Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered 200 years ago today

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered 200 years ago today
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered 200 years ago today

200 years ago today, on May 7, 1824, the premiere of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony took place in the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna. It was the composer himself, who conducted his masterpiece for a wildly enthusiastic audience. Afterwards he was thanked with loud applause and spontaneous cheers. However, that completely ignored the great master.

(text: Wim Meijer)

‘Unheard’ applause |
After the last notes of his Ninth Symphony, the audience literally stood on the benches. What Beethoven got from it was the sight of five exuberant standing ovations, with handkerchiefs and hats going into the air. It was a spectacle never before seen in the disciplined classical world. The police even had to be involved to clear the room.

As mentioned, the sound of the passionate applause and cheers passed him by. The reason for this was that the gifted composer had been deaf for 7 years at that time; something that makes the realization of that famous Ninth Symphony extra impressive.
Physical tools
It’s a fate you wouldn’t wish on anyone: losing your most important physical tool. For a singer this is his voice, for a football player his legs and for a composer his hearing. This applied to Beethoven like no other. Like Mozart before him, Ludwig von Beethoven was also a child prodigy, playing complete Bach compositions by heart at the age of eleven and performing for Hereditary Stadtholder Prince Willem V of Orange-Nassau. At the age of 13 he composed his first piano concerto. And in the years that followed, the compositions followed each other in rapid succession.

Don’t hear it, but know what it sounds like
It is likely that the intensive composing of music at a young age caused him to develop such a great ‘feeling’ for music that he no longer even needed to hear the music he composed to know what it sounded like. And that was a quality he would desperately need. Because at the age of 27 he noticed that his hearing was declining.

Initially he kept his hearing problems hidden from everyone, because he was afraid that, as a deaf pianist and composer, he would no longer be taken seriously. It was not until 1801 that he first told the doctor Franz Wegeler. A few days later he also mentioned it in a letter to his friend Karl Amenda.

On the advice of his doctor, Beethoven went to the countryside for the summer in 1802 to rest his ears. However, towards the end of his stay in Heiligenstadt, a village outside Vienna, he noticed that his hearing was not improving. Severe depression resulted, causing him to seriously consider taking his own life. However, because he saw it as his duty to donate whatever music was left in him to humanity, he managed to overcome his depression.

Masterpieces from ‘deaf period’
As the years passed, Beethoven became deaf and was forced to give up his career as a pianist. However, his deafness, which was probably complete from 1817 onwards, did not negatively affect his ability to compose. In fact, Beethoven composed some of his most famous works when he was already completely deaf, such as the late Piano Sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, the late string quartets and the Ninth Symphony.

Ode to Joy
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is regarded worldwide as an absolute highlight in classical music. Beethoven worked on it from 1817 on behalf of the Philharmonic Society of London (now the Royal Philharmonic Society) and completed his masterpiece in 1823. With this he had not just composed a classical masterpiece, but also realized what he had had in mind since 1793: making music to the poem “Ode An die Freude” (hymn to joy) by the German poet Friedrich von Schiller from 1785.

Performance of All Menschen were Brüder with the text of the original poem by Friedrich Schiller, performed by two Syrians on the Synagogenplatz in Ludwigsburg

On May 7, 1824, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna. It was extremely curious that the deaf composer himself stood in front of the orchestra as conductor, albeit assisted by a co-conductor. What Beethoven did not know was that the ‘co-conductor’ had expressly instructed the choir and orchestra and, above all, had told them not to pay any attention to the composer. Not a bad idea, because at the end of the symphony the orchestra appeared to have taken a lead of 5 bars over Beethoven. However, it did not detract from the euphoria among the audience. These were very enthusiastic. And they have remained that way over the years.

European anthem
Friedrich von Schiller’s message ‘All Men became Brothers’ to music by Ludwig van Beethoven turned out to be one that was not only timeless but also limitless, because in 1972 the Council of Europe chose “Ode to Joy” as the European hymn, and later, in 1985, as the anthem of the European Union. The argument was that this poem set to music perfectly reflects the idealistic vision of Beethoven and Schiller, that all men are brothers, and thus the ideals of freedom, peace and solidarity that Europe stands for.

How unifying an anthem can be became apparent in 1989, with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, when ‘Alle Menschen zijn Brüder’ was heard worldwide.

We also saw that the ‘Ode to Joy’ extends beyond European borders in December 2011 when an orchestra and a choir consisting of ten thousand amateur singers gave a joint performance of Beethoven’s masterpiece in Osaka, Japan. The aim was to raise money for the victims of the Fukushima disaster, which occurred on March 11 of that year.

That the fraternizing character of Beethoven’s creation also works on a small scale and on the street is evident from the video below, where Ode an die Freude is used in a flash mob. For those who are not familiar with the concept of ‘flash mob’: A flash mob is a large group of people who suddenly gather in a public place, do something unusual and then quickly disperse. Flash mobs are usually organized via social media, where the number of participants is not fixed in advance. The more participants, the more fun. If that isn’t fraternizing, I don’t know what is.

The article is in Dutch

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