Beethoven’s Ninth Conveys Joy of Overcoming

Yutaka Sado conducts Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 “Choral” in Osaka in December last year.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 has long been beloved music for the year-end season in Japan. The atmosphere surrounding the symphony, “Choral,” is particularly special this year, as Dec. 16 marks the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Although today the symphony is praised as art for all humankind, it somehow received disastrous reviews at the time of its premiere. Why was that?

The symphony’s nickname, Choral, comes from the fact that a chorus is employed to sing “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) in the fourth and final movement. It was the first symphony in the history of Western music to employ such a large chorus. When it premiered in Vienna on May 7, 1824, Beethoven was 53. He had already lost his hearing and was just three years away from his death.

The 2006 film “Copying Beethoven” describes a famous episode from the premiere of the symphony. Beethoven stands on the podium and conducts the premiere, but having already lost his hearing, he cannot hear the roaring applause from the audience immediately after the performance. He realizes it only after turning around to see a standing ovation. Slowly, his face reveals an ecstatic expression and he opens his arms.

This dramatic highlight is based on historical fact — with some retouching. What happened thereafter was unfortunate.

Financial failure

The premiere was a financial failure because of the high production costs. Beethoven reportedly got angry and verbally abused those involved. The second performance, which took place half a month later, could not fill the auditorium and left him in the red. A German music newspaper at the time wrote that the fourth movement should be shorter and easier to understand — a harsh criticism that, it wrote, Beethoven might have agreed with had he not lost his hearing.

After his death, the symphony was rarely performed for a long time.

This is partly because Vienna was in love with Italian operas at that time, showing little interest in symphonies. In addition, the musical notes Beethoven wrote in the Ninth Symphony’s score required virtuoso skills from musicians and high technical capability from instruments that the orchestras and orchestral instruments at the time could not handle. The symphony also needed a large instrumental force that was difficult to assemble. Apparently, one singer stepped down because they could not sing the score’s high notes during a rehearsal.

After completing the technically demanding Hammerklavier piano sonata, Beethoven dared to say that it would keep pianists busy and that they would be able to play it in 50 years.

Similarly, he was ahead of his time with the Ninth Symphony. It was 22 years later that Richard Wagner performed the symphony in an arrangement adjusted to the latest orchestral instruments that led to a rediscovery and new appreciation of the work. Wagner wrote that the first performance did not do justice to the melodies the composer wrote.

“The Ninth Symphony caught attention at first because it was the latest symphony by a star composer. Its reputation was established later, when the clarity of its messages and its universal appeal began attracting people,” said musicologist Akira Hirano, who is known for his research on Beethoven.

Performing the Ninth Symphony at the year-end has become a quintessentially Japanese tradition. One theory says an NHK employee who studied in Germany thought it was a German tradition to perform the symphony on New Year’s Eve, and played the symphony on the radio on Dec. 31, 1940, marking the beginning of the practice. It is also said that since orchestra members needed money for the year-end and New Year holidays, concerts featuring the symphony became rooted in Japan after World War II, helped by the booming popularity of the chorus.

Beyond the pandemic

This anniversary year has seen a flood of new books on Beethoven and re-releases of his music. Many Ninth Symphony concerts were scheduled toward the year-end, but they are under pressure to either be canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of Japan’s largest-scale concerts of the symphony is “Suntory Presents Ninth Symphony With a cast of 10,000,” which has been held in Osaka every December since 1983. This year, the organizers limited the number of chorus members, while inviting chorus lovers to submit videos of their own singing of the chorus in the fourth movement via the concert’s website. The videos will be played simultaneously with the symphony at the concert on Dec. 6.

“In a time like this, it’s important for many people to connect with each other. I’d like to show the world a Ninth Symphony that won’t succumb to the virus,” said Yutaka Sado, who will conduct the performance.

— Alle menschen werden bruder. (All the people become brothers)

— Seid umschlungen, millionen! (Be embraced, millions!)

Using the words of German poet Friedrich Schiller, Beethoven instilled in the music a message of peace and love of humanity. Hopefully the sounds of joy at overcoming painful history will ring out at the concert, for the benefit of humankind today as it faces the pandemic.

Loved throughout history

The symphony has continued to be loved across generations and beyond borders. Using wind instruments, strings and percussion as well as four solo singers and a chorus in four voices, it is on the largest scale of Beethoven’s nine symphonies and the longest among them, requiring about 70 minutes to perform.

Despite the technical challenges it poses, the symphony has been performed at various festivals and historic moments, because people are attracted to its magnificence and strong messages.

In 1972, the Council of Europe adopted “Ode to Joy” as the anthem of Europe to represent Europe as a whole. Since the member countries use various languages, only the melody was adopted for the purpose. Herbert von Karajan arranged the anthem for the European Union.

The German word “freude” (joy) in the lyrics of “Ode to Joy” was changed to “freiheit” (freedom) when the symphony was played in Germany under the baton of Leonard Bernstein on Christmas Day 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The symphony has been performed at sports events as well. Seiji Ozawa conducted “Ode to Joy” during the opening ceremony of the Nagano Winter Olympic Games in Japan in 1998. The performance was simultaneously played in five cities on five continents, including Beijing, New York and Berlin, sending wishes for peace in the lyrics to the whole world via satellite.