Obscurity Knocks

Earnest, empathetic, industrious, unpretentious, gay Virgo in Milwaukee with a great life, amazing friends, and a wonderful family.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824

In anticipation of seeing the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, I read a new book by Harvey Sachs entitled "The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824." It was a fascinating book both about where Beethoven was in his life at the time that he composed the Ninth as well as the political, social, and intellectual world of 1824. I found the biographical information about Beethoven and his life in 1824 particularly captivating. By that time Beethoven was known throughout Europe as a gifted composer. Given his volatile personality, he had burned a lot of bridges by this time in his life. That made finding an orchestra to play the Ninth a fairly difficult proposition since there were quite a few musicians who Beethoven refused to work with or vice versa. Sachs does a remarkable job of giving the reader an idea of what it would have been like to attend the premiere in May 7, 1824 at the Karnthnertortheater in Vienna. Unfortunately, the time pressures meant that the copyists who transcribed the parts for the musicians made many errors. Couple that with the fact that in 1824 there was no such thing as the professional orchestra as we know it today; most of the musicians were amateurs, and the Ninth is a very difficult piece of music. This meant that the premier performance was likely riddled with errors. Yet in spite of these difficulties, the audience responded to the genius they heard, giving Beethoven a standing ovation, which was a rare occurrence at that time. It goes without saying that part of the fascination of the Ninth and Beethoven's middle and late period compositions is that he was deaf at the time he wrote them. This meant that Beethoven could hear his masterpiece only in his own mind. It's believed that Beethoven had to be prompted to turn around to see the audience giving him a standing ovation at the premiere. Sachs takes the reader into the fascinating personality of Beethoven such as his love for humanity yet his disgust for so many individual people. Another example is Beethoven's commitment to liberty, freedom, and joy, yet his living in the Hapsburg monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The Ninth was, of course, innovative in western music since it's the first symphony to incorporate voices. Beyond that, Beethoven pushes the boundaries of the genre in so many ways, which Sachs does a fine job of explaining.

Sachs then places the Ninth in the context of art at this point in the 19th century alongside Byron, Pushkin, and other early romantics. I found this portion the most challenging, probably since I wasn't familiar with most of the artists he writes about. I loved Sachs's analysis of the four movements of the Ninth and their value to music and artistic accomplishment. To me, the Ninth is the zenith of all music composed in human history, and I have a feeling that Sachs would likely agree with me. His book is a more intelligent way of saying that, even knowing that many would disagree with this claim.

A fascinating book, one that I'm very glad that I read.
9 of 10.


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