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Beethoven's Ninth still captivates, two centuries after its premiere

German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) composing at the piano.
Three Lions/Getty Images
Hulton Archive
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) depicted hard at work, composing at the piano.

As we observe the 200th anniversary of the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a bit of symmetry is worth considering. For almost an entire century after the Ninth was composed, the only way to truly experience this piece was live in a concert hall. But the second hundred years saw an unparalleled flood of recordings. Since the first one appeared in 1923 — as a stack of seven 78rpm records — Beethoven’s Ninth has amassed an aural archive unlike any other.

At the time he wrote the Ninth, Beethoven was 53, and his loss of hearing was virtually complete. Almost a decade had passed since he completed his previous symphony. Yet during this period, he was able to complete masterpieces including the Missa Solemnis, along with his late piano sonatas and string quartets, until his death in 1827.

His Ninth has been revered, disdained and argued over. It has been lauded with lavish interpretations that give new meaning to the word “grandeur,” and conversely, provided artists with the aural equivalent of sculpture. Writers, filmmakers, and other artists have recontextualized the piece, changing how we perceive it, even bending its shape to create forms that test the limits of our ability to recognize its contours.

The Symphony No. 9 has been used in times of celebration, and in times of defiance. This adaptability has created its own history, extending well beyond the concert hall. Is there any work in the classical canon that is as immediately recognizable?

Early Landmarks

The very first recording of the Ninth was made in Berlin with the Neues Symphonie-Orchester, the Berlin Staatskapelle Chorus, and four game soloists, all conducted by Bruno Seidler-Winkler, the musical director for Deutsche Grammophon at the time. Every classical music fan owes their ears at least one hearing of this artifact, despite the primitive acoustics, considerably slower tempi, and the players struggling at times with the score itself.

In the decades that followed, landmarks popped up from all corners. For some listeners, the second movement will bring back memories of the Huntley-Brinkley Report, the NBC evening news program that used the 1952 version of the Ninth with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Another winner often cited from that same era is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s live reading from 1951, when he led the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus, with a crew of singers headed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

The Ode in Stereo

In 1958, the first stereo recording arrived, from Ferenc Fricsay and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and a starry quartet: Irmgard Seefried, Maureen Forrester, Ernst Haflinger, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Coincidentally, another admirer of that recording was the director Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps inspired by the Ninth’s mention in Anthony Burgess’ book, Kubrick included excerpts from the Fricsay recording in A Clockwork Orange (1972), along with an electronic realization by Wendy Carlos.

That recording heralded another wave of performances in the 1960s, such as those from George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra (1961), as well as Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (1962), leading a parade by seemingly every conductor on the planet. Among them was Herbert von Karajan, whose 1962 Berlin version is often cited as the favorite of the five he recorded in the studio.

Enter the Digital Age

In the early 1980s, another wave of conductors proved eager to make their mark with the emergence of the compact disc. Interestingly, the Ninth had a reported influence on the CD format itself. According to publications like Classic FM, Wired, and the newsletter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Information Theory Society, the format’s original 74-minute length was determined by those advocating for a single disc to accommodate an entire Ninth performance. (It should be noted that some consider this report apocryphal; the fact-checking source Snopes concludes that it is “undetermined.”)

In any case, the format proved wildly popular, not only for convenience but also for textural clarity and dynamic range. For the first time, listeners could hear the Ninth at home in a way that approached the experience in the concert hall — a plus in some of the Ninth’s more explosive sequences. Among scores of entrants from that time, one of the most appealing is a 1986 recording with Gunter Wand and the NDR Symphony.

Yet another landmark arrived in 1987, when Roger Norrington released the first recording with a period instrument orchestra, the London Classical Players, sporting brazenly faster tempi. As interest in the style increased — also known as “historically informed performance” or HIP — musicians became more adept at navigating gut strings and valveless horns. New realizations of the Ninth emerged from Christopher Hogwood with the Academy of Ancient Music, Philippe Herreweghe with his superb Orchestre des Champs Élysées, and John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir.

History, Backward and Forward

In the meantime, a smallish museum of curiosities has flowered around the Ninth. Listeners who find the period instrument versions too sinewy may want to investigate Gustav Mahler’s 1895 reorchestration — pumping up Beethoven’s forces with more woodwinds, a tuba, muted trumpets, and additional violins, flutes, and oboes — for perhaps the ultimate “more is more” take.

In 1989, the Ninth had a crucial role in two major historical events. In April, students in China’s Tiananmen Square used car batteries and loudspeakers to create an aural act of resistance intended to overpower the messages being broadcast by the government. And in December, in one of his final projects, Leonard Bernstein used the Ninth to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, with multiple choirs and orchestras, and substituting the word “freiheit” (“freedom”) for “freude” (“joy”) in the final pages.

In 1998, Seiji Ozawa corralled a half-dozen choruses for a worldwide relay of the “Ode to Joy” theme to open the Winter Olympics in Nagano. According to The New York Times, “the first time that images and sounds from around the globe were united in a simultaneous live performance.”

In 2002, leaping on a “what if” moment, the Scandinavian artist Leif Inge introduced 9 Beet Stretch, in which he electronically slowed down the speed to make the work’s 60 minutes last for 24 hours, transforming a brisk walk into a minimalist meditation. At the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps the most extravagant spectacle to date is a massive 2014 ballet by Maurice Béjart, staged in Tokyo with the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta, with a corps of hundreds of dancers, choristers, and soloists.

An Icon Endures

Just for the record, not everyone is on board with the adoration. In 1921, the composer Claude Debussy (posthumously) published a book of reviews and commentary using his alter-ego, titled Monsieur Croche, Antidilettante, in which he disparaged the Ninth and the commentary surrounding it. Further into the 20th century, the writer Richard Taruskin recalled composer Ned Rorem writing about the Ninth in his diary, "the first piece of junk in the grand style," before a Columbia University colloquium where Rorem further condensed his characterization to “utter trash.”

German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827), painted by Kloeber circa 1805.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827), painted by Kloeber circa 1805.

But the praise far outweighs the naysayers. Another (somewhat famous) composer, Richard Wagner, wrote in his memoir, Mein Leben (“My Life”), words of unabashed devotion, declaring that the Ninth “became the mystical lodestar of all my fantastic musical thoughts and aspirations." That summary is echoed in the minds of millions.

A century from now, what might we expect in 2124, for the three hundredth anniversary? As we plunge into the age of artificial intelligence, technology will make it easier to look backward, forward, and inward. Curiosities may increase, as AI makes experiments possible that we can only dream about. (“Why yes, I’d love to hear it with 200 harmonicas.”)

And while many of us grin at the sentiments of Debussy and Rorem, it seems unlikely that the Ninth will fade from public view, given its irresistible message of uncertainty and chaos, ultimately flowering into joy and hope. As one of the final struggles of a man who wrestled with form and content — not to mention, while dealing with his own humanity — the triumph of the Ninth will likely be documented, discussed, and bickered over for centuries to come.

For their advice, I am deeply indebted to Mike McCaffrey, a Haydn authority who also maintains a collection of over 150 recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I am also grateful to Dr. James Parsons, distinguished professor at Missouri State University, whose research and writing includes extensive work on the Ninth.

Bruce Hodges writes about classical music for The Strad, and has contributed articles to Lincoln Center, Playbill, New Music Box, London’s Southbank Centre, Strings, and Overtones, the magazine of the Curtis Institute of Music. His is a former columnist for The Juilliard Journal, and former North American editor for Seen and Heard International. He currently lives in Philadelphia.