What does symphony mean in music

The "9th Symphony" - music for eternity

More than just setting a poem to music

The "Ninth" is partly a setting of a poem by Schiller, which Schiller wrote in 1785. Beethoven loved this "Ode to Joy" throughout his life and planned to set it to music while he was still in Bonn, as correspondence from 1793 shows.

But it took a good 30 years until it was actually completed. Musicologists and authors come to different opinions as to whether this work has matured three decades in Beethoven or whether he simply took up an old idea again.

On May 7, 1824, the "Ninth" was performed for the first time in Vienna. More than six years of work and many changes were in the plant at the time.

Originally, Beethoven wanted to write two symphonies as a commissioned work around 1817, which were to be performed in London a year later. But with his tendency to perfectionism he was not finished in time, which also led to a lot of tension with his publishers.

For a long time he withheld his new works and constantly improved them. And because his music was valued more abroad during the last years of his life than in Vienna, rumors arose that the new symphony would be performed in Berlin.

As a result, 30 Viennese musicians and music lovers appealed in writing to Beethoven at the turn of the year 1823/24 not to keep his latest compositions under lock and key, but to perform them in Vienna.

Beethoven was convinced of this and agreed to the performance in May. This concert, at which Beethoven was already completely deaf, was to be his last at the same time.

70 minutes change the world of music

Perhaps one can compare a symphony by musicians of that time with an album by today's artists. Beethoven's "9th Symphony" has a playing time of more than 70 minutes. It consists of four parts, which, similar to an album with several tracks, turn out very differently.

The first movement is around 18 minutes long. It doesn't actually have a catchy melody, but rather shows how Beethoven knows and plays with all the timbres and registers of an orchestra. The orchestra gets loud and then quiet again, then it plays very gently and slowly increases again to a hard sound.

The rhythms are constantly changing, a passage after around eight minutes is almost reminiscent of the rhythm of a train, which, however, did not even exist in Beethoven's time.

The second movement is the shortest at around twelve minutes and focuses on the violins. It sounds as if they are talking and getting into ranting again and again.

The third movement takes a completely different route in just under 20 minutes. The orchestra seems to be floating. The drummers have a break. The melody consists of drawn out tones, all sounds flow into one another.

With its 25 minutes, the fourth movement is the longest and, above all, the decisive part that made the "ninth" world famous. Until then, the entire symphony is more of a sound experience that uses all the possibilities of an orchestra.

At the beginning, Beethoven briefly takes up three motifs from the first movements, but quickly breaks off again. And then he introduces the crucial melody. The well-known sequence of tones for "Joy of Beautiful Gods Spark" first sounds very soft and is repeated in an ever-increasing line-up.

You have to keep in mind that music is not always immediately apparent when you listen to it for the first time. In Beethoven's time without media such as records or CDs, the audience had no possibility of repeated listening. In this respect it seems to have been a deliberate trick of the composer to repeat this catchy melody so often that the listener quickly becomes familiar with it.

And after about seven minutes, Beethoven brings a new, additional timbre into the work with singing individual voices and a large choir, which increases to a mighty whole until the end.

A genius in silence

The truly amazing thing is that Beethoven was able to compose such a complex work with so many timbres, even though he was already completely deaf at the time it was composed. He is also said to have suffered from tinnitus.

At a young age, however, he is said to have had excellent hearing and was apparently able to recognize sounds immediately and write them down. There is no other explanation for the fact that he was later able to jot down the music he had in his head so precisely.

He is said to have been present during the premiere of the "Ninth", but could not even hear the applause from the audience. He is said to have sat with his back to the audience, and only one singer is said to have moved him to turn around and receive the applause from the audience.

A song conquers the world

The premiere of the "Ninth" is said to have suffered from many mistakes, but the audience responded enthusiastically. Because Beethoven opened up "a new world" with his music, as one critic who was present wrote.

To what extent the "Ninth" would have turned out differently if Beethoven had heard it and possibly changed it later remains pure speculation.

The work went around the world and turned out to be completely timeless. Performances were not uncommon even in China or Russia. Political regimes around the world also used the "Ode to Joy" for their show events.

It is doubtful whether that would have been in the spirit of Beethoven. It would probably make him forgive that his "Götterfunken" went around the world as the pop hit "A Song Of Joy" in 1970. And that the instrumental version of his ode has been the official anthem of the European Union since 1985.

The "ninth" and its influence on CD development

During his lifetime Beethoven was convinced that his music would be important for posterity. The fact that his "9th Symphony" could one day become decisive for today's sound carriers would certainly have overwhelmed his imagination.

In 1982, the new digital sound carrier, the CD, came onto the market and was the leading medium in the music business for three decades. CDs have a storage capacity of up to 80 minutes. And that is so, we owe Beethoven!

Because during the development of the sound carrier, the vice-president of the developing company is said to have made the requirement that it must be possible to hear Beethoven's "Ninth" in one go.

The engineers then orientated themselves on the recording by Wilhelm Furtwängler from 1951, which took 74 minutes. In the end, Beethoven influenced the size and format of the CD.