A CRITICAL STUDY OF THE SYMPHONIES OF BEETHOVEN
(From A travers chants)
Translated by Michel Austin
© 2004-2006 Michel Austin
Contents of this page:
Symphony no. 1
Symphony no. 2
Symphony no. 3
Symphony no. 4
Symphony no. 5
Symphony no. 6
Symphony no. 7
Symphony no. 8
Symphony no. 9
This page is also available in the original French
Some thirty six or seven years ago, Beethoven’s works, which at the time were completely unknown in France, were tried out at the Opéra’s concerts spirituels. Today it would be hard to believe the storm of criticism from the majority of musicians that greeted this wonderful music. It was described as bizarre, incoherent, diffuse, bristling with harsh modulations and wild harmonies, bereft of melody, over the top, too noisy, and horribly difficult to play. To satisfy the demands of the men of good taste who at the time held sway at the Académie royale de musique, M. Habeneck, who later organised and directed with such care the performance of the symphonies at the Conservatoire, found himself obliged to make monstrous cuts in them, of a kind that would only be tolerated in a ballet by Gallemberg or an opera by Gaveaux. Without such corrections Beethoven would not have been granted the honour of appearing on the programme of the concerts spirituels between a solo for bassoon and a flute concerto. At the first hearing of those passages that had been marked with a red pencil, Kreutzer took to flight blocking his ears, and he had to summon all his courage to steel himself to listen at the other rehearsals to what was left of the symphony in D major (no. 2). Let us not forget that M. Kreutzer’s opinion on Beethoven was shared by ninety nine per cent of musicians in Paris at the time, and that without the persistent efforts of the tiny fraction who took the opposite view, the greatest composer of modern times would probably still be largely unknown today. The mere fact that fragments of Beethoven were performed at the Opéra was therefore of considerable significance, and we can state this with good reason, since without this the Société des concerts du Conservatoire would probably not have been founded. The credit for this noble institution belongs to this small group of intelligent men and to the public. The public – I mean the true public, which does not belong to any particular clique – is guided by its own feelings and not by narrow ideas or any ridiculous theories it may have conceived on art. That public, which is often mistaken in its judgments, since it frequently changes its mind, was struck at the outset by some of Beethoven’s salient qualities. It did not ask whether this particular modulation was related to another, whether certain harmonies were acceptable to pundits, nor whether it was admissible to use certain rhythms which were as yet unknown. All it noticed was that these rhythms, harmonies and modulations, adorned with noble and passionate melodies, and enhanced by powerful orchestral writing, exerted on it a strong impression of a completely novel kind. Nothing more was needed to stimulate its applause. Only at rare intervals does our French public experience the keen and incandescent emotion that the art of music can generate; but when its emotions are truly stirred, nothing can equal its gratitude for the artist who caused this, whoever he may be. Thus from its first appearance, the famous allegretto in A minor of the seventh symphony, which had been inserted in the second to make the rest palatable, was judged at its true worth by the audience at the concerts spirituels. A loud clamour arose for the piece to be repeated, and at the second performance the first movement and scherzo of the symphony in D (no. 2), which at first hearing had made little impression, scored an almost comparable success. The obvious interest in Beethoven that the public began to show from then on doubled the energy of his defenders and reduced to inaction, if not to silence, the majority of his detractors. Little by little, thanks to these glimmerings of dawn which tell the clear-sighted on which side the sun is about to rise, the core of supporters increased in size and the result was the foundation, almost entirely for Beethoven’s sake, of the magnificent Société du Conservatoire, which nowadays has scarcely a rival in the world.
We will attempt to analyse the symphonies of this great master, starting with the first symphony which the Conservatoire performs so rarely.
I Symphony in C major
Through its form, melodic style, and the spareness of its harmonic and orchestral writing, this work is quite different from the other compositions of Beethoven which followed. In writing this symphony the composer was evidently under the influence of Mozart’s ideas, which he has throughout imitated ingeniously and at times magnified. But in the first and second movements one can notice from time to time certain rhythmic patterns which the author of Don Giovanni has admittedly used, but very rarely and in a much less striking way. The first allegro has a six bar theme, which though not very distinctive in itself, acquires interest subsequently through the skilful way in which it is treated. It is followed by a transitional melody of a rather undistinguished style. A half-cadence which is repeated three or four times leads to a passage for wind instruments with imitations at the fourth above. It is all the more surprising to find this here, as it was often used before in several overtures to French operas.
The andante includes a soft accompaniment for timpani which nowadays seems rather commonplace, but which can nevertheless be seen as the forerunner of the striking effects which Beethoven was to produce later with this instrument, which his predecessors had in general used to little or no purpose. This piece is full of charm; the theme is graceful and lends itself well to fugal developments, through which the composer has been able to exploit it in ingenious and witty ways.
The scherzo is the first born in this family of delightful musical jests (scherzi), a form invented by Beethoven who established its tempo. In almost all his instrumental works it takes the place of the minuet of Mozart and Haydn, which is only half the speed of the scherzo and very different in character. This one is delightful in its freshness, nimbleness, and charm. It is the only really novel piece in this work, in which the poetic idea, which plays such a large and rich part in the majority of works which followed, is completely absent. This is admirably crafted music, clear, alert, but lacking in strong personality, cold and sometimes rather small-minded, as for example in the final rondo, which has the character of a musical amusement. In a word, this is not Beethoven. We are about to meet him.
II Symphony in D major
Everything in this symphony is noble, energetic and proud; the introduction (largo) is a masterpiece. The most beautiful effects follow in quick succession, always in unexpected ways but without causing any confusion. The melody has a touching solemnity; from the very first bars it commands respect and sets the emotional tone. Rhythms are now more adventurous, the orchestral writing richer, more sonorous and varied. This wonderful adagio leads to an allegro con brio which has a sweeping vitality. The grupetto in the first bar of the theme played by violas and cellos in unison is subsequently developed it its own right, either to generate surging crescendo passages or to bring about imitations between wind and strings, all of them at once novel and lively in character. In the middle comes a melody, played by clarinets, horns and bassoons for the first half, and rounded off as a tutti by the rest of the orchestra; it has a masculine energy which is further enhanced by the felicitous choice of accompanying chords. The andante is not treated in the same way as that of the first symphony; instead of a theme developed in canonical imitation it consists of a pure and innocent theme, presented at first plainly by the strings, then exquisitely embellished with delicate strokes; they faithfully reproduce the tender character of the main theme. This is the enchanting depiction of innocent joy, scarcely troubled by passing touches of melancholy. The scherzo is as openly joyful in its capricious fantasy as the andante was completely happy and calm. Everything in this symphony smiles, and even the martial surges of the first allegro are free from any hint of violence; they only speak of the youthful ardour of a noble heart which has preserved intact the most beautiful illusions of life. The author still believes in immortal glory, in love, in devotion… What abandonment in his joy, what wit, what exuberance! The various instruments fight over particles of a theme which none of them plays in full, yet each fragment is coloured in a thousand different ways by being tossed from one instrument to the other. To hear this is like witnessing the enchanted sport of Oberon’s graceful spirits. The finale is of the same character: it is a scherzo in double time, perhaps even more delicate and witty in its playfulness.
III Eroica Symphony
It is a serious mistake to truncate the title which the composer provided for the symphony. It reads: Heroic symphony to commemorate the memory of a great man. As will be seen, the subject here is not battles or triumphal marches, as many, misled by the abbreviated title, might expect, but rather deep and serious thoughts, melancholy memories, ceremonies of imposing grandeur and sadness, in short a funeral oration for a hero. I know few examples in music of a style where sorrow has been so unfailingly conveyed in forms of such purity and such nobility of expression.
The first movement is in triple time and in a tempo which is almost that of a waltz, yet nothing could be more serious and more dramatic than this allegro. The energetic theme on which it is built is not at first presented in its complete form. Contrary to normal practice, the composer has initially provided only a glimpse of his melodic idea, which is only revealed in its full power after a few bars’ introduction. The rhythmic writing is extremely striking in the frequent use of syncopation and, through the stress on the weak beat, the insertion of bars in duple time into bars in triple time. When to this irregular rhythm some harsh dissonances are added, as we find towards the middle of the development section, where the first violins play a high F natural against an E natural, the fifth of the chord of A minor, it is difficult not to shudder at this depiction of indomitable fury. This is the voice of despair and almost of rage. Yet one wonders, Why this despair, Why this rage? The reason for it is not obvious. Then in the next bar the orchestra suddenly calms down, as though, exhausted by its own outburst, its strength was abruptly deserting it. A gentler passage follows, which evokes all the most painful feelings that memory can stir in the mind. It is impossible to describe or merely to indicate the multiplicity of melodic and harmonic guises in which Beethoven presents his theme. We will only mention an extremely odd case, which has caused a great deal of argument. The French publisher corrected it in his edition of the score, in the belief it was an engraving error, but after further enquiry the passage was reinstated. The first and second violins on their own are playing tremolando a major second (B flat, A flat), part of the chord of the seventh on the dominant of E flat, when a horn gives the impression of having made a mistake by coming in four bars too soon, and rudely intrudes with the beginning of the main theme which consists only of the notes E flat, G, E flat, B flat. The strange effect produced by this melody built on the three notes of the tonic chord against the two discordant notes of the dominant chord can easily be imagined, even though the distance between the parts greatly softens the clash. But just as the ear is about to protest against this anomaly, an energetic tutti cuts off the horn, ends piano on the tonic chord and gives way to the entry of the cellos which then play the complete theme with the appropriate harmony. Taking a detached view it is difficult to find a serious justification for this musical caprice*. But it is said that the author attached much importance to it. It is even related that at the first rehearsal of the symphony, M. Ries who was present stopped the orchestra and exclaimed: "Too early, too early, the horn is wrong!". As a reward for his indiscretion, he was roundly taken to task by a furious Beethoven.
*However you look at it, if that was really what Beethoven wanted, and if there is any truth in the anecdotes which circulate on the subject, it must be admitted that this whim is an absurdity.
There is no comparable oddity in the rest of the score. The funeral march is a drama in its own right. It is like a translation of Virgil’s beautiful lines on the funeral procession of the young Pallas:
Multaque praeterea Laurentis praemia pugnae
Adgerat, et longo praedam jubet ordine duci.
Post bellator equus, positis insignibus, Aethon
It lacrymans, guttisque humectat grandibus ora.
The ending in particular is deeply moving. The theme of the march returns, but now in a fragmented form, interspersed with silences, and only accompanied by three pizzicato notes in the double basses. When these tatters of the sad melody, left on their own, bare, broken and lifeless, have collapsed one after the other onto the tonic, the wind instruments utter a final cry, the last farewell of the warriors to their companion in arms, and the whole orchestra fades away on a pianissimo pause.
Following normal practice the third movement is entitled scherzo. In Italian the word means play, or jest. At first sight it is hard to see how this kind of music can find a place in this epic composition. It has to be heard to be understood. The piece does indeed have the rhythm and tempo of a scherzo; these are games, but real funeral games, constantly darkened by thoughts of death, games of the kind that the warriors of the Iliad would celebrate around the tombs of their leaders. Even in his most imaginative orchestral developments Beethoven has been able to preserve the serious and sombre colouring, the deep sadness which of course had to predominate in such a subject.
The finale is just a continuation of the same poetical idea. There is a very striking example of orchestral writing at the beginning, which illustrates the kind of effect that can be produced by juxtaposing different instrumental timbres. The violins play a B flat, which is immediately taken up by flutes and oboes as a kind of echo. Although the sound is played at the same dynamic level, at the same speed and with the same force, the dialogue produces such a great difference between the notes that the nuance between them might be likened to the contrast between blue and purple. Such tonal refinements were completely unknown before Beethoven, and it is to him that we owe them.
For all its great variety this finale is nevertheless built on a simple fugal theme. Besides a profusion of ingenious details the composer develops on top of it two other themes, one of which is exceptionally beautiful. The melody is as it were derived from a different one, but its shape conceals this. On the contrary it is much more touching and expressive, far more graceful than the original theme, which has rather the character of a bass line and serves this function very well. This melody returns shortly before the end, in a slower tempo and with different harmonies which further enhance its sad character. The hero costs many a tear. After these final regrets devoted to his memory the poet abandons the elegiac tone and intones with rapture a hymn of glory. Though rather brief this conclusion is very brilliant and provides a fitting crown to the musical monument.
Beethoven may have written more striking works than this symphony, and several of his other compositions make a greater impact on the public. But it has to be admitted that the Eroica symphony is so powerful in its musical thought and execution, its style so energetic and so constantly elevated, and its form so poetic, that it is the equal of the composer’s very greatest works. Whenever this symphony is performed I am overcome with feelings of deep and as it were antique sadness; yet the public seems hardly moved. One must feel sorry for the predicament of the artist: though fired with such enthusiasm he has not managed to make himself intelligible even to an élite audience and make it rise it to the level of his own inspiration. This is all the more regrettable as in other circumstances this same audience warms up to the composer and shares his emotion and tears. It is fired with an ardent and genuine passion for some of his compositions, which may be equally worthy of admiration but are nevertheless no more beautiful than this work. It appreciates at its true worth the allegretto in A minor of the seventh symphony, the allegretto scherzando of the eighth, the finale of the fifth, the scherzo of the ninth. It even appears to be deeply moved by the funeral march of this symphony – the Eroica. But as far as the first movement is concerned, there is no escaping the truth, and I have observed this for more than twenty years: the public listens to it with composure, regards it as a well crafted and quite powerful piece, but beyond that … nothing. There is no point in philosophising. It is no good saying to oneself that the same has always been true everywhere for all artistic creations of an elevated kind, that the springs of poetic emotion are hidden and difficult to fathom, that the feeling for beauty which some individuals possess is completely absent from the masses, even that it cannot possibly be otherwise… None of this provides any consolation or can appease the anger – call it instinctive, involuntary, even absurd if you like – which fills one’s heart at the sight of a misunderstood masterpiece, of a composition of such nobility which the crowd observes but does not see, listens to but does not hear, and allows to pass by with hardly a sideways glance, as though dealing with something mediocre or ordinary. It is dreadful to have to say to oneself with total certainty: what I find beautiful is beauty itself for me, but may not be so for my best friend. Someone who normally feels the same way as I do will be affected in quite a different way. It may be that the work which sends me into raptures, makes me shiver, and moves me to tears, leaves him cold, or even annoys and irritates him…
The majority of great poets have no feeling for music and only enjoy melodies of a trivial or childish character. Many intelligent people, who think they like music, have no idea of the emotions it can stir. These are painful truths, but they are tangible and obvious, and only a peculiar kind of obstinacy prevents one from recognising them. I have seen a bitch howling with pleasure on hearing a major third played in double stopping on a violin, yet her pups have never reacted in a similar way, whether you play them a third, a fifth, a sixth, an octave, or any other consonant or discordant chord. Whatever the composition of the public, it always reacts to great musical conceptions in the same way as that bitch and her pups. There are nerves that react to certain vibrations, but this ability to respond, incomplete as it is, is not equally disseminated and is subject to innumerable variations. It follows that it is virtual lunacy to rely on some artistic means rather than others to affect it and that the best a composer can do is to remain blindly true to his own feelings and resign himself in advance to all the whims of fortune. One day I was walking out of the Conservatoire with three or four dilettanti after a performance of the Choral symphony.
– How do you find this work? one of them asked me.
– Immense! magnificent! overwhelming!
– That is strange, I was bored stiff. And what about you? he added, turning to an Italian…
– Well, I find this unintelligible, or rather intolerable, there is no melody… But here are some papers talking about it, and let us see what they say:
– Beethoven’s Choral symphony is the pinnacle of modern music; art has yet to produce anything comparable for the nobility of its style, the grandeur of the design and the finish of the details.
(Another paper) – Beethoven’s Choral symphony is a monstrosity.
(Another paper) – This work is not completely barren of ideas, but they are poorly presented and the sum total is incoherent and devoid of charm.
(Another paper) – Beethoven’s Choral symphony has some wonderful passages, but the composer was obviously short of inspiration. As his exhausted imagination let him down he had to devote his energies, sometimes to good effect, to making up through craftsmanship what he was lacking in inspiration. The few themes found in the work are superbly treated and set out in a perfectly clear and logical sequence. In short, it is a very interesting work by a tired genius.
Where is the truth, and where is the error? Everywhere and nowhere. Everybody is right. What to someone seems beautiful is not so for someone else, simply because one person was moved and the other remained indifferent, and the former experienced profound delight while the latter acute boredom. What can be done about this?… nothing… but it is dreadful; I would rather be mad and believe in absolute beauty.
IV Symphony in B flat
Beethoven forsakes here completely the tones of epic and elegy to return to the less elevated, less sombre, though perhaps no less difficult style of the second symphony. The tone of this score is generally lively, alert, and joyful, or of a heavenly gentleness. Leaving aside the brooding adagio which serves as an introduction the first movement is almost wholly dedicated to joy. The theme in detached notes with which the allegro begins is no more than a canvas on which the composer lays out subsequently other more substantial melodies, and what looked at the start of the movement like the principal theme is made to appear of secondary importance.
Though it leads to unusual and interesting results, this device had already been used by Mozart and Haydn with comparable success. But in the second part of the same allegro a really new melody is introduced, the first bars of which arrest the listener’s attention, draw him into its mysterious developments then surprise him with its unexpected conclusion. This is what happens. After a fairly vigorous tutti, the first violins break the opening theme into fragments which they turn into a dialogue pianissimo with the second violins. This leads to held notes on the dominant seventh of the key of B natural, each of which is separated by two bars of silence, filled only by a soft tremolo on the timpani on the note B flat, the enharmonic major third of the fundamental F sharp. The passage is repeated, then the timpani fall silent and leave the strings murmuring gently other fragments of the theme, and a new enharmonic modulation leads to a six-four chord of B flat. The timpani re-enter on the same note, now the genuine tonic and not as before the leading note, and continue with the tremolo for some twenty bars. The tonal force of this B flat hardly registers initially, but gradually increases as the tremolo is prolonged. Then the other instruments intersperse their forward momentum with short and incomplete fragments under the continuous rumble of the timpani, and this leads to a general forte where the perfect chord of B flat is finally established in all its majesty in the full orchestra. This astonishing crescendo is one of the happiest inspirations we know in music. The only passage that could be compared is the conclusion of the famous scherzo of the symphony in C minor, though despite its overwhelming impact it is not conceived on such a vast scale, as it starts from piano to reach the final explosion but without departing from the home key, whereas the crescendo we have just described starts mezzo forte, disappears for a while in a pianissimo under harmonies of constantly vague and indeterminate colour, then reappears with chords in a more defined tonality, and only bursts out when the cloud obscuring this modulation has completely dissipated. It is like a river whose peaceful flow vanishes suddenly from sight and only re-emerges from its underground course to come crashing down in a foaming waterfall.
As for the adagio, it defies analysis… So pure are the forms, so angelic the expression of the melody and so irresistibly tender, that the prodigious skill of the craftsmanship is completely hidden from view. From the very first bars one is gripped by emotion which by the end has reached an unbearable pitch of intensity. It is only among one of the giants of poetry that it is possible to find something to compare to this sublime movement from the giant of music. Nothing resembles more the impression made by this adagio than the feelings one experiences when reading the touching episode of Francesca di Rimini in the Divina Commedia, the narrative of which Virgil cannot hear without bursting into tears, and which at the last verse causes Dante to fall, just as a dead body collapses. This movement seems to have been breathed by the archangel Michael when, seized with a fit of melancholy, he contemplated the universe, standing on the threshold of the empyrean.
The scherzo consists almost entirely of phrases in two beats that are forced to fit into the framework of bars in triple time. Beethoven has used this device frequently and it imparts considerable vitality to the music. Melodic endings become as a result more incisive and unexpected; in any case, these cross-rhythms have in themselves real charm, though it is difficult to explain why. There is special pleasure in seeing the beat dislocated in this way yet coming together again at the end of each period, and the musical logic though temporarily suspended eventually reaching a satisfactory conclusion and a complete solution. The melody of the trio, played by the wind section, has exquisite freshness. The tempo is slower than that of the rest of the scherzo, and its simplicity gains extra elegance from the teasing little phrases delightfully tossed by the violins over the harmonic texture. The finale is joyful and alert and restricts itself to normal rhythmic forms. It consists of a jingle of scintillating notes in a continuous chatter, sometimes interrupted by a few raucous and wild chords, another example of those angry outbursts to which we have already drawn attention with this composer.
V Symphony in C minor
This, without doubt the most famous of the symphonies, is also in our opinion the first in which Beethoven gave wings to his vast imagination without being guided by or relying on any external source of inspiration. In the first, second and fourth symphonies, he has more or less enlarged already existing forms, suffusing them with all the poetry his youthful vigour was capable of adding in terms of brilliant and passionate inspiration. In the third (the Eroica) the forms are admittedly broadened and the musical thought rises to great heights, yet there is no mistaking the influence of one of those divine poets whom the great artist had long worshipped in his heart. Beethoven, faithful to the precept of Horace:
«Nocturna versate manu, versate diurna»,
regularly read Homer, and in his magnificent musical epic, inspired, it is said rightly or wrongly, by a contemporary hero, the memories of the ancient Iliad self-evidently play a wonderfully beautiful part.
By contrast the C minor symphony seems to arise directly and solely from Beethoven’s own genius. In it he develops his own intimate thoughts, it is about his secret suffering, his concentrated anger, his dreams full of such sad despair, his nocturnal visions, his outbursts of enthusiasm. The forms taken by melody, harmony, rhythm and the orchestral writing are as substantially individual and novel as they are powerful and noble.
The first movement depicts those turbulent feelings which move a great soul seized with despair – not the calm and concentrated despair which has an air of resignation, nor the sombre and silent despair of Romeo learning of the death of Juliet, but rather the terrifying fury of Othello when he hears from the mouth of Iago the poisonous calumnies which convince him of Desdemona’s crime. At times the mood is one of frenzied delirium which breaks out in terrifying cries, at others one of exaggerated despair which can express nothing but regret and self-pity. Listen to those orchestral hiccoughs, the chords exchanged between wind and strings which grow fainter as they come and go, like the painful breathing of a dying man, then give way to a violent gesture, where the orchestra seems to rise again revived by a flash of anger. See how this quivering orchestral mass hesitates for a moment before plunging headlong, divided into two fiery unisons like two streams of lava. Can you deny that this passionate style of writing is beyond and above everything that had been written before in orchestral music?
There is a striking example in this movement of the effect produced by the occasionally excessive doubling of parts and of the raw character of the chord of a fourth on the supertonic, in other words the second inversion of the dominant. It occurs frequently without preparation or resolution, and once even without the leading note and on a pause: the low D is in all the string voices, while there is a bare and dissonant G on top in some wind parts.
The character of the adagio is rather reminiscent of the allegretto in A minor of the seventh symphony and of the slow movement in E flat of the fourth. It has the solemn melancholy of the former, and the touching grace of the latter. The theme played first by the cellos and violas in unison, with a simple pizzicato accompaniment in the double basses, is followed by a passage for wind instruments which keeps returning in identical form and in the same key from beginning to end of the movement, whatever the successive changes undergone by the first theme. This persistent repetition of the identical phrase, constantly repeated with the same simple and deep sadness, gradually stirs in the mind of the listener an indescribable feeling, without doubt the most intense of its kind that we have experienced. Among the most daring harmonic effects in this sublime elegy we may mention: 10 the high note held by flutes and clarinets on the dominant E flat while the strings are active lower down and progress through the chord of the sixth, D flat, F, B flat, which has no connection with the high pedal note; 20 the episodic passage played by a flute, an oboe and two clarinets in contrary motion, which occasionally results in unprepared dissonances of the second, between the leading note G and F, the major sixth of A flat. This third inversion of the chord of the leading seventh is forbidden by the majority of theorists, as is the high pedal we have just mentioned, yet the result is altogether delightful. There is also at the last entry of the first theme a canon in unison at an interval of one bar, between the violins and flutes, the clarinets and bassoons, which would give added interest to the melody treated in this way if the imitation by the wind instruments could be heard; unfortunately the whole orchestra is playing loud at the same moment and makes it almost inaudible.
The scherzo is a strange composition. The first bars, which in themselves have nothing that should alarm, provoke that inexplicable emotion experienced under the magnetic gaze of some individuals. Everything here is mysterious and sombre; the orchestral effects, all more or less sinister in character, seem to belong to the world of thought of the famous scene of Blacksberg in Goethe’s Faust. The prevailing dynamics are piano and mezzo forte. The central section (the trio) is taken up by a passage for the basses, bowed with full vigour, the ponderous roughness of which rattles the feet of the music stands and sounds rather like the antics of an exhilarated elephant… But the monster moves away, and the sound of its wild frolics gradually fades. The theme of the scherzo reappears pizzicato; gradually silence is established, and only a few lightly plucked notes are heard from the violins together with the strange clicking sounds produced by the high A flat of the bassoons clashing with G, the octave of the tonic of the dominant minor ninth. The strings then break the sequence and settle gently on a bowed chord of A flat on which they doze off. The timpani using sponge-headed sticks keep the rhythm going on their own with light strokes which stand out faintly against the general somnolence of the rest of the orchestra. These timpani notes are Cs; the piece is in C minor, but the chord of A flat, long held by the other instruments, seems to be introducing a different key; for its part the solitary pulsing of the timpani on C tends to preserve the feeling of the original key. The ear hesitates… where will this harmonic mystery end?… and then the soft throbbing of the timpani gradually increase in volume, joined by the violins which have started to move again, changing the harmony. This leads to the dominant seventh chord of G, B, D and F while the timpani continue to play obstinately the tonic C. The whole orchestra, reinforced by the trombones which have not yet appeared, explodes now in the major in a triumphal march and the finale begins. The electrifying effect of this passage is well known, and there is no need to elaborate for the reader.
Critics have nevertheless sought to diminish the composer’s merit by asserting that he had merely resorted to a commonplace device in making the brilliance of the major mode follow the darkness of a pianissimo in a minor key, that the triumphal theme was lacking in originality, and that interest flagged as the movement progressed instead of increasing. We would answer: is it because the transition from piano to forte, and from minor to major, are known devices that there is less genius in creating such a work?… How many other composers have not tried to achieve this same effect? And how can their efforts compare with the gigantic hymn of victory, in which the soul of the poet musician, liberated from earthly shackles and suffering, seems to soar radiantly to heaven?… It is true that the first four bars of the march are not of striking originality; but there is a limit to what can be done with the genre of the fanfare, and we do not believe it possible to invent new types of fanfare without giving up completely its simple, grandiose and festive character. Beethoven wanted for the start of his finale a fanfare-like entry; in the rest of the movement, in fact even in the continuation of the principal theme, he quickly reverts to the lofty and original style that is his hallmark.
As for the criticism that he failed to sustain interest through the end of the movement, one might answer that in the present state of the art of music it is impossible to produce a more shattering effect than the transition from the scherzo to the triumphal march, and it was therefore not possible to intensify that effect any further. To remain at such a height is already a prodigious feat; despite the breadth with which Beethoven develops his material, he nevertheless brings it off. But this consistency of level from the beginning to the end is enough to give the impression of a fall-off; so great has been the initial impact on the listener, whose emotional response has been raised to the highest pitch, that it is all the more difficult to sustain it subsequently at the same level. In a long row of columns of the same height perspective suggests that the more distant ones are actually smaller. It could be that our inadequate constitutions would adapt better to a more laconic ending such as Gluck’s Our general is calling you back: the audience would thus not have the time to cool down, and the symphony would be over before fatigue prevented the audience from following in the composer’s footsteps. But this remark only applies so to speak to the way the work is presented; it does not disqualify this finale from being in itself of a magnificence and richness next to which very few pieces could stand comparison without being obliterated.
VI Pastoral Symphony
This astonishing landscape could have been designed by Poussin and drawn by Michelangelo. The author of Fidelio and of the Eroica symphony sets out to depict the tranquillity of the countryside and the shepherds’ gentle way of life. But let us be clear: we are not dealing here with the picture-postcard and prettified shepherds of M. de Florian, still less those of M. Lebrun, who wrote the Rossignol [The Nightingale], or those of J.-J. Rousseau, the composer of the Devin du Village [The Village Soothsayer]. We are dealing here with real nature. The title given by the composer to his first movement is Gentle feelings stirred by the sight of a beautiful landscape. The shepherds begin to move about nonchalantly in the fields; their pipes can be heard from a distance and close-by. Exquisite sounds caress you like the scented morning breeze. A flight or rather swarms of twittering birds pass overhead, and the atmosphere occasionally feels laden with mists. Heavy clouds come to hide the sun, then suddenly they scatter and let floods of dazzling light fall straight down on the fields and the woods. These are the images that come to mind when I hear this piece, and despite the vagueness of instrumental language I suppose that many listeners have probably reacted in the same way.
Further on there is a Scene by the brook. Contemplation… The composer probably created this wonderful adagio lying on his back in the grass, his eyes turned to heaven, his ear listening to the wind, fascinated by countless reflections of sound and light, observing and listening at once to the white ripples of the river as they break gently on the stones of the bank. This is delightful. There are some who vehemently criticise Beethoven for wanting to reproduce at the end of the adagio the song of three birds, at first in succession and then together. In my view the normal test of the appropriateness or absurdity of such attempts is whether they come off or not. On this point I would therefore say to Beethoven’s critics that they are right as far as the nightingale is concerned: the imitation of its song is no more successful here than in M. Lebrun’s well-known flute solo, for the very simple reason that since the nightingale only emits indistinct sounds of indeterminate pitch it cannot be imitated by instruments with a fixed and precise pitch. But it seems to me that the case is different with the quail and the cuckoo, whose cry involves either one or two real notes of fixed pitch, and can therefore be fully imitated in a realistic way.
Now if the composer is criticised for introducing a childishly literal imitation of bird-song in a scene where all the quiet voices of heaven, earth and water must naturally find their place, I would say in reply that the same objection could be made when in the storm he also imitates faithfully the gusts of wind, the flashes of lightning and the bellowing of animals. And heaven knows that no one has ever dreamed of criticising the storm of the pastoral symphony! But let us proceed. The poet now brings us in the midst of a Joyful gathering of peasants. The dancing and laughter are restrained at first; the oboe plays a cheerful refrain accompanied by a bassoon that can only manage to produce two notes. Beethoven’s intention was probably to suggest in this way an old German peasant, sitting on a cask with a decrepit old instrument, from which all he can draw are the two principal notes of the key of F, the dominant and the tonic. Every time the oboe plays its naïve and jolly tune like a girl in her Sunday clothes, the old bassoon blows his two notes. When the melody modulates to a different key the bassoon falls silent and quietly counts his rests, until the original key returns and he is able to interject again unruffled his F, C and F. This burlesque effect is wonderfully apt but the public seems to miss it almost completely. The dance gets more animated and becomes wild and noisy. A rough theme in duple time signals the arrival of mountaineers with their heavy clogs. The first section in triple time is repeated, but even more animated. The dancers mingle excitedly, the women’s hair flies loose over their shoulders, the mountaineers add their noise and intoxication, there is clapping, shouting and running, and the scene goes wild and furious… Then suddenly a distant clap of thunder strikes terror in the midst of this rustic ball and scatters the dancers.
Storm, lightning. I despair of being able to convey an idea of this prodigious piece. It has to be heard to understand how realistic and sublime imitative music can become in the hands of someone like Beethoven. Listen to the gusts of wind gorged with rain, the dull growl of the basses, the shrill hissing of piccolos announcing the fearful storm that is about the break out. The hurricane approaches and increases in intensity. A huge chromatic scale, starting in the upper instruments, plunges to the depths of the orchestra, picks up the basses on the way, drags them upwards, like a surging whirlwind that sweeps everything in its way. The trombones then burst out, the thunder of the timpani intensifies in violence; this is no longer rain and wind but a terrifying cataclysm, a universal deluge and the end of the world. In truth the piece induces dizziness, and there are many who on hearing this storm are not sure whether the emotion they experience is one of pleasure or of pain. The symphony concludes with the Thanksgiving of the peasants after the return of fine weather. Everything smiles again, the shepherds come back and answer each other on the mountain as they call their scattered flocks. The sky is clear, the torrents gradually dry out, calm returns and with it the rustic songs with their gentle tones. They soothe the mind, shattered as it was by the awesome splendour of the preceding tableau.
Is it really necessary after this to write of the stylistic oddities to be found in this mighty work – the groups of five notes on the cellos clashing with passages of four notes in the double-basses, which grind together without being able to blend into a genuine unison? Must one mention the horn call which plays an arpeggio on the chord of C while the strings hold that of F?… In truth I cannot. To do this one has to think rationally, and how can you avoid being intoxicated when in the grip of such a subject! Far from it – if only one could sleep and go on sleeping for months on end, and inhabit in one’s dreams the unknown sphere which for a moment genius has allowed us to glimpse. After such a concert should one have the misfortune to have to see some comic opera, attend a soirée of fashionable songs and a flute concerto, one would have a look of stupefaction. Should someone ask you:
– How do you find this Italian duet?
You would reply in all seriousness
– Quite beautiful.
– And these variations for clarinet?
– And the finale of the new opera?
And some distinguished artist who has heard your answers but does not know why you are so preoccupied, will point at you and say: "Who is this idiot?"
How the ancient poems, for all their beauty and the admiration they evoke, pale before this marvel of modern music! Theocritus and Virgil were great landscape artists; lines like the following are music to the ears:
«Te quoque, magna Pales, et te, memorande, canemus
Pastor ab Amphryso; vos Sylvae amnesque Lycaei.»
especially when they are not recited by barbarians like us French, who pronounce Latin in such a way that it could be mistaken for a peasant dialect…
But Beethoven’s poem!… these long periods so full of colour!… these speaking images!… these scents!… this light!… this eloquent silence!… these vast horizons!… these magic hideouts in the woods!… these golden harvests!… these pink clouds like wandering specks in the sky!… this vast plain dozing under the midday sun!… Man is absent!… nature alone reveals herself glorying in her splendour… And the deep rest of everything that lives! And the wonderful life of everything that rests!… The little stream that pursues its murmuring course towards the river!… the river, the source of all water, which descends towards the ocean in majestic silence!… Then man appears, the man from the countryside, robust and full of religious feeling… his joyful play interrupted by the storm… his fears… his hymn of thanksgiving…
Hide your faces, poor great poets of antiquity, poor immortals. Your conventional language, so pure and harmonious, cannot compete with the art of sound. You are vanquished, no doubt with glory, but vanquished all the same! You have not experienced what nowadays we call melody, harmony, the combination of different timbres, instrumental colour, modulations, the skilful clashes of conflicting sounds which fight and then embrace, the sounds that surprise the ear, the strange tones which stir the innermost recesses of the soul. The stammering of the childish art which you referred to as music could not give you any idea of this. For cultured minds you alone were the great melodists, the masters of harmony, rhythm, and expression. But these words had a very different meaning in your vocabulary from what we give them now. The art of sound in its true meaning, independent of anything else, was only born yesterday. It has scarcely reached manhood, and is barely twenty years old. It is beautiful and all-powerful: it is the Pythian Apollo of modern times. We owe to it a world of emotion and feeling which was closed to you. Yes, great venerated poets, you are vanquished: Inclyti sed victi.
VII Symphony in A
The seventh symphony is famous for its allegretto*. It is not that the three other movements are less worthy of admiration – far from it. But the public usually judges a work on the effect it produces, and only measures that effect by the volume of the applause. Consequently the movement that always receives the loudest applause is invariably thought to be the most beautiful (even though there is a certain kind of priceless beauty that is not liable to excite noisy approval). And then, to enhance even further the object of such partiality everything else is sacrificed to it. In France at least that is invariably the custom. That is why when talking of Beethoven one refers to the Storm of the pastoral symphony, the finale of the symphony in C minor, the andante of the symphony in A, etc., etc.
*Which is always referred to as the adagio or andante.
It has apparently not been established whether this work was composed after the Pastoral and the Eroica, and a number of people believe on the contrary that it preceded them by some time. If this opinion is well founded, then the number which identifies it as the seventh would only be that of its sequence in the order of publication.
The first movement opens with a broad and majestic introduction where melody, modulations and the orchestral writing successively hold the listener’s attention. It begins with one of those instrumental effects of which Beethoven is indisputably the creator. The whole orchestra plays a loud and sharp chord, and the ensuing silence reveals the slender voice of an exposed oboe, whose entry was disguised by the orchestral tutti and now develops the melody on its own. There could hardly be a more original way of starting. At the end of the introduction the note E, the dominant of A, returns after a series of excursions into neighbouring keys and forms the subject of a series of exchanges between violins and flutes, similar to the effect found in the opening bars of the finale of the Eroica symphony. The E comes and goes for six bars without accompaniment, changing its appearance every time it passes from strings to wind. Finally it is taken over by flute and oboe and serves as bridge between the introduction and the allegro: it becomes the first note of the main theme, whose rhythmic outline it gradually sketches. I have heard this theme ridiculed for its rustic simplicity. Had the composer written in large letters at the head of this allegro the words Dance of peasants, as he has done for the Pastoral symphony, the charge that it lacks nobility would probably not have been made. This shows that while some listeners do not like to be forewarned of the subject treated by the composer, there are others on the contrary who are inclined to react unfavourably to any theme that comes in an unfamiliar guise, if the explanation for the anomaly is not provided in advance. Given the impossibility of deciding between such conflicting views the best course for a composer in such circumstances is to follow his own instinct instead of pursuing the vain delusion of universal approval.
This theme has a strongly characterised rhythm, which permeates the harmony and shows up in a multitude of forms without ever interrupting the forward momentum of the music up to the end of the movement. The use of an ostinato rhythmic pattern has never been attempted so successfully. The ample developments of the allegro constantly revolve around the same idea, and so incredible is the skill with which it is written, so frequent and ingenious the variations in tonality, so novel the chordal progressions and their grouping, that the movement is over before the attention and warm response generated in the listener can lose any of their keenness.
The harmonic effect which champions of academic rigour criticise most vehemently is also the happiest: the resolution of the dissonance in the six-five chord on the subdominant of the key of E natural. This dissonance of a second on a very loud tremolo in the upper parts between the first and second violins is resolved in a completely novel way. One might have sustained the E and raised the F sharp to G, or sustained the F and brought the E down to D: but Beethoven did neither, and without changing the bass he merged the two dissonant parts into an octave on F natural, by moving the F sharp a semitone lower and the E down by a major seventh. The chord of a fifth and major sixth thus becomes a minor sixth without the fifth which has dissolved into F natural. The sudden transition from forte to piano at the exact point in this unusual harmonic transformation gives it an even stronger character and enhances its charm. Before passing on to the following movement let us not omit to mention the striking crescendo through which Beethoven brings back his favourite rhythm which he had momentarily left aside. This is done by means of a two bar phrase (D, C sharp, B sharp, B sharp, C sharp) in the key of A major, which is repeated eleven times in the lower register by the basses and violas, while the wind instruments sustain an E at the top, bottom and middle of the range in quadruple octaves, and the violins sound a bell-like phrase, the three notes E, A, E, C, repeated in increasingly fast figuration and combined in such a way as to present always the dominant when the basses play D or B sharp, and the tonic or its third when they play C. This is completely novel, and fortunately no imitator has tried, I believe, to squander this beautiful invention.
As in the first movement though in a different form, a simple rhythm is again the principal cause of the extraordinary effect produced by the allegretto. The rhythmic pattern consists merely of a dactyl followed by a spondee played relentlessly, either in three parts, or in only one, then in all parts together. Sometimes it serves as an accompaniment, but frequently it focuses attention on itself, and also provides the starting point for a small fugal episode with two subjects played by the strings. It appears first in the lower strings – violas, cellos, double-basses – played piano, then is repeated soon after in a pianissimo full of melancholy and mystery. From there it passes to the second violins while the cellos sing a kind of lament in the minor mode. The rhythmic pattern rises from octave to octave, reaches the first violins who then pass it in a crescendo to the wind instruments at the top of the orchestra, where it bursts out in its full force. Sounded with even greater vehemence the melody now assumes the character of an anguished lament. Conflicting rhythms clash painfully with each other; these are tears, sobs and supplications, this is the expression of limitless grief and all-consuming suffering… But a ray of hope appears: these heartbreaking sounds are followed by a transparent melody, pure, simple, gentle, sad and resigned like patience smiling to suffering. The basses continue on their own with their inexorable rhythm under this melodic rainbow; to borrow yet another quotation from English poetry,
« One fatal remembrance, one sorrow, that throws
Its black shade alike o'er our joys and our woes. »
After a similar alternation of anguish and resignation, the orchestra, as though drained by such a painful struggle, plays only fragments of the main theme and collapses in exhaustion. Flutes and oboes pick up the theme in a dying voice, but do not have the strength to finish it, which the violins do with a few barely audible pizzicato notes. At this point the wind instruments, reviving like the flame of a candle on the point of extinction, utter a deep sigh on an unresolved harmony and… the rest is silence. This mournful cry, which begins and ends the andante, is produced by a six-four chord, which always tends to resolve itself onto another one. Ending on an unresolved harmony is the only way to conclude, by leaving the listener in suspense and thereby increasing the impression of dreamy sadness into which everything that came before must have plunged him.
The theme of the scherzo modulates in a very novel way. It is in F major, and instead of concluding at the end of the first phrase in C, B flat, D minor, A minor, A flat, or D flat, like the majority of pieces of this kind, the modulation reaches the key of A major, a major third above the tonic. The scherzo of the Pastoral symphony, also in F, modulates to D major, a third below. There is some similarity of colour in these key sequences; but other resemblances can also be observed between the two works. The trio of the seventh symphony (presto meno assai), in which the violins hold the dominant almost continuously, while oboes and clarinets play underneath a bright rustic melody, is very much in the spirit of landscape painting and the idyll. Yet another new type of crescendo can be found there, played in the lower register by the second horn, who repeats softly the notes A and G sharp in duple time, though the main beat is in triple time, with emphasis on the G sharp though A is the real note.
The public always seems taken by surprise on hearing this passage.
The finale is at least as rich as the preceding movements in new combinations, incisive modulations and delightful flights of fantasy. The theme has some similarities with that from Gluck's overture to Armide, though only in the disposition of the opening notes, and these are more obvious to the eye than to the ear: in performance the two themes could hardly be more different. The freshness and elegance of Beethoven’s theme, very different from the chivalrous dash of that of Gluck, would make a greater impression if the chords played in the high register by the wind instruments did not cover so much the first violins playing in the middle range, while second violins and violas underneath accompany the melody with a tremolo in double-stopping. Throughout this finale Beethoven has achieved effects as graceful as they are unexpected with the sudden transition from the key of C sharp minor to that of D major. Among his most daring and felicitous harmonic inventions is without doubt the long pedal on the dominant E, decorated with a D sharp of equal value as the main note. The chord of the seventh is sometimes brought about in the upper part, with the result that the D natural of the upper parts coincides precisely with the D sharp of the basses. One might imagine that the result would be a dreadful dissonance, or at least a lack of harmonic clarity; yet this is not the case, and the tonal thrust of this dominant is such that the D sharp does not disfigure it in any way, and that only the buzzing E registers. Beethoven did not write music for the eyes. The coda, launched by this threatening pedal, has extraordinary brilliance, and is fully worthy of bringing this work to its conclusion – a masterpiece of technical skill, taste, imagination, craftsmanship and inspiration.
VIII Symphony in F
This symphony is also in F, like the Pastoral, though it is designed on a more modest scale than the preceding symphonies. Yet though it hardly exceeds the first symphony (in C major) in the breadth of its forms, it is at least far superior to it in three respects – instrumental writing, rhythm and melodic style.
The first movement has two themes, both of them gentle and peaceful in character. The second and in our view the more striking of the two always seems to avoid the perfect cadence, by modulating first in a completely unexpected way (the phrase begins in D major and ends in C major), and then dissipating itself inconclusively on the diminished seventh chord of the subdominant.
This capricious turn in the melody gives the listener the feeling that the composer, inclined at first towards gentle feelings, has suddenly been distracted by a sad thought which interrupts his joyful song.
The andante scherzando is one of those creations for which there is neither model nor counterpart: it drops from heaven complete into the composer’s imagination; he writes it at a single stretch and we are amazed to hear it. The role of the wind instruments is here the opposite of their normal one: they accompany with repeated chords, played pianissimo eight times in every bar, the airy dialogue a punta d’arco between violins and basses. This has a gentle innocence which is delightful in its nonchalant manner, like the song of two children picking flowers in a field on a fine spring morning. The main theme consists of two sections of three bars each, the symmetry of which is broken by the silence which follows the basses’ reply; as a result the first section ends on the weak beat and the second on the strong. The harmonic ticking of the oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons so captivates the listener that he does not notice the lack of symmetry in the strings’ melody which results from the additional silent bar.
The function of this bar is evidently to leave exposed for longer the delightful chord over which the lively melody flutters. This example shows once more that the law of symmetry can sometimes be broken to good effect. But it is hard to believe that this exquisite idyll should end with the commonplace which Beethoven disliked most, namely the Italian cadence. At the moment when the instrumental dialogue of the two small orchestras of wind and strings is at its most enchanting, the composer, as though suddenly obliged to stop, makes the violins play tremolo the four notes G, F, A, B flat (sixth, dominant, leading note, tonic), repeat them several times in a hurry, exactly as when the Italians sing Felicità, and then come to an abrupt halt. I have never been able to make sense of this musical joke.
At this point a minuet, similar in design and tempo to those of Haydn, takes the place of the scherzo in triple time which Beethoven invented and which he has used in all his other symphonic works in such an ingenious and striking way. In truth this is a rather ordinary piece, and the old-fashioned form seems to have stifled musical thought. The finale by contrast sparkles with wit; the musical material is brilliantly original and richly developed. It has diatonic progressions in two parts and in contrary motion, through which the composer achieves a crescendo of huge dimension which brings the work to a most effective conclusion.
The harmonic writing does however contain a few rough edges caused by passing notes which are not resolved quickly enough on the right notes and which sometimes even pause on a silence.
At the cost of some violence to the letter of musical theory it is easy to explain away these passing dissonances, but in performance they always grate on the ear to a greater or lesser degree. But consider the high pedal held by the flutes and oboes on F, while the timpani underneath repeat the same note in octaves at the return of the theme, and the violins play the notes C, G and B flat from the dominant seventh chord, preceded by the third F, A from the tonic chord. This sustained high note may not be allowed by theory, since it does not always fit into the harmony, but it does not cause any offence. On the contrary, thanks to the skilful layout of the instruments and the character of the musical phrase, the result of this bunching of sounds is excellent and remarkably smooth. Before concluding we cannot omit mentioning an orchestral effect which perhaps more than any other takes the listener by surprise when this finale is performed: the note C sharp played very loud by the mass of the orchestra in unison and in octaves after a diminuendo which has faded out in the key of C major. The first two times this rasp is immediately followed by the return of the theme in F, and it becomes clear that the C sharp was simply an enharmonic D flat, the flattened sixth of the main key. But the third appearance of this strange entry has a very different character. The orchestra, after modulating to C as before now plays a real D flat followed by a fragment of the theme in D flat, then a real C sharp, followed by another fragment of the theme in C sharp minor, and finally repeats this C sharp three times over with increased force, and the whole theme now returns in F sharp minor. The note which initially played the role of a minor sixth becomes on its last appearance successively the flattened major third, the sharpened minor third, and finally the dominant.
This is very striking.
IX Choral Symphony
To analyse such a work is difficult and daunting task which we have long hesitated to undertake. The excuse for such a foolhardy venture can only lie in our persistent efforts to see the work through the composer’s eyes, to penetrate its intimate meaning, to experience its impact, and to study the impressions it has made so far on a few who are gifted with exceptional sensitivity, as well as on the general public. Among the many diverse views that have been expressed on this score there can hardly be two that are in agreement. Some critics regard it as a monstrous insanity; others can only see in it the fading glimmers of a dying genius; more cautiously a few declare they find it at the moment completely unintelligible, but do not despair of achieving at least an approximate understanding of it later; the majority of artistically minded people regard it as an extraordinary conception, though some of its parts nevertheless remain unexplained or without apparent purpose. A small number of musicians who are temperamentally inclined to examine carefully anything that might enlarge the realm of art, and who have thought deeply about the general layout of the Choral symphony after studying the score and listening to it attentively on several occasions, assert that this work seems to them the most magnificent expression of Beethoven’s genius: we believe we have said at some earlier point that this is the opinion we share.
Without enquiring what purely personal ideas the composer might have wanted to express in this vast musical poem – a subject wide open to individual conjecture – let us see whether the novelty of the form is not justified in this case by an intention that is quite independent of any philosophical or religious thought, which might seem equally reasonable and beautiful to anyone, be he a fervent Christian, a pantheist or an atheist, in short by an intention of a purely musical and poetic kind.
Beethoven had already written eight symphonies before this one. To progress beyond the point he had already reached solely with the resources of orchestral instruments, what further means were available? The answer is the addition of voices to instruments. But in order to observe the law of crescendo, and enhance in the work itself the power of the additional resource he wanted to provide to the orchestra, it was surely necessary to allow the instruments to figure on their own in the first section of the musical canvas he intended to display… Granted this premise, it is easy to see that he must have been led to search for a mixed musical genre to serve as link between the two major articulations of the symphony. The instrumental recitative was the bridge he had the audacity to throw between the chorus and the orchestra, over which the instruments crossed to go and join the voices. The transition once established the composer must have wanted to announce and motivate the fusion that was about to take place. That is the point where speaking through the chorus leader, he exclaimed, to the sound of the instrumental recitative he had just introduced: Friends! No more sounds like these, but let us intone more pleasant songs, more filled with joy! That is, so to speak, the treaty of alliance concluded between chorus and orchestra; the same theme of the recitative, used by both orchestra and chorus, seems to constitute the oath formula. Thereafter it was up to the composer to select the text for his choral composition: for this Beethoven turned to Schiller and took over the Ode to Joy. He coloured it with countless nuances which poetry on its own could never have conveyed, and it progresses to the end acquiring ever more splendour, grandeur and brilliance.
Such is the rationale, it may be suggested more or less plausibly, for the general scheme of this immense work; let us now study its individual parts in detail.
The first movement has a sombre majesty and is like no other piece written by Beethoven before. The harmony is at times excessively daring: the most original patterns, the most expressive gestures crowd in and criss-cross in every direction, but without causing any obscurity or congestion. On the contrary the result has perfect clarity, and the numerous orchestral voices that plead or threaten, each in its own way and its own special style, seem to form a single voice, such is the emotional charge that drives them.
This allegro maestoso, written in D minor, begins nevertheless on the chord of A without the third, in other words on the notes A and E sustained as a fifth, and played as an arpeggio above and below by the first violins, violas and double-basses. The listener is therefore not sure whether he is hearing the chord of A minor, or of A major, or that of the dominant of D. This prolonged tonal ambiguity gives great power and character to the entry of the full orchestra on the chord of D minor. At the end of the movement there are moments that move the soul to its depths. It would be hard to hear anything more profoundly tragic than the song of the wind instruments beneath which a chromatic phrase played tremolo by the strings swells and rises gradually, like the roar of the sea before an approaching storm. This is a passage of magnificent inspiration.
On several occasions in this work we will be drawing attention to clusters of notes which cannot possibly be described as chords, and we will be forced to admit that the reason for these anomalies escapes us completely. For example on page 17 of the wonderful movement we have been describing there is a melodic passage for clarinets and bassoons, which is accompanied as follows in the key of C minor: the bass plays first an F sharp supporting a diminished seventh, then an A flat supporting a third, fourth and augmented sixth, and finally G over which flutes and oboes play the notes E flat, G, C which gives a six-four chord. This would be an excellent resolution of the previous chord if the second violins and violas did not add to the harmony the two notes F natural and A flat which disfigure it and cause a most unpleasant confusion which fortunately is of short duration. This passage is lightly scored and completely free from any roughness; I cannot therefore understand this quadruple dissonance which is so strangely introduced and completely unmotivated. One might suppose there is an engraving error, but a careful inspection of these two bars and those that precede dispels all doubts and one remains convinced that this is really what the composer intended.
The scherzo vivace which follows contains nothing of the same kind. Admittedly there are a number of pedal notes on the tonic in the upper and middle voices which are sustained through the dominant chord. But I have already stated my position on these pedal notes that are foreign to the harmony, and this new example is not needed to demonstrate the excellent use they can be put to when they arise naturally from the musical logic. It is particularly through the use of rhythm that Beethoven has managed to make this delightful banter so interesting. The theme with its fugal response four bars later is full of vitality, and sparkles with wit when the response then comes a bar earlier and follows a ternary instead of the initial binary rhythm.
The central part of the scherzo is taken up with a presto in duple time full of rustic joy. The theme is deployed over an intermediary pedal note which is either the tonic or the dominant, accompanied by a counter-subject which harmonises equally well with either of the held notes, the dominant and the tonic. The melody is finally brought back by a phrase of delightful freshness in the oboe; after staying poised for a moment over the dominant major chord of D it finally blossoms in the key of F natural in a way that is as graceful as it is unexpected. This is another echo of the gentle impressions that Beethoven loved so much, impressions that are aroused by the sight of a radiant and peaceful landscape, pure air and the first rays of dawn in spring.
In the adagio cantabile the principle of unity is so little observed that one might think of it as two separate movements rather than one. The first melody in B flat in quadruple time is followed by a completely different melody in D major in triple time. The first theme, slightly altered and varied by the first violins, appears for the second time in the original key and leads to the return of the melody in triple time, unchanged and without embellishments but in the key of G major. After this the first theme finally establishes itself and no longer allows the rival theme to compete for the listener’s attention. Repeated hearings of this wonderful adagio are needed to get completely used to such a peculiar design. As for the beauty of all these melodies, the infinite grace of the ornaments which decorate them, the feelings of sad tenderness, passionate despair and religious reverie they express, if only my words could give even an approximate idea of them, then music would have found in the written word a rival which even the greatest of poets will never be able to oppose to it. It is an immense movement, and once the listener has succumbed to its powerful charm, the only answer to the criticism that the composer has violated here the law of unity has to be: so much the worse for the law!
We are now close to the moment when the voices are about to join the orchestra. Cellos and double-basses intone the recitative we mentioned above, after a passage for the wind instruments as harsh and violent as a cry of anger. The chord of the major sixth, F, A and D, with which this presto begins, is altered by an appogiatura on B flat, played simultaneously by flutes, oboes and clarinets; the sixth of the key of D minor grinds dreadfully against the dominant and produces an excessively harsh effect. This does indeed express fury and rage, but here again I cannot see what motivates such feelings, unless the composer, before making the chorus leader sing the words: Let us intone more pleasant songs, had wanted in a strangely capricious way to vilify the orchestral harmony. Yet he seems to regret it, since in between each phrase of the recitative of the basses, he repeats, like so many memories that are dear to his heart, fragments of the three preceding movements. What is more, after this first recitative, he puts in the orchestra, in the midst of exquisitely chosen chords, the beautiful theme which is about to be sung by all the voices on Schiller’s ode. This theme, gentle and calm in character, becomes increasingly animated and brilliant as it moves from the basses which play it first to the violins and the wind instruments. After a sudden interruption, the whole orchestra plays again the furious ritornello mentioned above which now introduces the vocal recitative.
The first chord is again built on an F which is supposed to carry the third and the sixth and does indeed do so, but this time the composer not content with the appogiatura of B flat adds those of G, E and C sharp, with the result that ALL THE NOTES OF THE MINOR DIATONIC SCALE are played at once and produce the hideous assembly of notes: F, A, C sharp, E, G, B flat, D.
Forty years ago, the French composer Martin, known as Martini, wanted to produce in his opera Sapho a similar howl for the orchestra, and did so by using at once all the diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic intervals of the scale at the moment when Phaon’s mistress hurls herself into the sea – but he did not ask himself whether his attempt was appropriate and whether it enhanced or assaulted the dignity of art, though admittedly there could be no mistaking his intentions. But in this case my efforts at discovering Beethoven’s purpose are completely in vain. I can see a formal intention, a deliberate and calculated attempt to produce a double discordance, both at the point which precede the appearance of the recitative, instrumental at first and later vocal. I have searched hard for the reason for this idea, and I have to admit that it is unknown to me.
The chorus leader, after singing his recitative on words by Beethoven himself, as we have mentioned, introduces on his own the theme of the Ode to Joy, with a light accompaniment of two wind instruments and the strings playing pizzicato. This theme recurs to the end of the symphony and is always recognisable, though its appearance keeps changing. A study of these diverse transformations is all the more absorbing as each of them brings out a new and distinctive nuance in the expression of a single feeling, that of joy. At first this joy is full of gentleness and peace; it becomes somewhat livelier when the voice of women is heard. The beat changes; the theme, sung initially in quadruple time, returns in 6/8 time in syncopated style and now takes on a more robust and agile character that has a martial quality. This is the song of a departing hero who is confident of victory; you can almost imagine his shining armour and hear the rhythmic tread of his step. A fugal theme in which the original melody can be recognised, serves for a while as subject for a lively orchestral development, which recalls the bustling activity of a crowd full of ardour… But the chorus soon re-enters and sings energetically the joyful hymn in its original simplicity, supported by chords of the wind instruments which shadow the melody, and criss-crossed by a diatonic passage played by the whole mass of strings in unison and octaves. The andante maestoso which follows is a kind of chorale intoned first by the tenors and basses of the chorus, in unison with a trombone, the cellos and double-basses. Joy here assumes a religious dimension and becomes solemn and immense. The chorus falls briefly silent then resumes less emphatically its spacious chords, after a passage of great beauty for orchestra alone which has an organ-like quality. The imitation of the majestic instrument of Christian churches is produced by flutes in the lower register, clarinets in the chalumeau register, the lower notes of the bassoons, the violas divided into two parts, upper and lower, and the cellos playing on their open strings G and D, or the low C (open string) and the C in the middle range, always in double-stopping. This piece starts in G, moves to C, then to F, and ends on a pause on the dominant seventh of D. There follows a great allegro in 6/4 where from the start are combined the beginning of the first theme, already used frequently with such variety, and the chorale of the preceding andante. The contrast between these two ideas is made even more striking by a fast variation of the joyful theme, on top of the long notes of the chorale, played not only by the first violins but also by the double-basses. Now it is impossible for double-basses to perform a succession of notes at that speed, and once again it is hard to understand how a composer as familiar as Beethoven with the art of orchestration could have committed such a lapse in writing a passage like this for this unwieldy instrument. There is less fire and grandeur, and greater lightness in the style of the following piece: its keynote is that of innocent joy, expressed first by four solo voices and then given greater warmth through the addition of the chorus. Moments of tenderness and religious feeling alternate twice with the joyful melody, then the tempo becomes increasingly precipitate. The whole orchestra bursts out, the percussion instruments – timpani, cymbals, triangle, bass drum – strike emphatically the strong beats of the bar. Joy resumes her sway, a popular and tumultuous joy which might look like an orgy if at the end the voices did not pause once more on a solemn rhythm to send, in an ecstatic cry, their final greeting of love and respect for religious joy. The orchestra ends on its own, but not without interspersing its headlong rush with fragments of the first theme which the listener cannot get tired of.
A translation as accurate as possible of the German poem set by Beethoven will convey to the reader the stimulus for this profusion of musical combinations, masterly supports of unceasing inspiration and obedient tools of a powerful and tireless genius*.
« Joy! Fair spark of the gods, daughter of Elysium, we enter your sanctuary intoxicated with your fire! Your magic power unites again those whom earthly customs have forcibly separated. All men will be brothers again under your gentle wing.
« Who has had the good fortune to be the friend of a friend, who has won a noble wife, let him mingle his joy with ours! Yes, any who can call even one soul on earth his own. But who cannot, let him steal away in tears from this gathering.
« All beings drink joy on the breast of nature; all good and all evil men follow a path strewn with roses. She gave us kisses and vintage, a friend who is true unto death. The worm receives the joy of life and the cherub stands before God!
« Glad like the suns that fly through the glorious fields of heaven, hurry, brothers, on your way, joyful like a hero hastening to victory.
« Millions, be embraced! This kiss to the whole world! Brothers, above the starry heaven, a dear father must have his dwelling.
« You fall prostrate, o you millions? World, do you sense the creator? Seek him above the starry heaven! He must dwell over the stars!
« Joy! Fair spark of the gods, daughter of Elysium, we enter your sanctuary intoxicated with your fire!
« Daughter of Elysium, joy, fair spark of the gods!! »
Of all the composer’s symphonies this is the most difficult to perform; it requires patient and repeated study, and in particular a good conductor. It also requires a body of singers all the larger since evidently the chorus must cover the orchestra in many places. In addition, the way the music is written for the words and the excessive height of some of the choral parts make voice production very difficult and reduce considerably the volume and power of the sound.
Be that as it may, when Beethoven had finished his work and could contemplate the majestic dimensions of the monument he had just built, he must have said to himself: «Death may come now, but my task is accomplished.»
* Note: the following is our own translation of Schiller's German text.
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