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A descriptive essay describing the magnificence of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

By: Andrew Rao

Ludwig van Beethoven is the world’s greatest composer, the genius who led the world into the sublime and luminescent Romantic Era of Western music. He completely revolutionized music. But there is one piece for which he gained international fame: Symphony no.9 in d minor (Choral), 0p. 125. This symphony penetrates every listener, but each listener hears it uniquely.

Around 1813, Beethoven entered his Late Period, a period marked by choral pieces, a style of “intimated expression,” and pieces with nods to the composers of old, such as Bach or Vivaldi. He produced many beautiful pieces during this period, but one piece truly rises above the rest. This piece was the composer’s most innovative, captivating, and magnificent piece yet, combining silken melodies, passionate passages, and masterful choral writing. Listeners have said Beethoven wrote the piece from the heart. It revolutionized choral and symphonic writing and paved the way for pieces by Mahler and Brahms. This masterpiece was Beethoven’s famed Ninth Symphony. The name “Choral” comes from fourth movement that uses a large and powerful choir singing Ode to Joy, a poem composed by Fredrich Schiller, the German philosopher, historian, and poet. The Ninth became the first symphony ever to incorporate voice. It premiered in the Karntnertortheater in Vienna, with soloists Henriette Sontag and Caroline Unger, and conductor Michael Umlauf. Beethoven himself was present, and the audience was pleased. It caused quite a bit of controversy though: whether the piece was a symphony or a choral piece, and whether the piece was too modern or creative.

The piece is divided into four beautiful movements, standard for a symphony, with each movement flowing into the next like a clear, blue river. The piece is so evocative that it conjures up random images of power in the listener. The first movement’s description is “Allegro ma non troppo,” or “fast but not overly so.” Composed in sonata form, the piece offers one short theme of fiery darkness played in variations throughout. The fifteen-minute piece begins with a dark ominous passage, evoking images of tumultuous storm clouds. A suspenseful pianissimo develops the dark mood of the passage, with interjections of tremolo from the strings as the lightning. Throughout, there is a call and answer between the strings and the woodwinds, as if there is a prevailing question that is never answered. The opening, along with other sections in the movement, resembles the tuning of an orchestra, played in fifths in descending order. A slow crescendo builds throughout this passage, stimulating irregular beats in the heart and tingling nerves on the skin. Then, as the crescendo reaches its climax, the first rays of the sun shine from the clouds. The cumulonimbus clouds part, replaced by the bright, magnificent sun infusing in the listener a sense of heroism. The fortissimo in the theme makes the listeners want to stand up and call for joy. The true anger and fire in Beethoven show in this passage, for while there is joy, the joy always transitions back into the dark passage. There are beautiful examples of counterpoint and descending scales like a river of lava flowing from a spewing, jagged volcano. The lava burns the listener and makes him wail for forgiveness. The cry is answered. The quiet, dark opening passages are repeated and the listener calms. But soon, the volcano erupts again, this time spewing fires directly from hell. The listener screams in agony and pain. The whole first movement is a torture device, delivering pain, then comfort, then stripping the comfort away and putting suffering in its place. That is the power of the first movement.

The second movement, “Scherzo, molto vivace, presto,” which means lively or fast, begins with sharp swords of lava, the same in the first movement. This movement is one of the most well-known pieces of music. The grand opening is in the same style as the prior movement, but does not waste its time with the meager development. It begins with the storm and lightning. Then, quickly, it falls into the scherzo promised in the description, a petite, lively march in triple time. It is much like the march of dwarves in their black caves of stone, marching with limestone on their backs, grunting this tune as they march. It still conveys the dark mood through nods to the ominous passages in the first movement, but with a silver lining in the cloud demonstrated by the almost joking variation of the first movement. It then falls back to the style of the first movement, with the scherzo increasing until the passion is not contained any longer, and is released in the form of forte. This movement also contains a lighter theme, one of jerks and sways with constant rumbles from the bass drum. It then develops into the bright mood of grandiosity, when the conductor leading this piece usually cannot hold in the excitement any longer and emits a bright, beaming smile, a smile only seen with this piece.

“Adagio molto e cantabile,” or “very slowly and singfully,” is an inadequate description the angelic beauty of the third movement. So many different images appear all at once in a flood of passion. This movement is the elf, bow in hand, sees, standing atop the elven watch post, staring at the orange foliage below, and the dim lights of the crystal elf city built above a blue stream of pure magic. This piece is a beach with white, hot sand overlooking the deep, blue expanse, going on for infinite distances, surpassing time and space. This piece is a tall, green forest, with trees of all sorts, and a soft ground of bark and dirt. The mystical mist envelopes the beholder and intoxicates him. This is the perfect environment, complete with crisp air and rapturous bird calls. The soft sunbeams pass through the openings in the leaves and breaks into the colors of the spectrum, due to the prism-like clarity of the mist. This is the essence of the third movement of this monumental symphony. It evokes the most primitive, yet complex feelings in the listener, and mixes such a plethora of emotions. The listener wants to cry out, but does not know what for. The piece passes to all the neurons, penetrates the brain’s defenses, and envelopes the soul. This movement embodies the perfection in humans, and all they strive for.

Beethoven composed the last movement as a bow to Handel, and the style of this piece embodies the magnificent Baroque music of Handel’s. At the time when Beethoven composed this piece, he was trying to represent the composers of old in his music, and this piece is the perfection of this goal. The movement also echoes the previous movements, such as when the choir plays off each other and asks the same question that was introduced in the first movement, in which the instruments had the same call and answer effect. The last movement, although devil-like in nature because of the overall mood in the beginning, shows what Beethoven was feeling when writing this piece: Universal Brotherhood. The grandeur in the end surpasses all boundaries. It reflects the notion that music has no boundaries and is a similarity in all humans. The grandeur and magnificence opens the mind and reveals to us the expanse of the human race. We are infinitesimally small under the power and will of the fourth movement. It is this movement that incorporates the choral aspect promised in the title, and Schiller’s stirring poem. This movement is the epitome of the Earth; its beauty and might is unmatched. This movement reveals the nature of Beethoven and of all mankind.

The legacy Beethoven left is truly the greatest gift the human race has ever heard. The genius of this work is unmatched and will be sung of hundreds of years ahead. This piece is an inspiration to us all and shows us the possibility of achieving the impossible. The symphony Beethoven wrote shows us that if the love is great enough, god-like achievements can be made.

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