Striving Towards Transcendence

The World of Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies

Written by Nicky Gluch

It seems apt that in the year we celebrate Beethoven’s 250th, the musical world went silent. It calls into focus not only how Beethoven experienced the world, but also the very reason we play music. To Beethoven, music was living. Apocryphal or not, we can believe that he said: “What I have in my heart must come out, that is why I compose.” It fits with our understanding of a composer who expressed music in ways never heard before. Sure, Beethoven can be characterised as the composer who took the best of classicism and launched it toward the romantic but, when one looks at his nine symphonies, they do not follow so obvious a trajectory.

It makes sense, when surveying a composer’s ouevre,to play their works in relative order but,if I was introducing someone to Beethoven’s symphonies, I would start with Symphony no 4. This is not simply because it is the most overlooked, but because it is the musicians’ symphony. Mendelssohn had a particular fondness for it and Schumann is said to have called it ‘a slender Greek maiden between two Norse giants’. It begins sparsely and mysteriously, a soft chord held in the woodwinds under changing notes in the strings before a series of separated quavers, ascending and descending, threaded together only by tension at the softest pianissimo.

From Symphony no 4, I’d then turn to Symphony no 8. Its Allegretto scherzando is said to parody the metronome, but the musical joke is far less interesting than what it says about how Beethoven creates contrast. The second movement, traditionally slow and melodic, has been replaced with something light and simple. The trumpets and timpani drop away so that the winds and strings can more freely converse and, on occasion, rhythmically align.

How different this is to the romance of the second movement in Beethoven’s Symphony no 2. In 3/8 time, it dances under a long line before coming to Beethoven’s idiomatic silence. These rests are not an absence of sound, however, but a transmission of tension, so that what comes afterwards is undeniably affected by what came before.

There’s an element of the pastoral to this second symphony, so where next to turn but to Symphony no 6. It is for good reason that Roger Benedict conducted this work for his Concert for Life. Lockdown has shown us just how important a walk in nature is for our mental health and, with its storm and babbling brook, the symphony tends to that need. More, it unites us, for we all share in the gratitude when the storm passes and calm is restored.

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