Any performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has special significance and it is no different this weekend with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Even so, there is something more profound in the air this week. The “Ode to Joy” is a celebration of the humanity that binds everyone on this earth together and this orchestra lived that idea this season. The MSO and its community have supported each other through the wild ups and downs of the past several months and what better way to celebrate than with performances of this immortal work. In fact, we have already been in celebration mode for a while as staff, musicians, and myself have been traveling around Milwaukee for the past two weeks holding “listening parties” at various community centers to discuss this weekend’s concerts. But you don’t have to take my word for it, here’s the video evidence of Milwaukee celebrating with the “Ode to Joy”:
There are lots of resources out there if you want to beef up on your Beethoven’s Ninth trivia including a listening guide you can download from the MSO website. One of the best ways to enjoy this weekend is to show up in the atrium an hour before the concerts for a special preconcert talk by writer and music historian Harvey Sachs. I had the great pleasure of spending time with him while a student at the Curtis Institute of Music and he may be as close as you will get to a walking encyclopedia of music while also being incredibly entertaining and eloquent. I think it is safe to say that you are in for a treat even before the music starts this weekend.
With all this in mind, I am going to take the liberty of not worrying about being eloquent and give you my three random thoughts on the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth for this week:
Well, that took long enough. Beethoven first attempted to set Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”) when he was 23 years old. It would be thirty years later that he would finally complete the project as the finale to his last symphony. In those thirty years, as Beethoven mulled over the poem, something beautiful happened – it became Beethoven’s poem. The final version that Beethoven used rearranged all of the text with more than half the poem omitted. In other words, Schiller’s words were more like the building blocks that Beethoven used to build his towering monument. It also explains why the music and words are so intensely welded together – supporting and commenting on each other. For Beethoven, there is complete unity between text and music.
Beethoven would have loved orchestra flash mobs. Much to the delight of audiences, many orchestras (including the MSO) have designed orchestra flash mobs in public spaces where a few musicians start playing a piece and others join in until there is a full orchestra. At some point this week, it struck me that Beethoven wrote a flash mob into the finale of his symphony. The “Ode to Joy” theme itself is first presented in unison by the cellos and basses – so simple and so soft, that there is a moment of doubt if such a fragile melody can survive. Finally, a few more instruments join in providing some harmony and warmth. With each statement of the theme, instruments pile on until it reaches its triumphant destination. What better way to introduce one of the most famous melodies in Western civilization?
Beethoven left us with words as well as music. The first entrance of text in the finale is sung by the bass soloist: “Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones!” These opening statements were not in Schiller’s poem; these are Beethoven’s own introductory words. I encourage you to imagine this weekend not only Beethoven speaking to us through music, but in this moment, literally compelling us to join him in celebration. I personally find it quite haunting every time I hear these words coming straight from the man himself. This is as close as we will ever be to a composer whose musical genius continues to defy the logic of us mere humans – the very same humans that he champions in his Ninth Symphony.