First Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the greatest and most frequently performed orchestral works, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony added a chorus and vocal soloists to the orchestra to sing verses from Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” By stretching the definition of a symphony, it inspired further experimentation by other composers throughout the nineteenth century.

Summary of Event

The first performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on May 7, 1824, in the Kärntnerthor Theater in Vienna, Austria, was greeted with enthusiasm by the audience. It is unlikely, however, that any of those in attendance recognized the lasting impact the work would have upon musical history. The Ninth Symphony was a massive work, the longest symphony written up to its time, and it uniquely added a chorus and vocal soloists to the orchestra in the finale. The text, setting verses of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” (1786; “Ode to Joy”), speaks of universal brotherhood in the symphony’s jubilant conclusion. Beethoven, Ludwig van [p]Beethoven, Ludwig van;Ninth Symphony Ninth Symphony (Beethoven) Music;symphonic Music;German Vienna;symphonic music Schiller, Friedrich [kw]First Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (May 7, 1824) [kw]Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, First (May 7, 1824) [kw]Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, First Performance of (May 7, 1824) [kw]Ninth Symphony, First Performance of Beethoven’s (May 7, 1824) [kw]Symphony, First Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth (May 7, 1824) Beethoven, Ludwig van [p]Beethoven, Ludwig van;Ninth Symphony Ninth Symphony (Beethoven) Music;symphonic Music;German Vienna;symphonic music Schiller, Friedrich [g]Germany;May 7, 1824: First Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony[1300] [g]Austria;May 7, 1824: First Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony[1300] [c]Music;May 7, 1824: First Performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony[1300] Schiller, Friedrich Umlauf, Michael

One of the greatest composers in European history, Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770, in Bonn, Cologne (now in modern Germany), and first studied with his father, a musician for the local elector. He studied with several other composers before settling permanently in 1792 in Vienna, where he soon came to favor with local aristocrats as an accomplished performer on the piano. His first important compositions were piano sonatas, and over his career he also wrote concertos, string quartets, an opera, and many other works, but he is perhaps best known for his nine symphonies. Beethoven often pushed the boundaries set by previous composers, such as by adding trombones, piccolo, and contrabassoon to the finale of his Fifth Symphony—all instruments never before employed in a symphony.

The greatest crisis in Beethoven’s life arose in 1802, as he confronted a growing loss of his hearing. While visiting the town of Heiligenstadt seeking a cure for his deafness, he wrote a letter to his brothers—intended to be read after his death—expressing his anguish at losing a sense so important for a musician. This letter, later known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, marked a turn in Beethoven’s life, after which he accepted this handicap and overcame it. Several of his works, including the Ninth Symphony, have a theme of triumph over adversity, with darker sections in the early part of the work giving way to bright sections at the end.

The genesis of the Ninth Symphony came about over a number of years, as evidenced by ideas that Beethoven wrote for this work and most of his others in his composition sketchbooks. He began considering setting Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” to music as early as 1792, according to a letter written by a Bonn law professor to Schiller’s wife, although no sketches of the time confirm this date. The earliest sketches of music Beethoven eventually employed in the Ninth Symphony were written in 1815, with additional sketches being added up to 1818. He began writing the Ninth Symphony in earnest in 1823 and finished in the spring of 1824.

Ludwig van Beethoven (at keyboard) with several friends.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

The Ninth Symphony is divided into four movements, or sections, as was typical of symphonies of the time, but there are a number of innovative aspects of the work. In the first movement, instead of the traditional opening theme beginning the work, the music gradually unfolds from silence and builds into an outbreak of the dark, forceful theme in a minor key. The remainder of the movement contains some of the most complex interplay of themes found in the classical period. The second movement, while incorporating dance music typical of an inner symphonic movement, creates a dynamic interchange of various rhythms and meters that transcends the expected rhythmic stability of a dance movement. The third movement’s variations on two themes, instead of only one, is a form found only in one previous Beethoven symphony, his fifth.

The final movement of the Ninth Symphony is unlike any other symphonic movement written up to its time. The movement itself is as long as most of the entire symphonies that preceded it, and its structure has been interpreted in multiple ways by multiple scholars. The opening section presents and seemingly rejects the music of the first three movements, before introducing variations on the “Ode to Joy” theme in the orchestra. Only after these variations have been introduced do the soloists and full choir join with the orchestra, singing verses of Schiller’s poem. Beethoven’s addition of singers to the orchestra in a symphony was unprecedented, and, like the new instruments added to the Fifth Symphony, it indicated his independence in expanding the limits of the genre. The combined performing forces alternate and then join together for a powerful and thrilling conclusion to the work.

The first performance of the Ninth Symphony on May 7, 1824, also included an overture and portions of a mass by Beethoven. The orchestra and chorus only had two full rehearsals together before the performance, although the chorus, orchestra, and soloists had all practiced separately as well. The conductor for the performance was Michael Umlauf, Umlauf, Michael the music director for the Kärntnerthor Theater, but Beethoven stood next to him on stage. Although he was almost totally deaf at that time, Beethoven was present to indicate the beginning tempos, or speed, for each movement; he apparently gestured and conducted portions along with Umlauf as well. At the conclusion of the symphony, the soprano soloist had to indicate for Beethoven to turn around to see the applause of the audience that he could not hear.

The large audience was enthusiastic for the first performance of the Ninth Symphony, as were newspaper reviews, although some indicated problems they attributed to the performers having insufficient time to learn such difficult music. Financially, the performance barely broke even in spite of the full auditorium, because paying the large number of performers took most of the box office receipts. Another performance later that month was poorly advertised, and only half the seats were filled, resulting in a financial loss. Nevertheless, the artistic greatness of the work assured it a long life, and the Ninth Symphony entered the orchestral repertoire, where it has been performed thousands of times since its premiere.

Significance

The legacy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been far-reaching. Many composers of the nineteenth century were both inspired by and apprehensive about the work, concerned whether they could ever match the grand conception of such an all-encompassing composition. The Schiller verses espousing the brotherhood of mankind resonated with the ideals of the Romantic movement, and the work as a whole also became a potent symbol for nineteenth century nationalistic movements, especially in Germany.

During the twentieth century, the Ninth Symphony became a ceremonial work, performed often at the opening of new concert halls and as the opening or concluding work of a symphony’s concert season. It was also performed as part of the ceremonies of many Olympic Games. In December, 1989, in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall Berlin Wall , Leonard Bernstein Bernstein, Leonard conducted the Ninth Symphony with an orchestra made up of musicians from both East and West Germany and the Allied forces in concerts on both sides of Berlin. Bernstein substituted the word Freiheit (freedom) for the word Freude (joy) in Schiller’s text to align more closely the significance of Beethoven’s work with the modern political event. Bernstein’s concerts were broadcast to an audience of millions in thirty-six countries. An arrangement of the “Ode to Joy” theme serves as the anthem of the European Union, and the melody has been heard in numerous films and television productions. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has a rich cultural legacy and is destined to remain as one of the supreme achievements in Western music.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buch, Esteban. Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History. Translated by Richard Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Examines the contradictory ways in which the work has been used since its premiere, from nationalistic propaganda to celebratory hymn.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Nicholas. Beethoven: Symphony No. 9. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A thorough examination of the work, its first performance, and its reception history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinderman, William. Beethoven. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. A detailed analysis of Beethoven’s music in the context of his life; includes many musical examples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, David. Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. An analysis of the work that considers both its original cultural context and its later reception up to 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, Lewis. Beethoven: The Music and the Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. A clear overview that places Beethoven’s life and music into context in an evocative way that is understandable for the non-musician.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solomon, Maynard. Beethoven Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. An engaging series of essays, including ones on the Ninth Symphony and Schiller, that explores the psychological meanings of Beethoven’s music.

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