- The Washington Times - Friday, July 23, 2010

By Harvey Sachs
Random House, $26
225 pages, illustrated

Reading Harvey Sachs‘ meditation on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the era in which it was produced - grim post-revolutionary and post-Napoleonic Europe - is like taking a short course in music appreciation with your favorite professor. That’s fitting because Mr. Sachs is on the faculty at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There are no course prerequisites - anyone can sign up, but one suspects the course is always oversubscribed on campus.

The author, who describes himself as a music historian, was a conductor for a dozen years, and he is a gifted writer. In this, his ninth book, Mr. Sachs, with considerable charm, tells you all you need to know to appreciate what is perhaps the most profound secular piece of music ever created.

The book begins with a description of the first performance of the symphony, in Vienna in 1824, by which time the 53-year-old composer had been growing increasingly deaf for more than two decades and had just three years more to live. One of the most poignant passages in the book concerns the posthumously discovered “testament” Beethoven wrote in 1802, describing how he already felt cut off from society: “[I]t was not possible for me to say to people: speak louder, shout, for I am deaf; ah, how would it be possible for me to reveal a weakness in the one sense that should be perfect to a higher degree in me than in others. … [F]or me there can be no recreation in people’s company, no conversation, no mutual exchange of ideas.”

For the premiere, Beethoven employed two conductors to help him conduct a half-professional, half-amateur orchestra and chorus. When the soprano soloist complained that one of her notes was unsingable, Beethoven told her, “Just learn it! The note will come.” Ever since, singers and instrumentalists have acknowledged the difficulty of the music, but today’s professional standard is so superior that musicians no longer find Beethoven’s demands impossible to meet.

The audience at the premiere was enthusiastic. A German music reviewer gushed, “One can say nothing more than what the connoisseurs recognized and unanimously declared: Beet-hoven has outdone everything we have previously had from him: Beethoven has advanced still further onward!!”

The first-ever participation of vocal soloists and chorus in a symphony got only one sentence in the Viennese theater journal: “The singers did what they could.” Mr. Sachs comments, “In 1824, not even Beethoven, let alone that first group of … no doubt thoroughly flummoxed listeners, could have grasped the magnitude of what had been accomplished.”

Beethoven’s genius had been evident from an early age, but in his mid-20s, it “burst forth, torrentially,” revealing, Mr. Sachs says, “not only exceptional technical gifts but also exceptional boldness of invention, emotional power, and spiritual depth.” Between the ages of 32 and 42, Beethoven transformed Western music by “giving much freer rein to personal expression than had been previously known. …”

By the time he wrote the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven already had composed the sublime Missa Solemnis, and he had been looking for an appropriate musical setting for Schiller’s poetic tribute to universal brotherhood. In the Ninth Symphony, he adapted Schiller’s words to say explicitly what many of his other works, especially his late works, imply: “that the ‘divine spark’ of joy and the ‘kiss for the whole world,’ which originate ‘above the canopy of stars,’ must touch and unite us all. … We need only feel and accept their presence.”

The author muses extensively on whether listeners, or performers, should impute meaning to music alone, concluding, “I do not want either to build stories onto compositions or to perceive compositions as having been built on stories.” He quotes Mendelssohn on the subject: “The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” And, much later, Stravinsky: “Music means itself.”

At the same time, the author adds, “The question of whether we ought to read artists’ lives into their works ceases to matter in Beethoven’s last years. His late works were his life. Deafness was to Beethoven what exile has been to others. … [N]o one since Beethoven has gone further than he went along the path to transcendence.”

In his detailed analysis, the author at one point encapsulates the work in two sentences: “If the Ninth Symphony’s first movement is hurly-burly of the most horrific sort and the second a half-serious, half-playful battle, the third tells us that we have both lost and won - that, as aware human beings, we have no choice but to wade through the horror and anguish and then die, but that we are able, from time to time, to see beyond and soar above these facts and to understand just enough to be able to appreciate the beauty of being mortal. After all, if anguish and death did not exist, art would not exist, nor would sensitivity to beauty.”

Typical of the far-reaching scope of this book is the author’s explanation of why he chose to focus on 1824, the year not only of the debut of Beethoven’s Ninth, but also of the death of Lord Byron in Greece’s struggle for independence; the creation of Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov,” in which, “as in the Ninth Symphony, intense individual suffering is expressed within the context of humanity’s suffering and striving for freedom”; the inception of Delacroix’s “Scenes Fom the Massacres at Chios”; Stendal’s essays promoting Romanticism in literature (perhaps a proxy for political liberalism); and the publication of Heine’s satirical and mordant poetry - all of which “furthered, in one way or another, Romanticism’s rearguard action against repression.”

Mr. Sachs suggests that his “brief glances at those artists and their states of being” in 1824 will serve to remind readers “that spiritual and intellectual liberation requires endless internal warfare against everything in ourselves that narrows us down instead of opening us up and that replaces questing with certitude.”

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean,Va.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide