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Beethoven’s Ninth Conference at BU

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Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony needs no tribute on its 200th birthday, but is being honored with repeat performances everywhere, including several nearby; on May 12th Lexington Symphony will essay it in a matinee.

Retired professors are often the only ones who have time to present research findings at conferences; thus a small cohort of Beethoven experts and their friends (even a few graduate students) gathered on Wednesday in Hillel House at Boston University to honor the forthcoming (on May 7th) bicentennial in “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: a 200-year Perspective.” Organized by the founding co-directors of the Boston University Center for Beethoven Research, Jeremy Yudkin (Boston University) and Lewis Lockwood (Harvard), whose “Beethoven’s Lives: The Biographical Tradition” Boydell & Brewer recently published, the festival heard from six scholars including one visitor from overseas. Beate Angelika Kraus of the Beethoven Archive in Bonn has just prepared and published, based on dozens of different manuscript sources, what will likely be the definitive orchestral score of the Ninth Symphony for years to come.

Mark Evan Bonds (University of North Carolina) spoke about an alleged confession to Carl Czerny, repeatedly challenged by later scholars, that Beethoven may have felt that he had made an “error of judgment” (Mißgriff) in composing a choral finale for the Ninth Symphony instead of a purely instrumental movement, and that debate endures. David Levy (Wake Forest University) surveyed the Ninth as an iconic political force that endures to this day, whose historical roots can be found in Schiller’s “An die Freude” text of 1785. Elaine Sisman (Columbia), focusing on the second movement, explored the spectrum of humor (scherzo, scherzoso, even scherzando in other Beethoven works) to wonder about how much that abiding sonata form is really a joke. James Parsons (Missouri State University) demonstrated how the Choral Fantasy, op. 80, adumbrates the 9ths finale, with a close comparison of the different texts. Christopher Reynolds (University of California, Davis) illustrated with convincing examples how the 9th anticipated certain melodic and harmonic gestures in Wagner’s Ring, which, we remember, debuted 148 years ago at the Wagner Festspielhaus in Bavaria, where only Beethoven’s symphonies, are regularly performed alongside Wagner’s work. Lewis Lockwood, senior counsel to all who were present, celebrated, in but a few words, the “ingathering” for those who would heed Seid umschlungen, Millionen!

I was sorry to miss the evening performance at the Tsai Center down the street of Liszt’s very intriguing arrangement of the 9th for solo piano; Boston University Chamber Chorus would be joining in for the finale. The announced soloist is a graduate student from China, Chengcheng Ma, and the conductor John Black. There has recently been a similar undertaking in Germany. BMInt inked an account of a another traversal HERE. Cyprien Katsaris famously advocated for it HERE. The extraordinary pianist Stewart Goodyear had planned to attempt the feat at Rockport last summer.

Noted without exact confirmation: In 1827 an 18-year-old Felix Mendelssohn played Beethoven’s Ninth in a public performance on the piano, reading from the orchestral score, and with someone else’s arrangement of the piano part for accompanying singers in the finale.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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