Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of his greatest works. Played by BBC NOW, directed by Xian Zhang, it sounds amazingly big (Hollowchatter, 2017). From the first notes, listeners are entirely immersed in the music. The conductor’s work is genuinely virtuoso: it guides the musicians expressively and achieves impressive sound. Thanks to this, the symphony is striking in its power and evokes vivid emotions, leaving a strong impression for a long time.
The first part of the symphony is a sonata-allegro of a grandiose scale. The main party’s heroic theme is established gradually, emerging from a mysterious, distant, unformed sound, as if from an abyss of chaos. Brief, muted string motifs flicker like lightning. They are gradually gaining strength, gathering into an energetic theme along with the descending minor triad’s tones, with a dotted rhythm, which is finally proclaimed by the entire orchestra in unison. However, the theme does not hold on to the top, it slides into the abyss, and its gathering begins again. Harsh sforzandos and abrupt chords paint an unfolding stubborn struggle, but a ray of hope immediately flashes. In the gentle two-part singing of woodwind, the motive of the future theme of joy appears for the first time.
In the lyrical, lighter side part, sighs are heard, but the major mode softens the sadness. Slow, difficult build-up leads to the first victory – a heroic final set. This is a version of the main one, now energetically directed upward, confirmed in the entire orchestra’s major melodies. However, everything again falls into the abyss, and, like raging waves of the endless ocean, the musical element rises and falls. It paints glorious pictures of a battle with grievous defeats and terrible sacrifices. Sometimes it seems that the forces of light are faint, and the darkness reigns.
At the beginning of the reprise, the motive of the central part sounds major for the first time. True, the triumph is short-lived – the minor reigns again. Nevertheless, although there is still a long way to go before the final victory, hope is growing, light themes take up more space than in the exposition. However, the expanded code leads to tragedy: against the background of a regularly repeating ominous descending chromatic scale, a funeral march sounds. And yet the spirit is not broken – the part ends with a powerful sound of the heroic central theme.
The second part is a unique scherzo, full of equally hard struggle. The orchestra plays this theme at a dizzyingly fast pace. A single energetic sharp rhythm permeates the entire scherzo, rushing like an irresistible stream. On the crest of it, a short, defiantly audacious side theme emerges, in the dancing turns of which one can hear the future theme of joy. This part is based on the motives of the main party. The trio’s appearance is original: an abrupt change in size, tempo, fret – and the staccato of the bassoons without pause introduces a completely unexpected theme. However, intonationally, the trio’s theme is closely related to the symbolic world of the entire symphony – this is another, detailed part of the theme of joy. An exact repetition of the first section of the scherzo (da capo) results in a code in which the trio’s theme pops up with a brief reminder.
The third part is slow – a heartfelt, philosophically profound adagio. It alternates between two themes – both enlightened major, unhurried. But the first one seems endless and, repeating three times, develops in the form of variations. The second, with a dreamy, expressive swirling melody, resembles a lyrical slow waltz and returns once again, changing only the tonality and the set of instruments. Heroic inviting fanfare burst into the code twice in sharp contrast, as if reminding that the struggle is not over.
The beginning of the ending, which opens with a tragic fanfare, tells the same story. It is answered by the recitative of cellos and double basses as if provoking and then rejecting the preceding parts’ themes. Following the fanfare’s repetition, the ghostly background of the beginning of the symphony appears, then the motif of the scherzo and, finally, the melodious adagio. A new motive appears last – it is sung by woodwind, and the recitative that answers it sounds affirmative for the first time, in major, directly passing into the theme of joy.
The song theme, close to the folk one, but transformed into a generalized hymnological, strict, and restrained one, develops in a chain of variations. Growing to a grandiose jubilant sound, the theme of joy at the climax is suddenly cut off by a new invasion of the fanfare. And only after this last reminder of the tragic struggle does the word come in. The instrumental recitative is now entrusted to the bass soloist and turns into a vocal presentation of the theme of joy on Schiller’s verses. The theme continues to vary with soloists, choir, and orchestra. The finale is colored with unexpected episodes: for example, a military march performed by percussion, a tenor soloist, and a male choir, which gives way to a general cheerful melody.
The Ninth Symphony is one of the most outstanding creations in the history of world musical culture. In the grandeur of the idea and the depth of its ethical content, in the breadth of the concept and the powerful dynamics of musical images, the Ninth Symphony surpasses everything created by Beethoven. It found the highest expression of Beethoven’s ideas of democracy and heroic struggle; it embodies the new principles of symphonic thinking with incomparable perfection. Undoubtedly, BBC NOW, under the leadership of Xian Zhang, managed to convey the grandeur and scale of this work.
Hollowchatter. (2017). Proms 2017 – Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 ‘Chora;’ [Xian Zhang, BBC NOW] [Video]. Web.