Even if you don’t know classical music, you know Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Finished in 1824, Beethoven’s final complete symphony, and the first from any major composer to use voices, has risen to and remained at the top of the Western orchestral canon as one of the most frequently performed symphonies in existence. The Japanese have even gone so far as to make it a New Year’s tradition. I remember, when first learning the Japanese language, watching an educational video about an amateur neighborhood chorus converting the original German into more readable Japanese phonetic script, so as to better sing it for their celebration. A charming story, to be sure, but at the top of the post, you’ll find Beethoven’s 9th rendered with the exact opposite of amateurism by the Wiener Philharmoniker, with Leonard Bernstein conducting. (Part one, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.) Then again, at the root of “amateur” lies the term “to love,” and who would dare accuse Bernstein, however consummately professional a man of music, of not loving this symphony?
“I’ve just finished filming and recording the great 9th Symphony,” Bernstein says in the clip just above, describing how the experience got him thinking about historical dates. “My associations led me back to the year of my own birth, 1918, the year of the great armistice which brought the First World War to an end. Now, I had the key. The password was peace, armistice, brotherhood — ‘ain’t gonna study war no more.’ Peace, brotherhood, we are all children of one father, let us embrace one another, all the millions of us, friendship, love, joy: these, of course, are the key words and phrases from [Friedrich] Schiller’s [“Ode to Joy“] to which Beethoven attached that glorious music, ranging from the mysterious to the radiant to the devout to the ecstatic.” You can also watch the performance that put Bernstein’s mind on this track as one of the many included in Beethoven 9, Deutsche Grammophon’s first iPad/iPhone/iPod app. For free, you get two minutes of the symphony with all features enabled. “The full experience,” their site adds, ” is then unlocked through In-App Purchase.”
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Leonard Bernstein’s Masterful Lectures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Recorded in 1973)
Bernstein Breaks Down Beethoven
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.
Hearing the Ninth as Beethoven probably did, sympathetically evocative as it may be, can also be somewhat annoying. Thank you, DGG. A 1982 performance by Klaus Tennstedt and the Minnesota Orchestra is probably better. I won’t link this to it directly, but the back cover provides all the pertinent information: