"I am that which is. I am all that was, that is, and that shall be. No mortal man has ever lifted the veil of me. He is solely of himself, and to this Only One all things owe their existence."
"Bonaparte Before the Sphinx"
The quote at the very top, not by Beethoven but in Beethoven's handwriting, was pasted into a frame, covered with glass, and kept in a prominent place on Beethoven's desk. Before we get to the music today, I'd like to explore how it got there and what it meant to Beethoven and to the Ninth Symphony. In the process, I get to take you on one of the roundabout connect-the-dot journeys that I so love doing. I'll try to be entertaining and to not waste your time.
A Special Note: Last week, Kerry Candaele, writer and director of the not yet released film Following the Ninth, which I've quoted in this series, dropped us a late note in the comments:
Beethoven 9 Film (2+ / 0-)
Wonderful articles, and thank you for mentioning my film, Following The Ninth. Hope to release it in the next month or so. I live in Venice if you ever want to talk Beethoven. Best, kerry candaele
by kcandaele on Mon Jan 09, 2012 at 10:19:09 PM PST
The website for the film, which includes preview clips and a donation link, is http://followingtheninth.com/ . One of the things her film focuses on that I've also found interesting is the political implications of Beethoven's Ninth.
The Ninth Symphony is the only Late Period symphony composed by Beethoven. One of the distinguishing marks of this period of Beethoven's output is a creative turn towards the mystical and divine. Thanksgiving 2010, I wrote a diary covering Beethoven's Hymn Giving Thanks to the Deity, the title he gave to one of his most famous string quartet pieces, the third movement of his String Quartet #15, from the same period. (The Ode to Joy and the String Quartet #15 have overlap in their genesis timeframe, and music from the two were sometimes swapped during development.) Beethoven was deeply religious -- in his own way -- well before his Late Period, but by the Late Period, it became more overt in his musical style.
Let's connect all this to Napoleon, now, shall we?
As most know, Beethoven had a big beef with Napoleon, whom he admired at first as a wind of change bringing democracy to Europe. In 1804, Beethoven dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, only to rip off the cover in disgust and rename it the Eroica when the news came that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor.
Napoleon had been rolling his army around the world, toting up French victories. In 1798, he launched the Egyptian Campaign, capturing Egypt, with the goal of fouling the British and Indian trade routes. Thus the famous painting at the top.
Ah, the mystery of the Sphinx! And the mystery of the Sphinx's nose! The perhaps apocryphal story goes that some of Napoleon's soldiers shot the nose off the Sphinx on a wager. If so, I hope the winner got something worthwhile. However, the French weren't without curiosity about the ancient fruits of their conquest: Ancient temples, pyramids, thrones, most of them decorated with indecipherable hieroglyphics. The ability to understand this Egyptian writing had been lost for many centuries. Nobody knew what all those funny birds and jackals were trying to say!
And then one day, one of Napoleon's troops, bumbling around, possibly looking for more millenia-old inanimate objects to shoot, came across a curious thing that would be called The Rosetta Stone. It contained a two thousand year old press release by an Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy V, much of it in the usual birds and jackals hieroglyphics. The reason reason anybody knew what it said was that part of it was also written in ancient Greek, a non-pictorial alphabet that modern Europeans understood. Having the same press release written in three different alphabets meant that there was finally a translation tool.
It took about twenty years to work out the details, but the decipherment of the writing on ancient Egyptian tombs quickly became the hot new thing. One of the pioneers in this was a fellow by the name of Champollion, who in 1820 published The Paintings of Egypt, which included translations from the walls and pillars of the Temple of Isis in Philae.
One image from the walls of Temple of Isis Philae.
Champollion translated one inscription, written of the Goddess Neith, "I am that which is. I am all that was, that is, and that
shall be. No mortal man has ever lifted the veil of me. He is
solely of himself, and to this Only One all things owe their existence." Champollion's book was a hit with both scientists and the coffee table book of the month club. We can assume Beethoven, being a musician and not a scientist, was one of the latter.
The European Enlightenment period, with its rejection of old dogma, had wrought a change in religion, one of which was a broadening of the acceptable definitions of God. Enlightenment free thinkers had no problem both rejecting mass religion, as Beethoven (generally) did, and in embracing aspects of the "oriental" religions.
One of the clearest expressions of this, representative of the deist thinkers of the late 18th century, is this one by Thomas Paine, from the Age of Reason:
It is only in the CREATION that all the ideas and concepts of the word of God can come together. The Creation speaks a universal language that does not depend on any human speech or language. It is an eternal 'original copy' that all men can read. It cannot be faked or counterfeited. It cannot be lost or changed. It cannot be kept secret. It does not depend on man deciding whether to publish it or not. It publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all the nations, and all the worlds. This natural word of God reveals to us all that man needs to know of God.
Do we want to think of his power? We see it in the vastness of the Creation. Do we want to think of his wisdom? We see it in the unchanging order of the universe. Do we want to see his generosity? We see it in the abundance that fills the earth. Do we want to think of his mercy? We see it in the way he does not withhold abundance even from the ungrateful. In fact, do we want to know what God is? Do not look in the bible (that any man could have written), but look instead to the Creation.
Usually, when we get into discussions on DailyKos about deism, pantheism, or pan Pandeism, it is in a discussion refuting the claims of the Religious Right that the Founding Fathers were all Christian, when the record is that they weren't, that many of the key figures, like Washington and Jefferson and Franklin (and, later Lincoln), were deists or pantheists in the mold of Paine. Again, here, we see this affinity of thought between Beethoven and the philosophy of Revolution.
The distinction between deism and pantheism seems rather vague to me, although I suspect it matters a great deal at the theology course level. Deism sees the creator as defined by his visible creation. Pantheism defines everything, all of Creation itself, as the one God. The quotes from the Temple of Neith come closer to the pantheistic view and what seems to have been Beethoven's view, Beethoven as part of God, part of Creation.
From Beethoven's notebook, here is a passage he had apparently apparently admired to enough to copy in his own hand from a book:
God is immaterial; as he is invisible he can therefore have no form. But from what we are able to see in His Works we conclude that he is eternal, almighty, omniscient and omnipresent. The mighty one alone is free from all desire and passion. There is no greater than He, Brahm: his mind is self-existent. He, the Almighty, is present in every part of space. His omniscience is self-inspired, and His conception includes every other. Omniscience is the greatest of his all-embracing attributes. O God! - you have no threefold being and are independent of everything, you are the true, eternal, blessed, unchangeable light of all time and space. Your wisdom apprehends thousands of laws, but you always act of your own free will and to your honour. You were before everything that we worship. We owe you praise and adoration. You alone are the true Blessed, the best of all laws, the image of all wisdom. You are present throughout the whole world and sustain all things. Sun, Ether, Brahma.
The third movement of Beethoven's Ninth symphony and the finale, like many of Beethoven's Late Period works, is infused with this pantheistic sense of the divine. While his first movement had been about chaos and agony, Beethoven is now ready to begin raising us up to a more divine sphere.
Friedrich Nietzsche describes this aspect of listening to Beethoven's Ninth in Human, All Too Human:
At a certain place in Beethoven`s Ninth Symphony... [the listener] might feel that he is floating above the earth in a starry dome, with the dream of immortality in his heart; all the stars seem to glimmer around him, and the earth seems to sink ever deeper downwards.
I liked the way the film Immortal Beloved captured this feeling. I've posted this one before. This is Beethoven at the premiere of the Ninth, recalling his abusive childhood.
Scene from Immortal Beloved
We see Beethoven, at the premiere of the Ninth Symphony, recalling his childhood, as the music plays in his head. (In his head, because, of course, he was stone deaf by that time). We see the young boy Beethoven, fleeing from his abusive cane-bearing father, running through the streets, and then the woods, stripping off his clothes. As the central fugue of the finale reaches its climax, the intrusion of the EA-AE-EA motif, the boy discovers a pond of still water. He lowers himself into the water and floats, face up, in the pose of Leonardo's Vitrugian Man. As the camera recedes, we see many pinpoints of light (not necessarily visible in my clip) the stars, reflected in the water. They glimmer around him as he rotates iand floats in the starry dome and the earth seems to recede. Friedrich Nietzsche could have designed this scene himself.
The Vitrugian Man, from the notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci. A representation of classic mathematical ratios inherent in the ideal human form.
Heavy shit, eh? It was a roundabout journey. Have I entertained you? Did I waste your time?
ONWARD, TO THE MUSIC!
Let's review how we got here. The symphony began in violence and terror. The first movement of the Ninth is the most violent symphonic piece Beethoven ever composed. The second movement, still dark, but a step closer to the light, gave us increased order, and a central section that touched briefly on the angelic.
The third movement is the angelic one. I've searched for a better word to use in the thesaurus and come up short. The only other word I like to describe it is reverent. After the harsh but beautiful journey we have experienced, Beethoven is ready to begin raising us to a more divine sphere. The mood is a soothing one, as if being immersed in a warm bath after a long journey. If it should make you sleepy, though, beware, because there is a dramatic bite to it, in the latter third, one that compels your respect and attention and reminds you how far you have come and have yet to go. As usual, it's the EA-AE-EA motif that opened the symphony that comes to us at these key moments to demand our respect.
Let's go back to my Spoiler's Clip that I prepared with the first diary to track some ways the EA-AE-EA motif, the building block of the symphony, gets used:
Dumbo's SPOILERS clip for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
Beginning at 0:33, we have the main theme of the third movement. I thought I heard the EA-AE-EA theme in the bass, but I'm not so sure now, so I'm going to leave that open to debate. However, the next example at 0:56, from later in the third movement, is glaringly obvious. It's EA-AE-EA again (in a different key now), but whereas in its original form, it walked downhill, now it walks uphill. This is the climactic moment of the third movement, a shocker, probably the moment that most stuck with me after hearing The Ninth the first time because it came so unexpectedly... Well, now it's not unexpected, is it? The sense of relaxation that this movement can create leaves you unprepared for this powerful moment. Making it all the more powerful.
The overall form of the movement is familiar: Variations on a Theme. The theme in this case is apparently simple. The analysis texts I read online before writing this generally break it up into two parts, but I don't see the need for that. The first half, though, is harmonically VERY simple in its basic form. I-V-I-V-...I, it goes. The closest thing to it, I can think of, is Goodbye Ol' Paint, which we all sang in school. Two chords! But as the music proceeds, Beethoven further elaborates on those chords, above, below, and all around them.
The harmonic tension really comes BETWEEN the variations. Each variation is smooth and stable harmonically, hugging the home chord tightly. It's in the transitions between the variations that Beethoven plays his best tricks, ratcheting up the tension by changing keys with what are called suspensions, (chords with notes that linger too long before dropping into place).
There's also a funny thing going on between the strings and woodwinds in this movement, one of the first things people notice about it. Every once in a while, the strings pause and allow the woodwinds to catch up and echo the last part of what they were playing. This pattern continues through every variation.
I'm going to take a risk today and go with the old 1951 Bayreuth live recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. The audio quality is relatively poor and it's mono and the microphones are unbalanced. There are better quality audio clips on Youtube I could use, but the conducting in this one is unearthly. Furtwangler was an eccentric and romantic conductor, and never more so than when conducting the Ninth. Remember that Sony-Phillips designed the first music CD to hold 74 minutes of music SPECIFICALLY so it would be long enough for Furtwangler's famous recording.
The Symphony #9 in D minor, Opus 125, by Ludwig Van Beethoven, third movement, Adagio. Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, live, 1951. (Clip 1 of 2.)
The woodwinds introduce themselves, one at a time, as if reporting for duty. The effect is of a flower opening. All of it very mellow, but there's a slight growl in the bass there, at the end.
First Theme (0:23)
The strings introduce the main theme. At 0:53, we have our first "echo" from the woodwinds, as the strings pause to let them catch up. Again at 1:30. You might notice how similar the theme is to the Adagio from Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata.
And then, at 2:00, just when you're getting used to the gentle two-chord cradling back and forth, aha! We finally get a new chord (IV chord). Such a little thing, but it has been made precious through the waiting! Here we feel not just love but yearning. We are in a different emotional place now than we were in the previous movements.
At 2:23, the woodwinds echo the strings again, echoing that beautiful D major chord again. And then they begin to taper away. At 2:58 we say goodbye to this variation and this key (it was B flat) and begin the transition to the new key (D major.)
We have spent three minutes listening to the first main variation of the movement.
Second Variation on the Theme (3:00)
The tempo speeds up a little. The violas carry the theme now in a deeper voice, the music swelling and subsiding with increased emotion and vigor. At 3:56, as the violas repeat, the higher violins come in now and add a soaring theme atop this one. Again, the feeling is of strong yearning.
At 4:30, the strings subside. The woodwinds come in to echo, and in their echoing, they set us up for another slow, key transition. (B flat).
Third Variation on the Theme (4:50)
The main theme yet again, but now with more ornamentation, as the long slow notes of the original theme are broken into many shorter notes. In the background, we hear plucked strings in a waltz. (This is called playing pizzicato. Plucking of the strings with the fingers creates a raindrop-like sound.)
At 6:50, the woodwinds get to make their last echo of the variation. And then they set us up for the change to the next key (G major). This is a distant key from B flat. The transitions are getting spookier and deeper.
Fourth Variation on the Theme (7:40)
The woodwinds get to lead the time, with echoes from the strings. At 8:21, plucked strings join, too. At 8:59, they begin the transition together to another distant key (E flat).
Fifth Variation on the Theme (9:12)
It has all been so tranquil up until now that, yes, you could fall asleep in your concert chair. This next variation, though, is strange and a little spooky. It is also the most beautiful variation in the movement, and perhaps the most complicated.
We have broken though into a new territory. The woodwinds star this time, but they sound very lonely and forlorn. The strings have abandoned them. Yes, there are occasional plucked strings to give them company, but it's not the same thing. The mood is depressed and introspective. The bassoon part, and the plucked strings, have a broken quality to them, with strange gaps in the phrasing. At 9:50, the woodwinds dip into minor key territory briefly, the first time we have experienced that in this movement.
This is a terrible place to have to break up the music, so I beg your forbearance as we all switch to the continuation in second clip.
Beethoven Ninth Symphony, third movement, (clip 2 of 2)
... And just as we were dipping into minor key territory, beginning to worry us, at 0:06, the flutes come in bringing new hope. This variation constitutes, to me, a kind of moral trial.
At 0:35, the plucked strings and a solo French horn give us the final echo, and the transition to the new key, B flat -- the original home key of the movement. And the return comes with an enormous sense of relief. A weight of some kind has been lifted.
Sixth Variation on the Theme (0:56)
Back in the home key... And the violins are back, carrying the main theme again! This time, massively more ornamented with many faster notes. The plucked strings have tagged along with us from the last two variations into this one. The woodwinds are back in their comfortable role of echo-ers, sane and stable in comparison to the leaping violins.
The violins disappear at 3:06, allowing the woodwinds and plucked strings to carry on, and they do, quite honorably.
The music is tranquil and reassuring at this point, cradling us back and forth between I and V chords, like New Age music. We might expect, if things follow their usual pattern, to be teed up for the next variation about now. But there's a surprise.
First (Mini-)Climax (3:55)
As the woodwinds cradle us, a sudden very masculine outburst from the brass. It's EA-AE-EA again! Dum-dum-DUMMMM!... And then a less strong response response from the strings. Dum-dum-DUMMM! again... Strings respond again. And now a bold, insistent declaration from the brass and the drums!
This is not tranquil! This is not reassuring! This is not New-Agey cradling behavior!
In a live concert, or even a good quality stereo, this moment can be shocking, out of character as it is to what has gone before.
At 4:17, the brass and the drums relent, and the gentle strings return. They seem taken aback, reacting to what has happened. But very quickly, they are cradling us again, with their beautiful I and V chords. "Don't let those nasty horn guys get to you," they seem to say. "Where were we? Let's nuzzle some more." Even the plucked strings are back.
I get the feeling this might be a good place to end the movement, with this happy ending. Rocking us like a baby as the strings SOAR in their ornamentation!
Second (Real) Climax (5:13)
Dum-dum-DUMMMM! It's back! Just like before. Dum-dum-DUMMM!! It will go away again, won't it? Won't it?
And then at 5:30, it's like a great chasm opens before us. What do we see here? This is the enigma of the movement.
Whatever it was that was so insistent on our attention got it, in the end. And it was very serious about it and not to be
ignored nor condescended to.
(Of course, this is all my interpretation of the third movement. You're all entitled to tell me what it really means.)
The reaction of the strings to the climax this time is subdued and serious. They don't just blow it off.
Sixth Variation on the Theme CONTINUES (6:05)
The strings and the plucked strings continue their theme as before, but with more due gravity, and I think we should give credit to the conductor for pulling that off and bringing it to life so well. I started to label this the Seventh Variation, and then I realized, it's just finishing what was interrupted.
Seventh Variation on the Theme (6:23) (or just more Sixth)
Without the woodwind echo, we enter a new variation, and it gives the vibe that we're heading towards a conclusion soon. Notice the change in gravity. The music is still soothing, but it doesn't soar as high.
At 7:32, after much I-V-I-V... cradling, the strings, with a sudden shout (a sforzando) seem to call for the end of proceedings.
Eighth Variation on the Theme (7:45)
It seems to be saying goodbye. Oh so sweetly done.
Not really a variation. Just the graceful ending to a graceful movement. Listen to how softly the very final chords come at 9:20. Softly. Gently. Ending peacefully. That's very important.
Beethoven left no instructions for a pause between the Third and Fourth movement. But I think, in practice, they almost always have one because there are large choral forces on stage that have been standing still for almost an hour.
Next week we'll hear the final movement, the Ode to Joy from the Beethoven Symphony #9. Richard Wagner called the first chords of the final movement, "The Terror Fanfare." We had a one movement respite from (most of) the violence that Beethoven could throw at us. The finale will remind us of that right away.
Those soft, gentle, peacefully ending chords of the third movement were the only segue you were to get. The contrast between gentleness and brutality being set up here is intentional.
See you next week!
Since the photoshop I made last week of Beethoven smiling was so scary, I decided to try one more time. I took this picture and added a smile to it. The biggest smile I could find in google image search for a man smiling was... well, it was Tom Delay's mugshot. No, I didn't plan it that way. Anyway, I gave Beethoven Tom Delay's big smile, and it came out like this.
Unfortunately, it's still impossible to find a decent picture of Beethoven smiling. I guess it's because the man never smiled. Maybe he had big gross green teeth, or no teeth at all. Or worse still, just one big tooth. However it may be, it's unfortunate, because as soon as I posted last week's diary, googling in image search for "Beethoven smile" showed my poorly crafted Photoshop as the first image that came up. Seriously -- it was almost instantaneous.
Obviously, then, I've done great damage to Beethoven's reputation, and probably am doing even more by posting this. I therefore challenge you all to offer up better handiwork, or to bow to me and say, "Jeez, Dumbo, it's hard to make Beethoven smile and still look natural."