Program Notes | Beethoven’s Ninth
Sunday, May 19, 2024 / 4:00 pm
GABRIELA LENA FRANK
Born 1972, Berkeley, CA
Three Latin-American Dances for Orchestra
I. Introduction: Jungle Jaunt
This introductory scherzo opens in an unabashed tribute to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein before turning to harmonies and rhythms derived from various pan-Amazonian dance forms. These jungle references are sped through (so as to be largely hidden) while echoing the energy of the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, who was long fascinated with indigenous Latin-American cultures.
II. Highland Harawi
This movement is the heart of Three Latin American Dances and evokes the Andean harawi, a melancholy adagio traditionally sung by a single bamboo quena flute so as to accompany a single dancer. As mountain music, the ambiance of mystery, vastness, and echo is evoked. The fast middle section simulates what I imagine to be the “zumballyu” of Illapa , a great spinning top belonging to Illapa, the Peruvian-Inca weather deity of thunder, lightning, and rain. Illapa spins his great top in the highland valleys of the Andes before allowing a return to the more staid harawi. The music of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok is alluded to.
III. The Mestizo Waltz
As if in relief to the gravity of the previous movement, this final movement is a lighthearted tribute to the “mestizo” or mixed-race music of the South American Pacific coast. In particular, it evokes the “romancero” tradition of popular songs and dances that mix influences from indigenous Indian cultures, African slave cultures, and western brass bands.
—Program Note by Gabriela Lena Frank
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Born 1770, Bonn
Died 1827, Vienna
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, op.125
Beethoven’s Ninth is at once his grandest symphony and his most challenging, and its challenges have been both moral and musical. The unprecedented grandeur of Beethoven’s music, the first use of voices in a symphony, and in particular the setting of Schiller’s “An die Freude” have made the work one of the great statements of romantic faith in humankind, a utopian vision of the universal bond of all people.
The Ninth seems so perfectly conceived that it comes as a surprise to learn that it took shape very slowly over a span of 30 years, and Beethoven’s conception of the music changed often during that process. He first planned to compose a setting of Schiller’s “An die Freude” as early as 1792, when he was just 22 (Schiller had written that ode seven years earlier). Although he set that intention aside, the idea remained with him and was not mentioned again until 20 years later, when Beethoven noted such a plan in his sketchbooks. An invitation from the London Philharmonic in 1817 to write two symphonies finally prodded the composer to action (although the London visit never took place). The Ninth was completed in early 1823.
At this point in his career, Beethoven had formulated what we know as his “late style,” which includes an inward and lyrical expressiveness and a new interest in variation-form and contrapuntal writing. While the Ninth Symphony incorporates these features, Beethoven reverted partly to his heroic style, that powerful approach built on conflict and triumphant resolution that had animated such works as the Third, Fifth, and Seventh Symphonies.
The first performance of the Ninth took place in Vienna on May 7, 1824, when Beethoven was 53. He had been deaf for years, but he sat on stage with the orchestra and tried to assist in the direction of the music. This occasion produced one of the classic Beethoven anecdotes. Unaware that the piece had ended, Beethoven continued to beat time and had to be turned around to be shown the applause that he could not hear; the realization that the music they had just heard had been written by a deaf man overwhelmed the audience.
The opening of the Allegro ma non troppo, quiet and harmonically uncertain, creates a sense of mystery and vast space. The ending opens with ominous fanfares over quiet tremolo strings, and out of this darkness the main theme rises up one final time and is stamped out to close the movement. The second movement, marked Molto vivace, is a scherzo built on a five-part fugue. The displaced attacks in the first phrase, which delighted the audience at the premiere, still retain their capacity to surprise; Beethoven breaks the rush of the fugue with a rustic trio for woodwinds and a flowing countermelody for strings. The third movement, Adagio molto e cantabile, is in straightforward theme-and-variation form with contrasting interludes.
After the serenity of the third movement, the orchestra erupts with a dissonant blast for the famous finale. Schiller’s text exalts the fellowship of mankind and man’s recognition of his place in a universe presided over by a just and omnipotent god. Musically, the movement is a series of variations on the opening theme, the music of each stanza varied to fit its text.
In a world that daily belies the utopian message of the Ninth Symphony, it may seem strange that this music continues to work its hold on our imagination. It is difficult for us to take the symphony’s vision of brotherhood seriously when each morning’s headlines show us again the horrors of which man is capable. Perhaps the secret of its continuing appeal is that for the hour it takes us to hear the work, the music reminds us not of what we too often are, but of what, at our best, we might be.
—Program Note by Eric Bromberger