Beethoven's Ninth: Where Does Integration Happen?

By Graubart, Michael | Musical Times, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Beethoven's Ninth: Where Does Integration Happen?


Graubart, Michael, Musical Times


Why do analysts attempt against the odds to find relationships between the two principal themes of the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and its earlier movements? Why try to locate integration in the main part of the finale? It is a mostly unquestioned, and in general justified, tenet of musical aesthetics that when a symphonic work is felt to be a satisfying one, it can be shown to be unified by such thematic relationships. But the Ninth is not a conventional symphony. The sudden appearance of voices singing words marks out the finale not as a logical continuation and summation of what has gone before, but as something new. The work, if it integrates anything, integrates symphony with drama, even opera. And yet it is the product of one of the greatest masters of coherent structure in the history of Western music. If the bulk of its finale only shows tenuous relationships with the first three movements - with the possible exception of the second movement's trio, though even there, pace Gertrude Stein, a scale is a scale is a scale - does the longedfor integration happen somewhere else? Does the sequence of distressingly dissonant fanfares, wordless instrumental, but eventually verbally-explicit vocal, recitatives and fragmentary citations of the first three movements with which the finale begins not, as is commonly assumed, just reject the earlier movements, but integrate them before replacing them, ontologically as well as temporally, with something new?

Rodney Stenning Edgecombe 's argument in his fascinating and thoughtprovoking essay 'The deictic in "diese Töne": thoughts on the finale's proem in the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven' (MT, Winter 201 1), seeking to show that 'nicht diese Töne ' refers to the Schreckensfanfare and not the incipits of the earlier movements, may (to appropriate Mr Edgecombe's vocabulary) constitute a deictic proof as long as the proem of the finale is considered in isolation. As soon, though, as one accepts (as I am forced to) that the musical material of the main part of the finale bears no more relationship to that of the rest of the symphony than can be discovered by diligent effort between any set of themes by Beethoven and any other; recognises, indeed, that when the theme of the 'Ode to joy' is first heard quiedy in the strings it is like the opening of a window onto a different world, one has to recognise that in the context of the whole finale and, more widely, the whole symphony, 'nicht diese Töne' refers, whatever its position vis-à-vis the Schreckens fanfare, also to the three movements that have gone before. Not necessarily, indeed, a condemnation of those movements, but a putting behind one of the past, a choosing and a willing of the new.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about all the analyses and discussions of the Ninth Symphony's finale that I have come across is the lack of attention given to the harmonic nature and structural function of the Schreckensfanfare itself. The first thing to note is that if we read the Bb of the woodwinds as a horrendously dissonant appoggiatura, the fanfare begins with the first inversion of the tonic triad. Why first inversion? Because a triad in first inversion, with its inherent mobility, is a common starting point for an operatic recitative scene. So the fanfares belong to the recitatives and are not rejected by them, and, like the orchestral ritornelli before and between the vocal phrases of a recitativo accompagnato, set the scene and mood of the narration. The recitatives are not opposed to the fanfares that are their introductions, but at first they hint at and then, when the baritone makes their meaning explicit, explain the tension and disturbance expressed by the latter.

Together, the fanfare and the recitatives critique the states of being to which the earlier movements of the symphony belong. To suggest, as Mr Edgecombe does, that it is somehow lèse-majesté to say that anything in the finale critiques, 'rejects', those earlier movements, written as they were by Beethoven - that it implies a bungling on Beethoven's part in composing them - is to fall into three fallacies at once: that of confusing the statement made by a work of art or a part of one with the personal character and beliefs of the artist, that of implying incompetence on the part of the creator if a work expresses dark or negative feelings, and above all that of confusing the parts with the whole. …

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