Beethoven’s Ninth

Chelsea Hart Melcher, soprano*
Julie Miller, alto**
Lawrence Wiliford, tenor
Aaron Wardell, baritone
David Danzmayr, conductor


This season concludes with a program featuring works for chorus and orchestra. We open with a setting of the penitential Psalm 51, Miserere, music for chorus and orchestra that was long the private domain of the Vatican but which a young Mozart helped to first make public. Following four stunning Schubert song transcriptions, featuring our vocal soloists, we will fittingly crown ProMusica’s 40th year with one of the most influential, majestic and celebratory scores ever composed, Beethoven’s hymn to freedom and universal brotherhood, his triumphant Symphony No. 9.

Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652): Miserere mei, Deus (as notated by Mozart)
Scored for: antiphonal choirs (soprano, alto, tenor, bass/soprano, soprano, alto, baritone)
Duration: about 12 minutes
In December 1769 Leopold Mozart left Salzburg and traveled south with his thirteen-year-old son, Wolfgang. En route to Italy, the young prodigy would perform publicly and entertain royalty, and with any luck—which, as it turned out, they did not have—either father or son would at some point also find royal employment. By April of the following year the pair arrived in Rome and during their stay visited the Sistine Chapel for a matins service during Holy Week. The choir performed a setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei, Deus (“Have mercy on me, O God”) by Gregorio Allegri, a nine-part setting for two antiphonal choirs probably composed around 1630. Allegri’s score, which would prove to be the last and most well-known of twelve different Vatican settings of the Tenebrae Psalm dating back to 1514, alternated one choir singing the original Miserere Gregorian chant (sung on a monotone) with another singing a more modern, embellished response. The music evidently captivated the young Mozart, who committed the composition to memory.

Allegri’s composition, sung in the “shadows” of dusk and reserved for the Tenebrae service during the days leading up to Easter, had never been committed to manuscript paper. Indeed, in the effort of maintaining exclusivity to the work, the Vatican forbid its transcription under the penalty of excommunication (which also served to heighten the music’s mystery). But later that day Mozart, who had turned fourteen since leaving his native Salzburg, transcribed the entire work. Two days later he attended a second service/performance and refreshed his memory, allowing him to put the finishing touches on the manuscript. The score was later passed to the noted English traveler, Charles Burney, who published it in England in 1771. Thus, did Allegri’s score, the work for which the Italian is best remembered, eventually find its way into print for the first time. The Pope, by the way, was so impressed with Mozart’s brilliance that he lifted the ban. It should also be noted that the version most performed today is a compilation featuring far more embellishment than Mozart would have heard in 1770. The Miserere nevertheless remains a hauntingly moving score and the chanted portions are certainly the earliest pieces ProMusica has ever performed.


Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Four lieder
Scored for: vocal soloists and orchestra
Over the course of a composing career that lasted less than 20 years, the Viennese-born Franz Schubert dispatched some 600 songs (in addition to nine symphonies, dozens of masterful chamber works, masses, operas and so on). It took only a generation or so before many of Schubert’s Lieder had found their way into the repertoire. A number of these stunning vocal-piano settings subsequently inspired various composers to re-imagine Schubert’s original piano accompaniments as orchestral recreations, thereby heightening, or at the very least romanticizing, their dramatic potential.

While every song Schubert wrote was a gem, the four performed tonight have long been favorites of concert audiences and singers alike. From her spinning wheel—he is whirring of which runs the course of the song—the doomed Gretchen reflects on her love of Faust. After swooning over “sein Kuß”, his kiss, Gretchen’s mental stability unravels, reflected in the music’s rising intensity and changes of key, as Gretchen faces the hard reality that Faust will never be hers. Schubert’s Night and Dreams, among the most tranquil works to ever flow from his prodigious pen, offers dramatic contrast. The work remains pianissimo throughout, as we slumber in the gentle world of dreams. The mythological Ganymed was the most beautiful of mortals who Zeus abducts in order to have him as cup bearer of the gods. Goethe’s through-composed poem, which explores themes of beauty, love and the divine, avoids any direct references to the myth, while Schubert’s score features the sort of striking modulations of which the composer was so fond. We conclude with Stänchen, a lighthearted serenade. The guitar-inspired accompaniment provides the backdrop to this beautiful if frilly song, borrowed from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125
Instrumentation: piccolo, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle, bass drum and cymbals), strings, soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists and chorus
Composed: 1823-24
Premiered: Vienna, May 9, 1824, under the direction of the composer
Duration: about 75 minutes
Explore Columbus city parks and you will inevitably happen upon the formidable statue of Friedrich Schiller, the namesake of the German Village park who appears to be gazing longingly toward the brew pubs a few short blocks away on Front Street. Arguably the most important classical playwright of the German language, Schiller’s work was sought after by some of the greatest romantic composers, including Schubert, Brahms and Verdi, though none made Schiller the household name that Beethoven did. The “Ode to Joy”, Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s poem “An die Freude” in the choral finale of his Ninth Symphony, can be heard in Nintendo commercials, iconic films like A Clockwork Orange and Die Hard, and the start of the second season of television’s Everybody Loves Raymond, just to name a few commercial uses of the score. Ask any nine-year-old budding pianist to play something and chances are, they’ll regale you with the Beethoven/Schiller Ode).

The gestation period for the Ninth is, without a doubt, the longest Beethoven experienced with any of his symphonies—the composer began thinking of setting Schiller’s words at least as early as 1793, years before his very first symphony. In 1808, he anticipated the Ninth’s fusion of chorus and orchestra in his Choral Fantasy, among Beethoven’s more bizarre creations where strains of what would become the “Ode” are plainly evident. And around the time of the Eighth Symphony (1812), Beethoven began jotting down ideas for a setting of Schiller’s “An die Freude”, which he considered incorporating into a D minor symphony. Six years later, in the wake of the Hammerklavier Sonata for piano, Beethoven finally appeared to make some headway, jotting down material for the first movement and snippets of ideas for the other three (at which point he was considering a purely instrumental last movement). But projects like the monumental Diabelli Variations for piano kept drawing his focus elsewhere. Finally, between 1821-23 he got to work in earnest and by May of 1824, the Ninth was finally ready for its long-anticipated premiere (the concert also featured the overture to The Consecration of the House and three movements of his monumental mass, the Missa Solemnis). To be sure, the D minor Symphony had cost its composer tremendous labor, and nowhere is this more evident than in the melody of the Ode. To us, that tune plunked out by many a young piano student seems so natural and simple, but even getting this melody down in its final form was the result of great trial and error, as the sketch pages bear witness.

For Beethoven, as with Mozart before him, the key D minor was one associated with turbulent expression, as evidenced by Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s own ‘Tempest’ Sonata, two works engulfed in dark, D minor drama. Yet the somewhat mystical opening of the Ninth Symphony, marked Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, belies both the intensity and the tremendous breadth of what’s to follow over the course of the next hour and a quarter. There is neither a defiant opening gesture like that at the start of the Fifth Symphony or a cheery opening like that which ushers in the Eighth. Rather, from hushed open fifths (A’s and E’s) emerge small two-note descending gestures that gradually flow together. Finally, sixteen bars in, the opening idea gives way to an explosive D minor statement of the principle theme by the entire orchestra. Much of what follows is comprised of continued small gestures, fingerprints of Beethoven’s late-life compositional style. Beethoven forgoes the repeat of the exposition here for the first, and last, time in a symphony; when the opening statement returns, it does so in B-flat, which quickly gives way to an expansive development, complete with a fugato based on several subjects. The recapitulation moves from the mysterious to something Sir Donald Tovey described as “terrible and triumphant…instead of a distant nebula we see the heavens on fire.”

A scherzo and trio follow, and though its general outlines are reminiscent of the classical minuet and trio, with Beethoven nothing is as it once was. Marked Molto vivace, the opening section is cast in triple time, but Beethoven’s accents often throw emphasis onto unexpected parts of the bar, displacing the usual weight on the first beat. Furthermore, not only is its structure built of a full-scale sonata form, but the movement commences as a fugue. Listen for Beethoven’s dramatic use of silence, his novel orchestration (keep an ear out for the timpani), the score’s explosive dynamic range and phrases that seem to disintegrate, all techniques the composer exploited in his maturity. In the contrasting D major trio, which shifts to duple meter, the trombones enter for the first time. The return of the scherzo is markedly shorter because Beethoven eliminated all repeats; rather, the movement concludes with a brief return of the trio before a being eclipsed by a violently curt coda.

The Adagio molto e cantabile is one of Beethoven’s most expressive symphonic creations. Cast in double variation form, two ideas are presented at the outset—the first, an achingly beautiful melody ushered in by the violins and the second, another passionate idea also spun out by the violins—now in ¾ time—featuring lovely counterpoint and echoes in the upper winds. What follows are increasingly elaborate melodic and rhythmic variations of both ideas. The final variations are marked by loud fanfares and the movement closes with a heartfelt coda.

The last movement explodes onto the scene with high drama—a tumultuous opening that moves into an orchestral recitative featuring the cellos and basses alone. But what happens next is unprecedented and even Beethoven had difficulty describing the architecture of this finale. The first two sections are clear enough, if wholly unique in the literature: Beethoven first reviews earlier movements of the score with orchestra alone—you will hear the distant strains from the very opening, cut short by the recitative, then echoes of the scherzo, and finally a brief return to the slow movement. Then the Ode is gently introduced by the cellos before the rest of the orchestra joins in. Beethoven now repeats the entire roadmap, beginning with the dramatic opening bars, yet now featuring a “proper” vocal version of the recitative. And with the entrance of the bass soloist we finally understand the review of earlier movements: “Oh friends, not these tones…” Beethoven has dismissed earlier ideas in favor of a “new” one, “all people become brothers”, as expressed in the Ode to Joy (which the chorus now sings).

The remainder of the movement flows as an amalgam of various elements, including theme and variations, sonata form and a series of interludes but its architecture is fluid and almost impossible to pigeonhole. There are fugues, interludes, a Turkish march…in short, Beethoven is pulling out all the stops, embracing the universe in sound as expressed in Schiller’s poetry, from the earthworm to the canopy of stars in the heavens, cherubs and a loving creator. Certainly, ideas so all-encompassing could never be rendered by way of any traditional formula.

At the premiere, Beethoven actually shared the stage with the theater’s music director, from whom the orchestra took its cue. But at the closing bar, Beethoven, unable to hear the orchestra in front of him, continued to beat time. When he was turned around, Beethoven was met with tremendous applause, hands and kerchiefs waving, hats flying into the air, the audience enthusiastically embracing “their” composer’s latest musical gift. But Beethoven’s message was much larger than that found in the pages of the score. It was one of universal brotherhood, a concept that may well be even more meaningful today than it was in the world of Beethoven and Schiller nearly two centuries ago.

© Marc Moskovitz