Schubert’s “Great” Ninth Symphony

schubertChairSymphony No. 9…Throughout music history, this title has occupied a mythic place in the collective imagination. The symphonic output of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák, and Mahler culminated with a ninth symphony. In one way or another, all of these works, written in the final years of their composers’ lives, move beyond the ordinary into strange, mysterious and transcendent territory. They stand as awe-inspiring musical revelations.

To be fair, some of these composers wrote slightly more or less than nine symphonies. Anton Bruckner died without completing the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Yet, as the final, soft chords of its “Farewell to Life” Adagio fade away, the symphony feels strangely complete. When Franz Schubert died at the tragically young age of 31, he left behind a piano score for what would have become his Tenth Symphony. Sketched during the final weeks of Schubert’s life, the score wasn’t authenticated until the 1970s. Brian Newbould attempted to complete and orchestrate the symphony (listen here). Gustav Mahler completed the first, haunting Adagio movement of a Tenth Symphony before he died in 1911.

Arnold Schoenberg captured the mythic aura of the “ninth symphony” in this excerpt from an essay about Mahler:

It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Which brings us back to Schubert’s Ninth…Sketched during the summer of 1825, a year after the completion of Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony, the “Great” C major Symphony was a radical departure from the small-scale elegant charm of Schubert’s earlier classical symphonies. The nickname, “The Great” was intended to differentiate the work from the “Little” Symphony No. 6 in C major. Schubert’s Ninth rose to the new, heroic scale of Beethoven’s symphonies. But while Beethoven’s music developed in bursts of short motivic cells, Schubert, the composer of over 600 songs, tended to perceive music melodically.

Perhaps due to its length and the technical demands it placed on musicians, the Ninth Symphony was neglected in the immediate years after Schubert’s death. It wasn’t until 1838, ten years after the composer’s death, that Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript and brought it to Felix Mendelssohn, who conducted a performance at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig on March 21, 1839. Schubert’s Ninth Symphony would serve as a profound inspiration for Schumann’s own symphonic aspirations.

A Brief Listeners’ Guide

The first movement opens with an expansive introduction which contains a miniature exposition, development and recapitulation, suggesting Sonata form within the movement’s larger Sonata form structure. The opening theme, which returns triumphantly in the culminating bars of the coda, first emerges as a solitary line played by the horns. As the music develops, allow your ear to drift down to the pizzicato pulse in the low strings. Feel the motion. Stay tuned to the increasing complexity of this sparkling underlying rhythmic motor and the occasional “three against two” rhythms.

Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is full of musical conversations between groups, or “choirs” of instruments. Listen to the way the theme is passed around the orchestra between 0:56 and 3:32 in the clip below. Consider the personas suggested by each group of instruments. The trombones, long associated with the supernatural, rise to a new level of prominence in this symphony. Up until this point, trombones had usually remained in the background, outlining chords. In the Ninth Symphony, for the first time, the three trombones function melodically, adding a powerful and heroic new voice to the mix (6:24, 8:10 and 11:45 in the recapitulation).

Key relationships are also important in this music. In Schubert’s case these often involve modulations built on thirds. Listen for those incredible moments when we’re suddenly whisked off to a surprising new key (the exposition’s second theme at the 5:14 mark, the beginning of the development section at 5:15 and the passage between 10:38 and 10:47).

Here is Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden:

  1. Andante. Allegretto ma non troppo, Più moto (0:00)
  2. Andante con moto (14:42)
  3. Scherzo. Allegro vivace -Trio (30:36)
  4. Allegro vivace (41:33)

The second movement begins with a jaunty melody which alternates between A minor and C major. But just beneath the surface, an interesting drama is about to unfold. The music suggests a subtle sense of impending conflict and danger. At 16:19 we hit a “brick wall” and the music falls back into line. This musical stop sign occurs throughout the movement and each time the music retreats…until it doesn’t. The intense conflict comes to a head at the movement’s climax (23:48), where we’re suddenly thrust over the edge into new, ferocious territory. At this moment, we hear sounds which would have been unimaginable in an elegant classical symphony. When it’s over there’s a terrifying moment of silence…and then the music resumes. As you listen to the conclusion of the second movement, consider whether this ominous sense of conflict has been resolved, or if it has simply subsided to return another day.

The final movement opens with flourishes which may bring to mind the trumpet calls of Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Keep listening and you may hear echoes of the Ode to Joy from the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony…a fitting spiritual connection for two earth shatteringly powerful ninth symphonies.

Featured Recordings

Here are a few prominent recordings of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Please share your thoughts about the music and your own favorite recordings in the comment thread below.

Ten Tips for Youth Orchestra Students

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the 2007 BBC Proms

At its best, orchestra playing is a unique combination of artistry and technical craft. It’s a skill which develops over time. As musicians play together, they develop increasing sensitivity and cohesiveness. With the help of a visionary conductor, a disparate group of highly skilled individuals is forged into a team.

Whether you’re a member of a student ensemble or an amateur performing in a community orchestra, here are a few orchestra playing tips to consider:

  1. Know how your part fits. Preparation goes beyond learning the notes. Be sure to listen to recordings of the piece you’re playing. Understand how your part fits into the whole. Pay attention to sections where the tempo or dynamics change.
  2. Feel the rhythm. Practice with a metronome and pay attention to the subdivisions within larger beats. When playing in the orchestra, feel a sense of collective rhythm. Be careful not to rush, especially in difficult fast passages. Even when it’s fast, you often have more time than you think you have, so fill out every beat. Anchor on important beats. Organize and group notes in ways which allow them to flow naturally. Carefully place pizzicatos so they don’t speak early. For soft pizzicatos consider just touching the string with the tip of your finger and release. Don’t forget to breathe.
  3. Use multiple senses. Imagine how you want the music to sound as you see the notes on the page. Listen to what’s happening around you. If you’re a string player, use peripheral vision to keep track of the section leader’s bow, and other bows around you. Make sure you’re in the same part of the bow as the leader and try to match bow speed. And, of course, watch the conductor.
  4. Bring a pencil, eraser and mute. 
  5. Pay attention to balance. Many students would be surprised to hear how softly professional string players can play. A soft dynamic in orchestra repertoire is generally much softer than the same dynamic in solo repertoire. It also requires a different tone color. If someone else in the orchestra has a solo line (usually in the woodwinds or brass), get out of the way and make sure the soloist doesn’t have to force to be heard.
  6. Play for the team. Always be mindful that you’re part of a collective sound. Never try to stick out. Listen to the players around you and blend in terms of sound and intonation.
  7. “Music Police” kill the music. If you hear a mistake, don’t point it out to your colleague. They probably also heard it and will try their best to not repeat it. “Music police” can create a debilitating and backstabbing atmosphere which kills real music making. Never react to a mistake, especially in a performance. Just stay in the “zone” of the piece.
  8. Be ready when the conductor is ready. It’s okay to drop out to mark an occasional bowing change, but never make the conductor wait for you. Use direct eye contact with conductors whenever possible.
  9. Where you sit isn’t important. Every part is essential. If you’re playing second violin, you often have rich inner voices and supporting lines which need to be brought out. Because it’s harder to hear, the people in the back of a section have the hardest job in terms of precision.
  10. Enjoy the sound around you. 

“Mam-bo!”

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gave a memorable performance of the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the 2007 BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert HallYou can hear them play the full Symphonic Dances from West Side Story here.

The Mambo has transcended West Side Story to become a cultural icon. It’s almost like a twentieth century Ode to Joy.

Following the Ninth

A new film is out which explores the legacy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony, directed by Kerry Candaele, highlights the timelessness of the music and its political and social significance. From Pinochet’s Chile to Tiananmen Square to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the final movement’s Ode to Joy has emerged as a universal response to oppression. Its themes encompass freedom, liberation, and the universal brotherhood of man. Here is the trailer to the film:

Read about the film in this New York Times piece and watch this clip with Bill Moyers. Here are a few excerpts from reviews:

[quote]Thrilling…….smartly assembled and gracefully paced. -The New York Times[/quote]

[quote]The reach of Beethoven’s final great work extends way beyond the concert hall, as this stirring documentary attests.-Film Journal[/quote]

[quote] A captivating portrait of how art can serve as an inspiration for struggle for freedom….around the world.-Santa Cruz Sentinel[/quote]

Premiering in 1824, Beethoven’s Ninth, with chorus and elements of opera, was the most expansive symphony ever written. Composers who followed Beethoven would struggle to come to terms with this mysterious and daunting work.

The symphony emerges out of silence. We have the sense that the piece began sometime before the volume was turned up. In the last movement, Beethoven quotes the first three movements, musically negating each in favor of the Ode to Joy. In this way, the final movement moves to a higher plane, transcending everything which came before.

We’ll give Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony the full Listeners’ Club treatment at some point in the future. For now, enjoy this performance by Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Also check out Leonard Bernstein’s historic performance celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Keep an eye out for the movie and consider the ways in which the Ninth Symphony’s powerful universal themes still have meaning today.