Beethoven’s Ninth

Beethoven’s Ninth
October 24, 2015

6:30 p.m. – Know the Score | 7:30 p.m. – Concert
Bill Heard Theatre, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts

Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 “Choral”

Beethoven and Mahler are juxtaposed in two masterpieces that explore the depths of the human soul, from deepest despair to triumphant joy.  This concert features four incredible soloists as well as Columbus State University Choral Union, Auburn University Chamber Choir, and LaGrange College Chamber Choir.


Leah Partridge, soprano
Phyllis Pancella, mezzo-soprano
Richard Clement, tenor
Reginald Smith, Jr., baritone

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Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) – Gustav Mahler

Born July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia – Died May 18, 1911, in Vienna, Austria

This work was first performed on January 29, 1905, by the orchestra of the Vienna Opera and baritone Friedrich Weidemann with the composer conducting. It is scored for baritone or mezzo-soprano soloist, piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

Deaths of children, although horrifying, were common occurrences until well into the twentieth century. During Mahler’s childhood, seven of his thirteen siblings died in infancy. His younger brother, Ernst, died when Gustav was fourteen. On July 12, 1907, Gustav and Alma Mahler’s five year old daughter, Maria, succumbed to scarlet fever and diphtheria. That Mahler was drawn to Friedrich Rückert’s set of 428 poems entitled Kindertotenlieder is not surprising.

Rückert was born in 1788 – seventy-two years before Mahler – and never reached the level of fame of Goethe, Schiller, or Heine. However, his work was a favorite of Schubert, Schumann, and Mahler. The Mahler work known as Rückert Lieder represent his first setting of the poet’s work and are disparate in subject matter. He then turned to the Kindertotenlieder cycle in 1901, a year before he married Alma Schindler. The first two songs were completed before the wedding. The completed cycle would be his final vocal work, except for the Eighth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. By the time the piece was finished in 1904, the couple had two daughters.

Alma Mahler’s memoirs provide an interesting window into life in the Mahler household, although it paints a more-sympathetic-than-life picture of its author. She claimed that she was furious that Gustav could write such a piece with two children of his own.

“I can understand setting such frightful words to music if one had no children, or had lost those one had. Moreover, Friedrich Rückert did not write these harrowing elegies out of his imagination: they were dictated by the cruelest loss of his whole life. What I cannot understand is bewailing the deaths of children, who were in the best of health and spirits, hardly an hour after having kissed and hugged them. I exclaimed at the time, ‘For heaven’s sake, don’t tempt Providence!’”

Maria Mahler died three years later.

The Kindertotenlieder are remarkable in many ways. Mahler’s orchestra here is one of the smallest he ever used – his only brass is a pair of horns. It is essentially a chamber orchestra. Mahler’s vast harmonic palette is reduced to a relatively small range of keys, perhaps to represent the stagnant psychological nature of grief. Each of the five songs include elements of symbolism that show the parents’ struggle to cope with the loss of a child (or children, as four of the songs imply).

“Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” (“Now the sun will rise as brightly [as if no misfortune had occurred in the night]”) opens with two solo instruments – oboe and horn – in counterpoint. The soloist enters with a text about sunrise, but the solo line descends as if a psychological darkness holds sway.

As the movement progresses, there are two different sound worlds that become clear – representing night and day, grief and consolation. Perhaps most poignant is the use of the glockenspiel to sound a death knell and simultaneously represent the bells found in an infant’s crib.

“Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen” (“Now I see well why with such dark flames [your eyes sparkled so often]” presents a different side of sorrow. There is little harmonic resolution and plenty of unrest. The opening of this song is very similar to that of the first song and with the use of horn with the soloist, and both poems deal with images of light.

“Wenn dein Mütterlein” (“When your mother steps into the doorway and I turn my head to see her, my gaze does not alight first on her face, but on the place nearer to the threshold there, where your dear face would be”]) depicts the child’s mother wandering in grief. Pizzicato bass notes may be heard as footsteps, but the ascending melody always turns around and descends to the same note at the end of each phrase and, therefore, covers no ground. This feeling of stasis adds a poignancy that no text could convey.

“Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen” (“Often I think that they have only stepped out [and that soon they will reach home again.]” is a song of denial in a bright major key. More than one musicologist has written that this song is about a failed attempt to return to normal life after such a terrible tragedy. The hopeful music of the opening cannot continue after the soloist enters.

Happiness is not possible. Only on the final verse can the soloist finish the last line of text.

“In diesem Wetter!” (“In this weather, in this windy storm [I would never have sent the children out]” makes the listener wonder if the storm is a meteorological one or a psychological one. Mahler’s full orchestra rages with gale force.

 This is music of forced resolution, because one must emerge from the experience or be conquered by it. Of course, the implication here is that the soon-to-be buried child will be “in this weather” once in the grave. At the bleakest moment, when to soloist sings the last statement of the line “They were carried outside – I could say nothing about it,” the work undergoes an incredibly poignant transformation.

 A shimmering ray of musical light – depicted by glockenspiel, piccolo, harp and cello harmonic playing – shines through like a beacon of hope. The storm departs and the work ends with a lullaby on the words, “In this weather, in this roaring, cruel storm, they rest as they did in their mother’s house: they are frightened by no storm, and are covered by the hand of God.”


Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, Choral – Ludwig van Beethoven

Born December 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany – Died March 26, 1827, in Vienna, Austria

This work was premiered on May 7, 1824, at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna, with Michael Umlauf conducting. It is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two, oboes, two, clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion, strings, SATB choir, and SATB soloists.

Of all the monolithic works of western musical history, perhaps no individual piece is the subject such adulation as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. His nine symphonies comprise probably the greatest body of work ever written in symphonic form. Even its composer was not able to outdo himself, leaving fragmentary sketches for a tenth symphony in disarray at his death.

The Ninth’s history is a multifaceted one. As early as 1793, the composer entertained the idea of setting Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 Ode to Joy. Potential settings of the poem included one for solo voice. He then used sections of the poem in his 1790 Cantata on the Death of Emperor Leopold II, and would again draw from the poem in the 1806 version of his opera, Fidelio. Beethoven’s attachment to this text was no accident. It is often forgotten that Bonn was a regular stop for refugees of the French Revolution. Schiller’s message of joy through universal brotherhood resounded loudly, resonating deeply in the soul of the young composer as he heard stories of oppression from those fleeing the battles.

As the years mounted, so did Beethoven’s deafness. His attraction to the text takes on a new facet. With his gradually withdrawal into a life of seclusion, Beethoven yearned for companionship, although he often purposely avoided it. Schiller’s text is a geselliges Lied (social song), and was meant to be sung by a group of friends while raising their glasses and pontificating on the meaning of happiness – in short, a drinking song. Therefore the poem’s meaning progressed over thirty years from an intimate ode for a small circle of friends, to a plea for the world to come together in one voice. To achieve this purpose, Beethoven trimmed the ninety-six lines of Schiller’s text down to around thirty – reordering stanzas and editing as needed. The introduction sung by bass soloist, is a setting of Beethoven’s own lines.

By the time Beethoven began work in earnest on the symphony in 1822, he was firmly entrenched in the austere style of his final period of composition. However, much of the music in the Ninth Symphony seems to be more related to the Eighth Symphony from twelve years earlier than to the final string quartets. Despite this, there are moments of extreme experimentation. The opening of the first movement with its hollow sound of sustained fifths was certainly not common practice. Wagner would imitate it in Das Rheingold to represent the flow of the Rhine. Mahler used a strikingly similar idea to open his first symphony. Also innovative is Beethoven’s recall of the principal theme of previous movements just before the first vocal entrance in the finale. Of course, the use of voices in a symphony, although used occasionally after the Ninth, was revolutionary at the time.

The opening of the first movement sneaks up on the listener, as the sustained notes seem to have no beginning. Fleeting hints of melody spring from within the textures, eventually coalescing into the rhythmically-defined fortissimo theme and revealing the key of D minor for the first time.

Many secondary themes reveal themselves only to be transformed, as Beethoven’s masterful abilities become apparent in an extensive development section.

After the themes return in the recapitulation, a massive coda decisively ends the movement.

Beethoven’s scherzo follows with its famous rhythmic hammered motif.

A fleet-footed fugue follows, played softly but interrupted by several loud interjections, most notably by the timpani. A legato theme contrasts with the quick fugue.

The Adagio molto e cantabile is a double variation – one based on two themes. Transcendently beautiful, the movement is full of spirituality.

The heart and soul of the ninth is in its finale. The movement opens with an apocalyptic fanfare, full of clashes and urgency, only to be answered by the cellos and double basses.

This recitative, traditionally an operatic device for setting conversations to music, uses speech-like rhythms in an ingenious dialogue with the rest of the orchestra. Within the recitative, the orchestra interjects thematic recollections of the previous three movements.

Upon completion, the orchestra finally introduces the famous Ode to Joy theme and adapts it through three pastoral variations.

The fanfare returns and the bass soloist enters with the recitative previously heard in the low strings. On the words “O friends, not these sounds,” he sings the Ode to Joy theme, which is then taken up by the chorus.

After two variations and a brief codetta, Beethoven jokingly sets the theme as a puckish Turkish march, complete with cymbals and triangle.

The tenor soloist joins. In the slow and stately andante maestoso that follows, the chorus evokes a call for universal brotherhood with an expressive new theme doubled in the trombone – an instrument traditionally associated with the voice of God in sacred music of the day. The music suddenly rushes into an allegro tempo as the chorus enters in 6/4 time. The meter changes again as the soloists enter, soon to be joined by chorus on the words Alle Menschen (All mankind).

The soloists again break away, this time in a florid simultaneous cadenza. Rhythmic activity boils over as all forces join together for one final grand statement of the Ode to Joy theme, bringing this monument of music to an electrifying conclusion.

The deaf Beethoven, who stood next to the conductor during the premiere flailing his arms madly while leading his own imaginary orchestra’s sounds, had to be turned around to see the audience’s warm applause.


©2015 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin


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