This weekend, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra plays the most important piece of music ever written.
Notice I didn’t say the most beautiful; that means anything from Gregorian chant to Bruno Mars, depending on your taste. Nor did I say most emotional, most spiritual or most moving, though it contends for all those titles.
But Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which premiered in May 1824, changed music forever. It’s no less meaningful today than it was at its premiere: It sings of hope after struggle, of mankind’s ability to rise above pain, of the value of universal brotherhood in a world that has seldom needed those messages so badly.
And you can hum the tunes, especially the catchy “Ode to Joy” that caps the finale. This isn’t a musical homework assignment to be endured. It rocks.
Orchestras occasionally add something shorter to fill out a concert, because the Ninth lasts between 65 and 75 minutes. But the CSO has programmed it alone under music director Christopher Warren-Green, and maybe that’s a good idea: It’s a universe in itself. (CSO trivia: When the orchestra made its first fully professional recording under Leo Driehuys in the 1980s, it chose Beethoven’s Ninth for a two-LP set, filling the remainder of disc two with Beethoven’s First.)
You can read many meanings into this symphony, especially the finale set to a poem by Friedrich Schiller.
The European Union used the Ode as a symbol of communion among nations. Presbyterian pastor Henry Van Dyke changed the words to “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee” for a hymn to God. Japanese orchestras treat the symphony as a New Year’s tradition. Writer Anthony Burgess and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick linked its scherzo to violent images in a young thug’s brain in “A Clockwork Orange.” Bright Eyes, aka Conor Oberst, uses the finale ironically in the angry song “Road to Joy.”
Without it, compact discs might not have run up to 80 minutes.
In the 1930s, Josef Stalin heard the Ode at a Soviet Congress and allegedly declared, “This is the right music for the masses … It ought to be heard in the smallest of our villages.” After a long tour of the Ninth to venues urban and remote, a government-approved critic wrote, “Poor Beethoven. For a hundred years, he has been homeless. Now he has at last found his true dwelling place, the only country where he is really understood and loved: the Soviet Union.”
So the symphony’s memorable and universally embraced. But what makes it important?
Without it, compact discs might not have run up to 80 minutes. A well-substantiated report claims Philips and Sony agreed on the length of their new invention by choosing Wilhelm Furtwangler’s 1951 live recording of the Ninth (which lasts 74 minutes) as a standard measure.
Without knowing this piece, Schubert would never have written his own hour-long Ninth Symphony.
The Ninth inspired Brahms, Bartok, Bruckner and others, who riffed on chunks of it in their compositions. Without knowing this piece, Schubert would never have written his own hour-long Ninth Symphony; Berlioz wouldn’t have dared the extravagant Symphonie Fantastique; Mahler (who sometimes reorchestrated Beethoven for bigger 20th-century orchestras) might not have composed his sublime Resurrection Symphony, which capped the CSO’s season last spring.
Beethoven revolutionized the string quartet and the piano sonata, but he made the greatest changes in length, structure and audacity in his symphonies. He may be the only genius whose mature symphonies (3 through 9) occupy different emotional worlds: mournfully heroic, warmly benign, fate-challenging, pastoral, dancelike, light-hearted and finally epic. They push players and singers to their limits, especially in the Ninth.
This is one of those pieces where conductors can be right in multiple ways.
Caroline Unger, the contralto at the premiere, gets credit for turning the deaf Beethoven toward the wildly applauding audience, which gave five standing ovations. In rehearsals, though, she asked him to make the work easier to sing; when he refused, she said, “Then we must go on torturing ourselves in the name of God!” Beethoven requires four soloists and a huge chorus for perhaps 15 minutes of singing. The tenor and bass get moments in the spotlight, but the two women sing their larynxes off with hardly a solo line.
I last heard the Charlotte Symphony play this piece in May 2013, when Warren-Green took it through many moods: nobility in the opening movement, galloping restlessness in the second, relaxed mellowness in the third, holy frenzy in the fourth. This is one of those pieces where conductors can be right in multiple ways, from Charles Munch’s wild ecstasy to Karl Bohm’s titanic drama. (The latter takes 17 minutes longer than the former.)
But what really makes Beethoven’s Choral Symphony great – the thing that makes all masterpieces great – is that it can change people who experience it.
That’s what German chancellor Angela Merkel must have hoped when she invited Donald Trump, British prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron to a Hamburg concert during a recent G20 summit. Whether they absorbed Beethoven’s message of compassion and brotherhood remains to be seen, but it’s there for anyone to hear.
This performance: The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Belk Theater, 110 N. Tryon St. Tickets are $14.75-$99. 704-972-2000; charlottesymphony.org.
Essential recordings: Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra for spiritual intensity, George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra for precision and energy, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for a vital, scaled-down look at what Beethoven may have intended. (If pressed to take one set of Beethoven symphonies to a deserted island, I might pick Harnoncourt’s.)