Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is, of course, one of the most famous pieces of music ever recorded. Who hasn't heard the "Ode to Joy?" Which young piano student doesn't learn the melody?
Of the many reasons for the fame of the Ninth Symphony, however, the most curious is the presence of a choir. Not only was this a new addition to the symphonic style, it was also new to Beethoven. In a time when opera was the rage - and in the shadow of the master of opera, Mozart - Beethoven curiously composed only one opera (which was not successful) and a spattering of songs. In short, lyrics were not his forte, and composing for the human voice was essentially unknown to him. How odd, then, that his perhaps best known melody (up there with the opening of the 5th Symphony) is one of the very few he wrote for the voice.
Why did Beethoven compose so little music for the voice? Why is the Ninth Symphony, on the contrary, the Chorale Symphony? Those questions hardly seem to address the problem I've been dancing around for the last month, but I believe they are actually at the heart of the question. Great Music ought, I believe, to speak for itself, and no composer is as systematic in his rejection of lyric - in, we might say, his elevation of pure, instrumental music - as Beethoven. His symphonies and sonatas claim that they are comprehensible to the musical mind without the attendant translation of singers and words. Their purpose, indeed, might be inexpressible except through music alone.
If any music is great, then, to my mind, this is a key ingredient: it must be the music which is great. Music with lyric may very well be great, but by removing the lyrics, we can find music pure, and see whether greatness is even possible. Indeed, the question, "Is there Great music?" should be reconstituted thus: "Is there music which speaks for itself, and which expresses something words cannot." Perhaps all music does that, perhaps only some. But Great music would almost certainly do it and do it well, expressing not "I'm extremely sad in a way words cannot express," but revealing, instead, we might say, what the non-linguistic root of sadness is. What, indeed, the spiritual, emotional, mythical, or animal root might be.
Because we are moving - by necessity - into the realm of pure music, words will almost certainly fail us soon. Nevertheless, let us push on a little further, so we can see what lies at the borderlands between language and music, and see whether that further realm is fallow or fertile.
So let's start with a piece. The Kreutzer Sonata. Not quite "early" Beethoven (whose music is notoriously similar to that of his mentor Haydn), but still fairly early in his life. The first movement, which I have linked to above, is a stunning adventure through what sounds, more than anything, like the frustrations of tremendous romantic desire. And yet also it could be a lover's quarrel. Either way, it is violent and intense, raging from major to minor and back again, displaying a dizzying give and take between the piano and violin that is not quite cooperative, but is not quite confrontational either.
I must confess that my interpretation of this piece is colored by two sources. Tolstoy wrote a short story called "The Kreutzer Sonata" about this very piece, and it is a dark and disturbing work about jealousy and violence in love. In addition, the movie "Immortal Beloved" places this piece centrally in its narrative, claiming that it is the result of a frustrated Beethoven when his carriage gets stuck in the mud, causing him to miss his rendezvous with his beloved.
Neither of those specific images, however, really captures the meaning of the piece, as I understand it. Rather, exactly what makes the Kreutzer great is that it can accurately be conveyed by two such disparate physical situations. Why can it do that? Because it is not limited by any words you can apply to it. The spiritual and emotional processes behind it - the feelings that it reveals to us - are expressible most completely exactly by sonata, and that same feeling can be traced to both Tolstoy's story and the movie.
I won't go into depth on the Kreutzer now - rather, I want to save for future posts exploration of Beethoven's works - so instead I can point out a couple other words that I find comparably profound, as further argument for Great Music.
Consider the Spring sonata as well.* While not as intense as the Kreutzer, the Spring is one of, I think, Beethoven's most intensely romantic works. Unlike much of his "romantic" music, the Spring is not rife with conflict or frustration, capturing instead the lighter and more playful side of love (the "Spring" side, if you will). I point to it as a contrast to the Kreutzer, and because it is also a violin sonata. It is worth finding violin sonatas by other composers and comparing them to Beethoven. No other composer comes close to his mastery of the interaction between violin and piano, if only because he is not afraid to understand the instruments as lover and beloved, rather than merely as instruments. Beethoven's violin sonatas have a built-in sexual tension that is unmatched elsewhere.
* In all four movements.
I've linked to this before, but here's Beethoven's Appassionata sonata in an excellent performance. This, like the Kreutzer, is an intense and almost violent work. Its title is telling, but "passionate" doesn't really explain the nature of the passion on display. And yet, listening to the appassionata, one cannot help but "get it" without really being able to say what it "gotten."
There are other pieces I could mention, but I want to jump forward to the 9th Symphony, since I think I've paved the way for my ultimate point.* What is fascinating about the 9th Symphony - as I mentioned at the outset - is that Beethoven puts a choir in the final movement. It's more than worth listening to the entire thing on the way to that choir, of course, because of how they make their entrance: "O Fruende, Nicht Diese Tone..."
* Karajan conducting.
"Oh friends, not these tones. Let us sing yet more joyfully." Beethoven wrote the opening to the choir's lines, and then borrowed the remainder from Schiller. Legend has it that he anguished over those opening lines, unsure whether to introduce Schiller's "Ode to Joy" by name, or to signal instead some of the key themes of the text to follow. He settled, instead, on looking back, "Not these tones." The 9th Symphony is in D minor, until this moment, at which point it switches to D Major.
What is important to remember, however, is that the choir does not sing right away in the final movement. Instead, the orchestra by themselves play exactly what the choir is about to sing. The meaning is already there, the choir is just there for clarification. Indeed, Beethoven is cautioning the listener not to take too seriously the lyrics, or at least to be a little critical of the deeper meaning. Which words does he, in the end, emphasize? Which sections are presented with some musical sarcasm? Humor? Sincerity?
I'll return to the 9th Symphony at some point - possibly in a recapitulation of my senior thesis at St. John's - but for now I want to point to this: Beethoven creates a whole realm of spiritual meaning in the body of his work, meaning that would be diminished by lyric. When he finally did incorporate lyrics into his music, in his final symphony, it was done with slyness and humor.
Perhaps that doesn't answer any of our questions about Great Music. For my part, I'm not sure there is a conclusive argument to be made about music, if only because we each have such different experiences. Nevertheless, there is a reason that musicologists and theorists study Beethoven and Mozart and Wagner (and even some non-Germans) so closely. Their music, if you can unlock your ear, speaks a language divine. Perhaps music of any genre can do that, but I wonder whether the complexity of the harmony in what is broadly called "classical" music isn't actually an essential part of that language, a part we too often leave out nowadays.
Either way, there is a modern conception that Beethoven and his ilk - those long-dead white men - wrote music that is boring. That is a terrible mistake. Whether you accept any of my premises, trust me on this: all of those stereotypes that we associate with classical music - old foagies sitting around listening to boring, fluffy violins while they smoke their pipes - are not true. Beethoven has more to do with what you listen to today than you think, and if that does not make his music great, it at the very least makes it important.