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Listening to the Ninth and Some Mahler in 2020


Beethoven Death Mask (HMA Collection)

Were the world not in the throes of a once-in-a century pandemic, countless tributes and performances honoring Beethoven would be marking the composer’s 250th birthday celebration this month. Here in New York, I was looking forward to attending a performance of his Ninth Symphony, a touchstone to which generations have turned in search of hope, solace, perspective, courage, or simply a sublime musical experience. The work has so deeply enmeshed itself in history and culture that, as Charles Rosen said of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, “…it is difficult at times to say whether we are hearing the work or its reputation, our collective image of it.”[i] While unquestionably a crown jewel of the Western canon, the Ninth also stands apart from that canon on account of its sheer scope. Utopias germinate in periods of suffering and strife that nevertheless harbor the potential to transcend the ever fraught and undesirable present. Is it fair to suggest then, that the capacity of the Ninth Symphony to speak to us today has been heightened by the mounting challenges of our times?

The magnitude of our losses this year, and the failure of the federal government to contain the pandemic have led to collective disbelief, helplessness, mourning, and trauma. Non-pandemic news has been consistently alarming also, but one event stood out: the on-camera asphyxiation of George Floyd by a white police officer, calmly and in cold blood, so flagrantly violated our innate sense of justice that it instantly became an agent of change. Demand surged for racial justice, opening one of America’s rare windows since the Civil War for radical and meaningful change. What would it have been like to attend a live performance of the Ninth Symphony in this simultaneously harrowing and hopeful year? This question led me to wade into the lore of the work itself.

The Ninth’s central idea of a universal reconciliation is anchored in Friedrich Schiller’s ode “An die Freude” (To Joy), written in 1785 and revised in 1803, the latter version being the basis of Beethoven’s setting. The period of the poem’s composition saw the emergence of a new discourse that defined the human subject, for the first time in history, without reference to a larger religious or social framework and only in relation to itself. This figure—the individual, independent human being— had just come of age and had found its epoch-making expression in the Declaration of Independence, which spoke of “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and in the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme (1789), which boldly opened with the statement that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” The historic moment marked the emergence of humankind from its “self-incurred immaturity,” in Immanuel Kant’s famous definition of the Enlightenment.[ii]

The moment in To Joy that more than any other anchors the ode in its Enlightenment legacy is the third line of the first stanza. Manifest in the words “your magic power unites what strict custom has divided”[iii] is the idea that beneath the enormous variety of beliefs, customs, and values in the world resides an underlying, immutable, and normative core of humanness. In Schiller’s gendered language, “all men become brothers” on the foundation of this universal core, a foundation which the eighteenth-century framers saw as the potential bedrock of equality. Practical and theoretical challenges remained, however, for this tenet to take hold in an empirical social context, mainly because the universal archetype in question referred to an abstract human being who seemed to exist nowhere. As early as in 1790, Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” was raising this issue. It was in the aftermath of the Second World War that the issue once again came to the foreground when Hannah Arendt argued that the inalienable rights propounded in these landmark documents, “irreducible to and un-deducible from any other rights and laws,” meant nothing to stateless people and little to refugees and minorities. “The world found nothing sacred,” she wrote, “in the abstract nakedness of being human.”[iv] Rights were enforceable only to the extent that they were safeguarded under the aegis of a political community. Therefore, inclusion in a community was crucial, and in Arendt’s iconic phrase, constituted “a right to have rights.”

The second stanza of Schiller’s poem goes to great lengths to celebrate the idea of inclusion. Yet its final verse takes a perplexing turn when it portrays an outcast: “But he who cannot rejoice, let him steal weeping away.” Adorno comments on this in his posthumously published notes on Beethoven, observing, “It is peculiar to the bourgeois Utopia that it is not yet able to conceive an image of perfect joy without that of the person excluded from it. In the fairy tale Utopia, too, the stepmother who must dance in burning shoes or is stuffed into a barrel spiked with nails is an inseparable part of the glorious wedding. The loneliness punished by Schiller, however, is no other than that produced by his revelers’ community itself.”[v]

Is a utopia still a utopia if it requires outcasts? Beethoven’s setting of the poem suggests that this question was not a central concern for him, although it belongs to the legacy of the Ninth Symphony. Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony—a monumental work with a choral finale, completed seven decades after Beethoven’s work—is a rethinking of the Ninth which adopts the viewpoint of the persona who steals weeping away in Schiller’s poem. In the third movement, the outcast’s rebellion is depicted with a “cry of disgust,” according to Mahler’s program.[vi] It takes the form of a dissonant orchestral outburst that also opens the choral finale of the symphony, much like the “horror fanfare,” in Wagner’s words, that launches Beethoven’s fourth movement. Mahler’s finale brings the outcast figure into the fold, guided by the belief that no individual or collective can be completely fulfilled until all are brought into a harmonious relationship with one another.

Mahler by Emil Orlik.

While putting some pressure on the text, it is also helpful to remember that Schiller distanced himself from the poem in later years. In 1800, he wrote to his good friend Christian Gottfried Körner that “although it has a certain quantity of fiery enthusiasm to back it, it is nevertheless a bad poem,” adding, “Your admiration of the poem may be attributed to the time at which it was written, but that is its only merit.”[vii]  To Joy had already captured the young Beethoven’s imagination during the early 1790s in Bonn, a city where Enlightenment ideas widely circulated. By the time he finished the Ninth Symphony in 1824 in Vienna, the political landscape had been vastly transformed. With the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Congress of Vienna behind it, Europe was settling into a counterrevolutionary period, gesturing towards constitutionalism on the one hand while restoring hereditary privilege and curtailing freedom of the press on the other. With the benefit of three decades’ distance, Beethoven distilled Schiller’s poem, eliminating some sections and purging it of elements that made it an “elevated drinking song,” as Maynard Solomon put it.

The orchestral prism of the fourth movement refracts Schiller’s verses into an interpretive spectrum. The finale opens with the “horror fanfare,” a condition to be transcended. In a theatrical gesture, the main themes of the first three movements seem to audition for the finale. While they do not succeed, the To Jo theme, which has been flourishing in the recesses of all three movements, is welcomed. Different instruments adopt this theme, culminating in an orchestral climax that is interrupted by a return of the “horror fanfare.” The only lines Beethoven wrote himself confront the dissonant element when the baritone intones: “O friends, no more these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!”

Following this preamble, the setting of To Joy is underway in earnest. Solo voices introduce the first verse, which is taken up by the chorus, suggesting enlightened leaders guiding the masses. The section ends with “And the cherub stands before God,” the chorus and the orchestra landing on an electrifying fortissimo chord on the word “God.” From these celestial heights we are unceremoniously taken to the street level when the drums, cymbals, and the fife-like piccolo of the so-called “Turkish March” strike a lilting variation on the To Joy theme. (In an 1895 performance Mahler conducted in Hamburg, he assigned this march to an offstage band.) Once the movement has achieved its choral ethos, all returning instrumental passages appear as forms of regression, which is what the ensuing double-fugue represents. The torrent of the orchestra and the chorus take up the first verse when the fugal detour leads us to the beginning of the poem.

With organ-like scoring and a monastic new theme, the fifth stanza stages a church-like environment where the image of a benevolent divinity is evoked. This extraordinarily ethereal section also features some exquisite word-painting, culminating in the depiction of a sparkling firmament to accompany the closing verse, “Seek Him in the Heavens! Above the stars must he dwell…” The ensuing vocal double-fugue combines this new theme with the To Joy theme, thus juxtaposing the tropes of a pagan Arcadia with a mystical monotheism, as if to seek a world-historical synthesis. The dense fugato texture comes to a pause on a high-register caesura. What follows is a return to the closing stanza, set with gasping rests and implying doubt at first but ending with a chorale-like affirmative texture. In the remaining two sections, the quicksilver playfulness of the music brims with the spirit of opera buffa, gesturing towards its conciliatory ethos. There are simplified melodic passages and moments where the chorus sings in unison, suggesting a tendency to move away from complexity and artifice and toward a prelapsarian naiveté. Narrative is driven by conflict, discontent, and unhappiness. In a utopian space where they have run their course, the narrative also ends.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony brings late 18th-century ideals into the ritualistic space of the concert hall, transfiguring their abstract armature into flesh and blood. The text it sets—which Mahler once called “inadequate”[viii]—might be best thought of as the flawed protagonist motivating the larger narrative of a novel. During the late 1780s and ’90s, the ode ignited the collective imagination, with over 40 composers setting it to music. When Beethoven finished his Ninth Symphony in 1824, he saw the intervening decades through a glass, darkly. To him, the poem must have appeared as a tarnished revolutionary-era artifact that still glowed with the aura of its aspirations. Change had come, only to be frustrated, as in Schiller’s words, by the “oppressive constrictions of reality.”[ix]

Yet elusiveness of an ideal does not preclude its pursuit. Utopias constitute a “critique of what is present,” in Ernst Bloch’s words, coexisting with the problematic present as a corrective to it.[x] The Ninth Symphony presented a progressive narrative culminating in a utopian unity, although neither Schiller nor Beethoven directly addressed the question of who the utopians were and how they gained admission to the celebration. For Schiller, the question was moot, since they were united through their fundamental sameness, “the archetype of a human being” prescriptively present in every individual.[xi] Beethoven, on the other hand, differentiated between the individual and the collective—as in the antiphonal opening of the vocal section or the solo flourishes just before the final prestissimo—but only in a harmonious part-whole relationship. The exception was the figure of the outcast, which remained as the aporia of the entire work. Mahler—who considered himself “three times homeless: as a native of Bohemia in Austria; as an Austrian among Germans; and as a Jew throughout the world”[xii]—made this incongruity the center of his work. In so doing, he pointedly introduced the issues of otherness and belonging into the legacy of the Ninth Symphony, portraying a landscape where rights are fought for and negotiated, and outlining a roadmap to utopia where inclusion is key to social cohesion.

Both Beethoven and Mahler created epic narratives, with the conviction that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The “horror fanfare” and the “cry of disgust” are inflection points in this long arc. If we overlay the blueprints of these works on US history, the inflection points might correspond to moments such as the Reconstruction Amendments, the 19th Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And if we ask ourselves where we stand on this arc today in 2020, the answer might be that we are in the middle of another “horror fanfare” or “cry of disgust,” with the same transformative potential. A moving performance of the Ninth Symphony leaves us with the presentiment that we can be agents of change. This might be its most tangible legacy.

Murat Eyuboglu is a musicologist with a dissertation on Gustav Mahler and also a filmmaker. His music-driven feature documentary The Colorado explores the social and ecological history of the Colorado River Basin. He lives in New York.

Friedrich Schiller

[i] Charles Rosen, The Classical Style, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972) 228.

[ii] Howard Caygill, “Enlightenment” in A Kant Dictionary (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 175.

[iii] Translation of “To Joy” taken from Nicholas Cook, Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 109.

[iv] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1976), 299.

[v] Theodor W. Adorno, Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 32–33.

[vi] Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1993), 63.

[vii] Maynard Solomon, Beethoven Essays, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 209.

[viii] Gustav Mahler, Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler, trans. E. Wilkins and B. Hopkin (New York: Faber & Faber, 1979), 179.

[ix] Friedrich Schiller, The Bride of Messina, trans. Charles E. Passage (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1962), 4.

[x] Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Functions of Art and Literature, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1988), 12.

[xi] Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), letter 4, paragraph 2.

[xii] Susan M. Filler, “Mahler as a Jew in the Literature,” in Shofar, Vol. 18, No. 4, (Summer 2000), p. 62.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. There was a time when I would seek out the music under consideration in this fine essay for solace and inspiration. But that was long ago and I am old now. My frustrating quandary is that there is no longer world enough and time to hear such remarkable works. Fortunately, there are musics much briefer that may well take the listener to the same place….a toccata of Galuppi, perhaps, or an air by Captain Tobias Hume. Even better, the time saved by brevity may then be devoted to social and political activism.

    These days, getting out the vote trumps everything. 

    Even music.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — December 18, 2020 at 11:00 am

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