Joy! Beethoven’s 9th Program Notes

Berlioz–Royal Hunt and Storm, from the opera, The Trojans

It was the culmination of a life-long career in music, the crowning jewel of a great composer’s life. A five-act opera, enormous in scale, based on a timeless classical tale, incorporating deeply moving music and a fascinating story.

How supremely ironic that the composer, Hector Berlioz, never heard his greatest and most ambitious work, The Trojans, performed during his lifetime. Indeed, it was not until a hundred years after Berlioz’s death that this work was finally recognized for its importance.

Tonight, we will hear a brief orchestral interlude from the fourth act of The Trojans, entitled “Royal Hunt and Storm.” Berlioz himself gave a fairly detailed programme of this interlude.

Water nymphs swim in the pool of a small stream, under morning light. The hunting calls of the Royal Hunt are heard in the distance, frightening the nymphs. As the huntsmen pass by, an approaching storm hurries their gate. The sky darkens; rain falls. The storm intensifies, nearly drowning out the hunting calls of the scattered huntsmen. Dido and Aeneas (two of the main characters of the opera) appear and seek shelter in a nearby cave. Wood nymphs and fauns appear and dance in the torrents; the stream swells. Satyrs and silvans appear and join the dance. Lightning strikes a tree which splits and catches fire. Pieces fall on stage. The satyrs, fauns and silvans collect the flaming branches, dancing with them in their hands, and then run off with the nymphs into the depths of the forest. The storm slowly abates, and the clouds lift.

Berlioz’s program can easily be heard in the music of the “Royal Hunt and Storm;” his inventive use of orchestral colors and textures exemplify his genius. Historian Ian Kemp describes this work as, “an orchestral tone poem of astonishing originality and vividness…(Berlioz’s) mingling of ballet, mime, action, spectacle and music comprises one of the most ambitious scenes ever conceived for the opera house.”

Sir Edward Elgar – Sea Pictures

There is a virtual truism in music: most musicians come from musical families. The most famed example is, of course, the long line of Bach’s–including Johann Sebastian, Carl Philip Emmanuel, and other notable musicians spanning several generations. Other examples are too numerous to list, from Mozart to Bartok, Beethoven to Dvořák .

In this respect, Edward Elgar fit the mold of the famous composers who came before him. His father, William Henry Elgar, made a living as a piano tuner and occasional performer. Yet despite William Henry’s love of music, Edward Elgar received virtually no formal musical training. Due to his father’s distant and gruff nature–and hectic traveling schedule–young Edward was forced to learn music through sheer self-motivation. He taught himself to play the piano, and learned musical notation mostly by trial and error. As noted in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, “(Elgar’s) school was the sharp one of performance; if he lacked guidance, he suffered no false influence; and he acquired craft and speed.”

Success outside of convention soon became the hallmark of Edward’s life. In 1863, due to his family’s financial woes, he began attending the Catholic girls’ school attended by his two sisters. He was a fish out of water both within the school and without: Catholicism itself set Edward at odds with his mostly protestant community. After a brief stint working in a solicitor’s office, Edward embarked on a life as a freelance musician – at age 16. One of his first jobs, at age 22, was to conduct and arrange music for the Worcester and County Lunatic Asylum – hardly an orthodox entrée into the world of professional music. Edward made his social position even more equivocal in 1889, when he married one of his piano pupils, Caroline Alice Roberts – a notable woman who came from a social class above him.

Nevertheless, by the time he died, Elgar had cemented his position as the most famous composer in all of England. Pivotal to that reputation was the premiere, in 1899, of his Enigma Variations, a set of orchestral variations on a theme the composer enigmatically said was based on a second mystery theme that the composer never actually revealed.

Later that same year, Elgar premiered a set of five songs for contralto and orchestra, collectively titled Sea Pictures. The set consisted of settings of poems by Roden Noel, Caroline Alice Elgar (the composer’s wife), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Richard Garnett, and Adam Lindsay Gordon. To emphasize the thematic through-line of the songs, the singer at the premiere performed in a mermaid costume (!).

Yet these are hardly disjointed nor lighthearted songs. Tied together by frequent recapitulations and variations on the singer’s first melody, the music ebbs and swells with a sense of sprawling majesty, emotional mystery and fluid interconnectedness that befits its subject – and contrasts highly with the celebratory veneer of the Enigma Variations. The result is one of the most evocative works of its kind – and an inspiration for many later British composers, from Bax to Britten, who would embrace the surroundings of their island nation as their watery muse.

Beethoven — Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, op. 125

It has been called the perfect melody: sixty-one notes of simple, mostly step-wise, mostly monorhythmic movement, easy enough for the tone-deaf to hum, yet seemingly cosmic in its sense of hope and beauty. Today, it is the most famous melody in all of classical music, the tune that Ludwig Van Beethoven created to frame the words of Friedrich Schiller’s immortal poem, “Ode to Joy.”

It takes time to get there; but then, that is part of the brilliance inherent in the construction of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, his last work in the form (and arguably the proverbial last word in the form from any composer). Yet once that melody appears, it is as if a whole universe has been set right, each piece put in its proper place. Joy, indeed.

Born in 1770, Beethoven was trained on violin and piano at an early age by his father. His general education began and ended in elementary school; yet he was soon known in artistic circles for his prodigious musical technique and understanding. As an eleven-year old assistant to Bonn’s court organist, Beethoven was described by his mentor as “a boy of…most promising talent…He would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he has begun.”

Perhaps little did anyone suspect the validity of this comparison; for Beethoven was eventually to become the only composer in history of equal stature to Mozart.

And if there is one work for which Beethoven is best known, it is probably his monumental Ninth Symphony, composed between 1822-24. While many scholars would argue that it was Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the “Eroica”) which shattered the symphonic model and rebuilt it in Beethoven’s image, the Ninth is arguably the more profound and immediately captivating of his great symphonies. Many of the great composers of the 19th Century, including Brahms, Bruckner, Dvořák , and especially Wagner and Mahler, pointed to this symphony as a central inspiration in their creative voices. This influence continues unabated today; When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a legendary performance of the Ninth Symphony, with a composite orchestra and chorus of Eastern and Western musicians.

Built on an epic scale, yet centered around Schiller’s almost naive poem, the Ninth Symphony ranges in tone from cataclysmic to quiescent, from plaintive to ebullient. Yet the message is clear and simple: in the words of Schuller, “Joy, bright spark of divinity…Thy magic power reunites / All that custom has divided / All men become brothers / Under the sway of thy gentle wings.”

Built in the traditional four movements, the Ninth Symphony manages to sound utterly original in its structure–particularly in its final movement, scored for orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists. In this movement, the orchestra literally starts and stops several times, searching for the right voice to express itself. Finally, as if scolding the orchestra, the bass soloist exclaims, “O friends, no more of these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!” With that, all hesitation and confusion is cleared; and the musicians launch into an unparalleled expression of joy, ending with an echoing call to mankind: “Do you fall in worship, you millions? World, do you know your Creator? Seek Him in the heavens! Above the stars must He dwell.”

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