performed by Rudolf Serkin and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa, or below with Serkin and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Choir under Rafael Kubelik
You may wish to print another text, as the text like the music was written very quickly … Still with another set of words I want the word kraft [“strength”] to be kept or one similar to it in its place.
Beethoven, to his publisher, regarding the text of the choral fantasy
(cover image by Jez Timms)
This piece, as ad-hoc a composition as it is, which we shall of course discuss, also bears a degree of grandness, of extravagance, and of joy, all of which I think really embody what Beethoven accomplished in his career.
But first, a little bit of backstory.
We’ve already gotten through most of the pieces of music that were premiered on that monstrous program for the concert on December 22, 1808. The concert lasted around four hours, and included the premieres of his fifth and sixth symphonies, parts of the C major mass, a concert aria featuring soprano, and the fourth piano concerto (not in that order).
As if this weren’t a long enough evening, Beethoven decided there needed to be something to close the evening in a suitably grand manner, for how do you top what had previously been performed? As the piece de resistance, a sort of monstrous encore, the composer devised a piece that combined all the forces of the works on the program: orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists, and piano.
The piece was written hurriedly, perhaps only a few weeks before the concert was to be held, and, as the opening quote stated, the text wasn’t terribly appealing to many people. In fact, there’s even some disagreement as to who actually penned the text. Unfortunately for the magnificence of the piece as we can enjoy it today, insufficient preparation made the premiere something of a disaster. However, the opening of the piece (which thankfully survives) feels like walking into a room where something was already in progress, catching the cadenza just as it starts, and indeed, Beethoven acted as soloist for this performance and improvised this opening passage. It would be the last time he would appear as soloist with an orchestra.
A look at the way the work is tracked in recordings, or otherwise marked, shows the various sections of the piece. Sometimes the opening piano passage is a separate track, since they are actually two separate movements, as follows:
- Finale. Allegro – Meno allegro (Allegretto) – Allegro molto – Adagio ma non troppo – Marcia, assai vivace – Allegro – Allegretto ma non troppo quasi andante con moto »Schmeichelnd hold und lieblich klingen« – Presto
Yes, that is all one finale, with all the changes in tempo and mood.
We could go through all the business of how the piece progresses and contrasts, with its C major and minor and all the rest, but just listen to it. You’ll get it. As a fantasia, it’s not necessarily a strict theme-and-variations work, but does work along similar lines. Wikipedia says of the piece:
The work includes a sequence of variations on a theme that is widely felt to be an early version of a far better known variation theme, namely the one to which Beethoven set the words of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in his Ninth Symphony.
Indeed, the likeness is unmistakable, and it may perhaps be that modern listeners enjoy this piece by association to the later, far grander, even spiritual, ninth symphony, which had obviously at that time not yet been composed.
This piece is grand in its own way, though. I could be wrong, and I’m sure there’s something somewhere that I’m not aware of, but only two pieces come to mind that feature a piano soloist and chorus alongside an orchestra: Busoni’s piano concerto (in five movements, with the choir, all male, only in the finale), and Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, op. 60, and even then the chorus isn’t always included.
So in that manner, with all these forces, a chorus, a piano soloist, vocal soloists… it hits on so many of the things that we think of in Beethoven’s career. There are certainly passages in this work that approach the intimacy of chamber music, but that’s obviously the least represented texture. This work, in the span of only 20 minutes, gives us such a brilliant glimpse, to my mind, into what Beethoven really was, the greatness and magnificence of which he was capable. This is of course due in part to the likeness of the iconic ‘ode to joy’ theme, but we can see even in this way that he was working toward that magnificent theme. We have an earlier version, already inspired and uplifting, appearing a decade and a half before that ninth symphony.
Is there anything here not to enjoy? I wrote about the triple concerto (piano, violin, cello) already more than a year and a half ago, as the (almost) first post of 2017. It has a kind of extravagance, with three soloists (essentially a concerto for piano trio), but to me, only in numbers. It cannot even begin to compete with the glory and splendor of what Beethoven accomplishes here. Listen, enjoy, be moved by not only the opulence and richness but the artistry and power of this work, although perhaps by the end of such a huge concert, in a cold hall, with insufficient performance time, the end result may have been less moving for those privileged enough to be there for the premiere in person.
We’re working toward something really fantastic next week, also Beethoven related, so I hope you’re enjoying what we have from him so far. Please stay tuned for four more Beethoven pieces, and thank you so much for reading.