Saturday, March 03, 2012

Music I Enjoy: Beethoven's 9th Symphony

In this series of posts, I've already discussed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The Ninth Symphony is equally famous. Everybody's heard the "Ode to Joy" -- and you may have even sung it a few times in church (it is a hymn in the Methodist hymnal at least). The final movement with the chorus is superb, to be sure, but I'd like to focus on the first two movements.

The first movement begins with an interval of a fourth (A and E). This is the (inverted) scaffolding of a chord -- the top and the bottom, but not the crucial middle note that tells you whether this is a major or a minor chord. He hangs onto this fourth, accentuating the two notes with violins ascending and descending the scale on those two pitches only, for half a minute. I love the tension this creates -- what is going on? Is this going to ever resolve?

Yes! It does resolve at that point, into D minor, which is fascinating because it is not entirely expected -- those starting notes suggested A minor or A major (although, A minor is a secondary chord in the key of D minor, so it's related). There's a little exposition of a melody, for another half minute, until we get back to another series of fifths, this time D and A. And this time, it resolves into B-flat major, but soon modulates across keys and into a fairly lengthy melodic section mostly in a major key, a break in the storm.

But at the 4:45 mark, we return to the fourths, this time resolving into a series of chords crescendoing into the exposition of a melody derived from the fourths. I really like the part beginning at about 6:23, where the violins alternate between G's -- one the lowest note they can play, and the other two octaves above, and this is then echoed by the woodwinds and brass when the violins take over the melody. Beginning at about the 7-minute mark, a sense of urgency is created in the texture of the piece by strings playing triplets (in the background), which creates an asymmetry in the music. The motion continues, culminating in a series of fortissimo D-major chords beginning at the 8:57 mark, changing to D minor at about 8:45, and recapitulating the melodies we heard throughout the movement. It ends in a typical Beethoven fashion, with a recapitulation of the first melody and a whole lot of D-minor chords.

My favorite movement in the entire symphony is the second movement, the scherzo. Apparently Beethoven was widely criticized for not following the standard form for symphonies, so he wrote this movement as a response to that criticism. The scherzo takes an A-B-A form: scherzo-trio-scherzo. It is in three (as scherzos should be), but with the fast tempo (prestissimo!) and syncopation, it sounds as if it's in quadruple time at times. Take that, critics!

It begins with the same melody* as the first movement, punctuated by a timpani. Then it goes into a fugue, started by the violins, joined by the horns and the rest of the string section and eventually the whole orchestra. We first hear the syncopation at about the 16:45 mark of the recording I've linked to, and in fact the harmony sounds backward in a way when we get to 16:52.

I love the way the timpani is used just like another instrument, in the 17:45 range -- it is identical to the contributions of all the rest of the instruments. And the music rises to a fortissimo statement of the melody beginning at about 18:15.

The trio section is introduced by the woodwinds at about 19:37. It is a swift departure from the original melody -- in major, and seemingly in quadruple time. It is a pleasant and peaceful break from the relentless minor melody. Until, of course, it returns at 22:10. The trio tries to reassert itself at about 25:38, but soon gets squashed by the melody from the first movement to round off the movement.

* If you can call it that! But Beethoven is the master of creating compelling music out of poor melodies.

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