Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with its choral finale is the go-to piece for uplift and joy.
Leonard Bernstein conducted it on Christmas Day 1989 at the Berlin Wall to celebrate the collapse of communism in East Germany. In 1972, the final movement, without the words, was adopted as the anthem of Europe by the Council of Europe, and then in 1985 it was made the anthem of the European Communities, now the European Union.
In Japan, it’s a tradition for orchestras to perform the Ninth on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the end of the year.
So it’s fitting that the Kansas City Symphony, led by Michael Stern, will celebrate the end of its season with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 Thursday through Sunday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Joining the Symphony will be the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, directed by Charles Bruffy, and a stellar cast of soloists.
Also on the program is Beethoven’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” and the Symphony No. 2 “To October” by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Even the concert at which Beethoven conducted the premiere performance of his ninth symphony overflowed with joy. The event on May 7, 1824, marked the first time Beethoven had been seen onstage in more than 12 years. The Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna was packed, and the reception was beyond Beethoven’s wildest dreams. The almost totally deaf composer had to be turned around to see the five standing ovations.
Stern thinks Beethoven’s deafness influenced the way he composed the piece.
“More and more, the music he wrote was what he heard inside his own head, free of any distractions that the noise of the outside world might have imposed,” Stern wrote in an email. “It also is quite plausible that the intense internal focus that allowed his inner ear to spark his imagination emboldened him to reach a different level of freedom and experimentation. In form, scope and conception, there hadn’t ever been anything to rival the last movement of this symphony.”
Although Beethoven’s Ninth was almost universally embraced by audiences and critics from the very beginning, there were some, like Giuseppe Verdi, who thought the final movement was clumsily written. In a letter, the Italian opera composer wrote that the symphony was “marvelous in its first three movements, very badly set in the last. No one will ever surpass the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as is done in the last movement.”
Verdi’s opinion is certainly in the minority today. Like the Sistine Chapel and the plays of William Shakespeare, Beethoven’s Ninth is now considered one of the central works of Western culture, and it is the choral finale that makes the work so distinctive. Beethoven’s exuberant setting of the poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller continues to send chills down the spine.
“It is a fascinating movement full of juxtapositions, glorious and triumphant, naive, even a little rude and inebriated,” Stern wrote. “Think only of the bassoon’s off-the-beat interruptions before the tenor’s solo, accompanied by a Janissary band military march. … And of course, at its heart is the most enduring and indelible melody ever written, a tune which has become an anthem and meme for the entire planet.”
The soloists in the final movement are soprano Celena Shafer, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Robert Watson and bass-baritone Dashon Burton.
“I am excited to be working for the first time with each of our four soloists, and I think they are going to be individually and together a great quartet for these performances,” Stern wrote.
It’s interesting to consider that Beethoven’s Ninth, a lengthy and demanding work with a final movement that, as Stern writes, is “sprawling and slightly messy,” was so well-received at its first performance.
Why was this radical symphony embraced by the Viennese public of the early 19th century, but in our own day, audiences almost never react with unbridled enthusiasm to new music?
“Audiences in Beethoven’s time were by and large more fluent in the practical mechanics of music-making, since without electronics and recordings, the only way to have music at home was to make it oneself,” Stern wrote. “Furthermore, in the Vienna of the early 19th century, even music of Bach’s time was not performed with much frequency, and so audiences were more open and intrepid in their listening. But even the more radical music of that time, as different as it could be from one composer to another, shared a more common vernacular.”
Stern thinks that as the variety of musical compositions increased from the 19th into the 20th centuries, the capacity of audiences to digest the sheer quantity of new music became challenged.
“But I do think that today’s audiences can and do embrace new pieces,” Stern wrote. “They have to be real, and communicative, and we as interpreters have to believe in them, do justice to their composers and make the experience of hearing a new work as visceral and exciting as revisiting a masterpiece from the past.”
As the 2015-2016 season comes to a close with news that the Kansas City Symphony’s musicians have ratified a new four-year contract, it’s worth reflecting on how lucky we are in Kansas City to be able to hear music old and new played with passion and excellence in a superb concert hall.
Whether it’s the music of Beethoven or Jonathan Leshnoff, Stern and his orchestra always guarantee a thrilling musical experience. And that’s worth celebrating with an Ode to Joy.
You can reach freelance writer Patrick Neas at firstname.lastname@example.org