After hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time, the Russian revolutionary and author Mikhail Bakunin told the renowned composer Richard Wagner, “If all the music that has even been written was lost in the expected world-wide conflagration, we must pledge ourselves to rescue this symphony, even at the peril of our lives.”
Bakunin’s rhetoric may be turgid and overblown, but it does capture the Ninth Symphony’s centrality in the pantheon of human achievement. The masterpiece, quite simply, ranks among man’s greatest singular feats. The acclaimed conductor Arturo Toscanini captured the majesty of the Ode to Joy, observing “one ought to conduct it on one’s knees.”
Harvey Sachs’ The Ninth Beethoven and the World in 1824 is an enjoyable rendering of the great composer and the nineteenth century world he occupied when the the Ode to Joy debuted in Vienna. As Sachs recounts, the piece was not universally praised at first. Critics were confounded by a highly unconventional work that oscillates between dark melancholy and exuberant gaiety, between jarring discordance and uplifting harmony. The piece even incorporates a funeral march and, unique to the genre, a choral component in its finale, a musical recitation of Friedrich Schiller’s poetry. “The harder you look [at the Ninth], Jan Swafford of Slate observes, “the odder it gets.”
Regardless, the audience at the Ninth’s premiere on May 7, 1824 greeted it with unreserved enthusiasm. Beethoven, at 53, a decade older than the average life expectancy for a Viennese male at that time, had lost his hearing and, as such, did not conduct the performance. He was nevertheless on stage throughout and, at the piece’s conclusion, was turned towards the audience by one of the singers where he could observe the rapturous reaction. Fortune did not follow, though. The triumphal concert only netted the equivalent of about four months rent.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in December 1770 (the exact date isn’t known). His father was a cold and tyrannical musician and singer who mercilessly imposed on his son interminable piano lessons, and his mother a 21-year old widow. By the age of seven, Beethoven was performing to delighted courtiers. At sixteen, having attracted the attention of local gentry, Ludwig was sent to Vienna to study with Mozart. He may have had a few lessons with the master musician, though this remains unconfirmed, as Beethoven soon hurried home to see his ailing mother.
Several years later, at the age of age of twenty-two, Beethoven returned to Vienna to study under the celebrated composer Joseph Haydn, as well as the popular court musician Antonio Salieri (Mozart had died by then). Over the ensuing years, his genius would flourish, as would his confidence and braggadocio. Questioned once for his unconventional composition, Beethoven reportedly replied, “The rules don’t permit it? Very well: I permit it!” By 26, he would also begin to experience auditory disturbances, which he described in a letter found after his death: “O ye men who consider or declare me hostile, obstinate or misanthropic, how great you wrong me, you do not know the secret cause of what seems thus to you…I have been afflicted with an incurable condition…But what a humiliation when someone stood next to me and heard a flute from afar and I heard nothing or someone heard the shepherd sing, and I again heard nothing; such experiences brought me almost to despair, little was lacking to make me put an end to my life—only art held me back…”
Sachs deftly puts the Ninth in the context of the times and the Romantic Movement that sprouted in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Although the era was defined by monarchical retrenchment, the early ideals of the French Revolution, though temporarily extinguished, maintained their appeal. Sachs’ writes: “In the repressive atmosphere of the time, Romanticism in the arts was often a proxy for, or at least a symbol of, forbidden political liberalism.”
While Beethoven was careful not to alienate his aristocratic patrons who would take umbrage at a radical message, by exploiting the universalist language in Schiller’s poetry—the Ode to Joy famously intones, “Alle menschen werden brüder” or “All men become brothers”—he threaded the needle, creating a revolutionary work in a reactionary time.
Interestingly, the Ninth has resonated with the enlightened and the retrograde alike. It was played when the Berlin Wall came down, and played in the same city during the Nazi’s reign. As some cynics have noted, it has become an anthem to “us” whoever us may be. But its wide appeal merely testifies to the piece’s undeniable power. “Only art and science can raise men to the level of gods,” Beethoven wrote. With the Ninth Symphony, he did just that, demonstrating man’s sublime potential.