It’s 7 May 1824, and patrons of the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna are being treated to amazing sounds – and a rather bizarre sight. It’s the première of what would be the final complete symphony composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, a piece whose glorious choral finale would become the best-known melody in the classical canon. On stage, however, the composer is making the event just that little more memorable.

Hugo Hagen's bust statue of Beethoven
© Library of Congress | Wikimedia Commons

“He stood in front of the conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman,” remembered violinist Joseph Böhm. “At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor. He flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.” But Beethoven wasn’t the conductor. He had agreed to share the stage with the theatre’s resident conductor, Michael Umlauf, and to set the tempos at the beginning of each section. Secretly, however, Umlauf had told the musicians to ignore the composer’s wild gesticulations. The reason for his duplicity? A few years previously, Umlauf had watched a dress rehearsal of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio fall into a shambles under the composer’s baton due to his worsening hearing. Now, in 1824, Beethoven was almost completely deaf, and turning the pages of the score, beating time and watching the musicians move was his only sensory contact with the masterwork he had created. When the audience erupted into applause – either following the Scherzo or the final movement – the sense of tragedy became more acute. Lagging a few beats behind, Beethoven was reportedly still directing the music after the orchestra finished playing, and the contralto had to turn the composer around to face the audience to let him know what was happening.

Caroline Unger, the contralto who turned Beethoven toward the audience
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

An inauspicious beginning to the life of a piece that would become synonymous with triumph, but the work’s roots went back way before to Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He’d considered setting Freidrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy – a rapturous expression of cosmic optimism inspired by the American Revolution – to music as early as 1793 when he was a 22-year-old student, but it wasn’t until 1822 that he found a place for it in the final movement of his gigantic new symphony. The melody for this section, meanwhile, evolved out of a cantata he’d written a decade earlier to celebrate the 1814 Congress of Vienna. The Congress was aimed at restoring the balance of power in Europe following the defeat of Napoleon, a figure whom Beethoven had eulogised in his Third, “Eroica” Symphony of 1803. However, the overall tenor of the work Beethoven completed in February 1824 was one of vague, utopian optimism, hammered home by four vocal soloists and a chorus in the final movement, whose almost unbelievably simple melodic refrain appears in different guises in all the preceding movements. The choral aspect in itself was a major innovation – Beethoven’s Ninth is the first significant example of voices being used in a symphony. What’s more, in its monster, 60-minute-plus length, the work seemed to push against the previously accepted boundaries of a symphony. Contemporary critics saw such outrageous ideas as a sign of the waning of Beethoven’s compositional powers – now, we’re more inclined to see them as the composer at his apex.

Friedrich Schiller
© Library of Congress | Wikimedia Commons
The Ninth through time

As with any work of art, once it went out into the world, the Ninth was there to be interpreted. And perhaps due to the vagueness of the sentiments expressed in the Ode to Joy – the only section with words to analyse – these interpretations have varied wildly, no doubt hindered by the lack of surviving information on the convictions of Beethoven himself, whether political, religious or philosophical. Modern critics such as Harvey Sachs have posited the work as a riposte to the reactionary atmosphere of Europe in the wake of the Congress of Vienna – a political u-turn from the cantata Beethoven composed in 1814. Going back further, however, early Marxists saw the rousing humanist idealism of the “Ode” as prefiguring their own philosophy and its international outlook (“Be embraced, you millions!”). Yet perhaps the most notorious appropriation of the work came in Germany, just over a century after the composer’s death.

In the 1936 film Schlußakkord (Final Chord) a sick German woman living in America hears strains of Beethoven’s Ninth on the radio. This is placed in direct contrast to the degenerate jazz and swing music heard in earlier scenes. With the Ninth stirring her inner patriotism, the woman whispers “Beethoven” and resolves to return to her homeland and become a mother. As in Schlußakkord, Nazi propagandists continually drew on the Ninth as an expression of Teutonic strength, seeing it as a soundtrack to their eventual triumph. Hans Joachim Moser, leader of the musical wing of the Reich-Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, for example, saw in Schiller’s “kiss for the whole world” a “glowing devotion to the notion, the dream, the simple idea of a humanity conceived in as German terms as possible.” Hence the choral movement’s use during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as well as the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance of the symphony in honour of Hitler’s birthday in 1937. This had been especially requested by Joseph Goebbels who, through his newspaper Der Angriff extolled the work’s “fighting and struggling” as well as its eventual “triumph and joyous victory”. When Nazi confidence needed shoring up in the wake of the military setbacks of 1942, the Ninth was wheeled out on Hitler’s birthday again, with a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic performed by Wilhelm Furtwängler – a conductor who, conversely, had no sympathy for Hitler’s policies.

Wilhelm Furtwängler
© Library of Congress | Wikimedia Commons

There have, of course, been much more unifying appropriations of the Ninth, for example its use by a joint East and West German Olympic team as their anthem in 1956. Perhaps more famous, however, was its use by Leonard Bernstein on Christmas Day 1989 to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, with an orchestra comprised of musicians from all over the world. In the concert, Bernstein substituted the word “Freude” (Joy) in the choral movement for “Freiheit” – freedom – reflecting a newfound sense of optimism in the thawing of Cold War tensions. The Ninth, then, has been made to “mean” different things by different people. Now more than ever, the work is embedded in our collective pop-cultural consciousness. It has figured in films like A Clockwork Orange and Die Hard, served as the anthem for the European Union, soundtracked New Year celebrations worldwide, and was even used to set the standard run-time for CDs, in order to allow the piece to be heard in one sitting. So, whatever Beethoven originally intended by the Ninth, it would appear that we can now decide for ourselves what it means to us.

You can listen to Beethoven's Ninth at our Concert Club 10.