The Surpassing Music and Its Time

Article excerpt

Byline: Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …