Back-story: Beethoven's revolutionary Ninth Symphony

Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2003

Beethoven was born to a family of court musicians in Bonn, Germany, on Dec. 17, 1770. A virtuoso pianist, a violinist and a composer, he moved to Vienna, Austria, at the age of 20 with the support of a local prince. Vienna was the musical and cultural center of Europe, and Beethoven sought to become the star of court society.

It was the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Europe, and Beethoven was a product of the Enlightenment ideals. He was crushed when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.

"What made Beethoven most disappointed was that everything in Europe took this huge reactionary conservative turn," UAS professor and Juneau Symphony member Robin Walz said.

His Eighth Symphony, debuted in 1812, was the last work of his so-called "heroic period." He had trouble cracking the king's circle of Viennese society, and he grew increasingly frustrated. His quirky personality made him hard to connect with, he became more reclusive and he was fighting deafness - which began around 1804. At the same time, he was battling for guardianship of his troubled nephew, Karl.

"After his Eighth Symphony, a lot of people were saying he'd gone mad and that all of his best work was behind him," Juneau Symphony music director Kyle Wiley Pickett said.

His social and political aspirations were unmet, Walz said. His personal life was complicated, and he was prepared to leave Vienna for a new start in London. The Philharmonic Society of London commissioned the Ninth in 1822, but his supporters in Vienna begged him to stay and assembled an Academy to premiere the piece. It debuted on May 7, 1824, after just two rehearsals.

The audience loved it, Walz said. Passages were repeated and the police had to shout down the crowd. According to legend, one of the soloists took Beethoven by the arm and turned him around so he could see the audience cheering. By then, he was completely deaf. The response was extremely redeeming for Beethoven.

The Ninth included a 15-minute choral piece. The words were taken from Friedrich von Schiller's "Ode To Joy," an Enlightenment poem.

"He'd been aware of the poem for 30 years, and he had toyed with it," Pickett said. "He was toward the end of his life and I think he was crushed by political events. He wanted to look back and say Schiller was still right, and all men were brothers. It's that powerful sentiment that's drawn people to the Ninth for a couple hundred years."

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