The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, is the final complete symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Completed in 1824, the symphony is one of the best-known works of the Western classical repertoire. Among critics, it is almost universally considered to be among Beethoven’s greatest works, and is considered by some to be the greatest piece of music ever written. It has been adapted for use as the European Anthem.
The symphony was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony (thus making it a choral symphony). The words are sung during the final movement by four vocal soloists and a chorus. They were taken from the “Ode to Joy”, a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with additions made by the composer.
Beethoven was almost completely deaf when he composed his ninth symphony.
The Philharmonic Society of London originally commissioned the symphony in 1817. The main composition work was done between autumn 1822 and the completion of the autograph in February 1824. However, both the words and notes of the symphony have sources dating from earlier in Beethoven’s career.
The title of Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” is literally translated as “To Joy”, but is normally called the “Ode to Joy”. It was written in 1785 and first published the following year in the poet’s own literary journal, Thalia. Beethoven had made plans to set this poem to music as far back as 1793, when he was 22 years old.
Beethoven’s sketchbooks show that bits of musical material that ultimately appeared in the symphony were written in 1811 and 1817.
In addition, the symphony also emerged from other pieces by Beethoven that, while completed works in their own right, are also in some sense sketches for the future symphony. The Choral Fantasy Opus. 80 (1808), basically a piano concerto movement, brings in a chorus and vocal soloists near the end to form the climax. As in the Ninth Symphony, the vocal forces sing a theme first played instrumentally, and this theme is highly reminiscent of the corresponding theme in the Ninth Symphony (for a detailed comparison, see Choral Fantasy). Going further back, an earlier version of the Choral Fantasy theme is found in the song “Gegenliebe” (“Returned Love”), for piano and high voice, which dates from before 1795. According to Robert W. Gutman, Mozart’s K. 222 Offertory in D minor, “Misericordias Domini,” written in 1775, contains a melody that foreshadows “Ode to Joy”.
The theme for the scherzo can be traced back to a fugue written in 1815.
The introduction for the vocal part of the symphony caused many difficulties for Beethoven. Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler, later said: “When he started working on the fourth movement the struggle began as never before. The aim was to find an appropriate way of introducing Schiller’s ode. One day he [Beethoven] entered the room and shouted ‘I got it, I just got it!’ Then he showed me a sketchbook with the words ‘let us sing the ode of the immortal Schiller'”. However, Beethoven did not retain this version, and kept rewriting until he had found its final form, with the words “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (“O friends, not these tones”).
Beethoven was eager to have his work played in Berlin as soon as possible after finishing it, since he thought that musical taste in Vienna was dominated by Italian composers such as Rossini. When his friends and financiers heard this, they urged him to premiere the symphony in Vienna.
The Ninth Symphony was premiered on 7 May 1824 in the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, along with the Consecration of the House Overture and the first three parts of the Missa Solemnis. This was the composer’s first on-stage appearance in 12 years; the hall was packed. The soprano and alto parts were interpreted by two famous young singers: Henriette Sontag and Caroline Unger.
Although the performance was officially directed by Michael Umlauf, the theatre’s Kapellmeister, Beethoven shared the stage with him. However, two years earlier, Umlauf had watched as the composer’s attempt to conduct a dress rehearsal of his opera Fidelio ended in disaster. So this time, he instructed the singers and musicians to ignore the totally deaf Beethoven. At the beginning of every part, Beethoven, who sat by the stage, gave the tempos. He was turning the pages of his score and beating time for an orchestra he could not hear.
There are a number of anecdotes about the premiere of the Ninth. Based on the testimony of the participants, there are suggestions that it was under-rehearsed (there were only two full rehearsals) and rather scrappy in execution. On the other hand, the premiere was a great success. In any case, Beethoven was not to blame, as violinist Josef Böhm recalled: “Beethoven directed the piece himself; that is, he stood before the lectern and gesticulated furiously. At times he rose, at other times he shrank to the ground, he moved as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus. All the musicians minded his rhythm alone while playing”.
When the audience applauded—testimonies differ over whether at the end of the scherzo or the whole symphony—Beethoven was several measures off and still conducting. Because of that, the contralto Caroline Unger walked over and turned Beethoven around to accept the audience’s cheers and applause. According to one witness, “the public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them.” The whole audience acclaimed him through standing ovations five times; there were handkerchiefs in the air, hats, raised hands, so that Beethoven, who could not hear the applause, could at least see the ovation gestures.