovations.
The conductor emphasized that the famous choral movement needs to be experienced as the final destination of an immense journey, one that also takes us into the abyss. Even the attainment of joy in the finale is preceded by a terrifying outburst of sonic chaos.
“The novelty of the first three movements is incredible. Beethoven was creating the stage for the future.”
Throughout its history, the Ninth has served functions far beyond the concert hall. The music and words of the final movement, which sets a portion of Friedrich Schiller’s revolutionary “Ode to Joy” (published in 1786), celebrate a message of universal connection that has resonated in moments of political crisis.
“The utopian ideals expressed [here] remain unfulfilled, but the hope engendered by these ideas is still very much alive,” David Benjamin Levy wrote in a splendid monograph on the work that appeared two decades ago.
The fact that it has also been appropriated by hateful forces — the Nazis used the Ninth to celebrate Hitler’s birthday — only underscores the work’s power.
Single performances of the Ninth have themselves become icons: take the concert led by Leonard Bernstein on Christmas Day 1989, to celebrate the recent fall of the Berlin Wall (in what is today the city’s Konzerthaus).
Only six months earlier, students who were protesting in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square popped in a cassette of the Ninth and blared the music from a network of speakers to drown out the army’s broadcasts.
This and other episodes are recounted by Kerry Candaele’s 2013 documentary “Following the Ninth.” The film gathers moving eyewitness accounts of the work’s relevance to modern-day struggles around the globe.
In one especially memorable scene, a former political prisoner detained under Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile in the 1970s took solace from groups of women spontaneously singing the “Ode to Joy” outside the prison. The music, he recalled, wafted over the walls like “a colorful butterfly.”
Another involves the Japanese New Year’s tradition of performing the “daiku” (“the ninth”) with choruses of thousands of eager singers — a practice to which many turned in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 earthquake.
Perhaps the Ninth’s greatest paradox is that its expression of elite, individual genius runs parallel to the message of radical inclusivity. That is something we can never take for granted.