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August 11, 2012 / C. J. Sperling

Beethoven 9th Symphony – A Totally Neutral Rant

In Germany, the 9th has been tought to be The Culmination Of All Music by generations of conservative teachers, and still is by some.

In spite of having grown up with classical music, I never really liked it.

It’s not a “Beethoven symphony” problem. Years ago, I used to play a game with a friend: one of us would whistle an arbitrary motif of an arbitrary Beethoven symphony movement, all unimportant counterpoints etc. included; the other one had to tell what it was. (We had to exclude the 9th, as I would have almost invariably lost there).

It’s not a “late Beethoven” problem. I love e.g. the op.110 & op.111 piano sonatas.

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Much of my dislike is probably “antipathy by association”: I can’t think of another classical piece that is so extremely coupled with TV images of politicians unsuccessfully pretending to have moral values.

For me and my prejudices, it makes perfect sense that
– Karajan made transcriptions of Ode an die Freude so it could be used as European Council hymn (among others, he arranged it for brass ensemble – well, he assumedly got paid well, so why care about artistic integrity…);
– “white supremacy” Rhodesia took the Ode an die Freude melody as national anthem;
– the last act of socialist German Democratic Republic was a concert of Beethoven 9th;
– the London corporation & security games a.k.a “Olympia” were opened with the 9th;
and so on, and so on.

It has become a prime example of representational music. Music that is mostly played because the powers that be need “some culture” for a big event. Music for people who don’t know much about music, but believe that European classical music is a priori better music, no matter what. Music for people who “enjoy culture”, but only each sunday afternoon 4pm-5.30pm, and the children have to attend, too. “Pour Elise” for the sophisticated upper class.

(I have to admit that there are learnéd people who like the piece for good reasons. But I don’t think they even account for 1% of all Beethoven 9th fans.)

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So, from my completely objective point of view, which naturally is in no way whatsoever influenced by how the piece is used today, I herewith decree the following well-balanced Absolute Truths:

The 9th is too long. Its contents is diluted.

In the 9th, the “small parts” form just doesn’t work. Some of this, some of that, no convincing thread.

The 9th is pompous. Fit for those “official” uses mentioned above.

The inclusion of lyrics (singers/chorus) in 4th movement is either a makeshift to keep it all running, or a main content with an introduction that stretches over three movements – faaaaaar to long.

To sum it up:

Beethoven 9th is heavily overrated.

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And now I go listen to Bernstein’s Eroica.

Or to AC/DC. “Dirty deeds done dirt cheap”. Great album.

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2 Comments

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  1. vxx / Aug 13 2012 5:10 am

    I herewith decree the following well-balanced Absolute Truth: You’re an idiot.

    The Ninth Symphony is a culmination of the ideals of the enlightenment as interpreted by Beethoven. The fact that the symphony has been co-opted by nefarious regimes and organizations only strengthens it’s message, since the dark forces in the world always try to corrupt what is good and pure. You also conveniently leave out examples of how the piece has inspired dissidents and freedom lovers the world over, but that doesn’t fit your glib attempt at denigrating an important work of art.

    The length of the Symphony varies a great deal depending on who conducts it. I would suggest you inform yourself and listen to Gardiner’s version. He hits the right tempos and the work takes flight.

    Pompous? You could say that about any large scale work. The criticism has no meaning. And what the hell is “small parts” form? God you are daft. It’s called “Theme and Variations”. Ever heard of it? And it works quite well. And just so you know, the Ode them is actually present in different permutations throughout the whole score. Beethoven didn’t just tack it on as an afterthought. And by the way, it’s a “poem”, not “lyrics”. This isn’t some two bit pop song.

    Anyway, I know it’s fashionable these days to try to come off as an intellectual by shitting on the works of the DWEMs, but your argument blows. Try to find an original way to be edgy.

    Yours,

    vxx

    • C. J. Sperling / Aug 13 2012 4:12 pm

      > “Theme and Variations”. Ever heard of it?

      Isn’t that this cheap method of having a good idea that is by far not long enough to fill the whole piece, not really knowing how to develop it, and subsequently repeat the idea with alterations or in different flavours, leaving it to the listener to choose the best version? Jazz players employ the same technique, I was told.

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