D is for Democracy

ninth cover

inside ninth Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 “Ode to Joy” (1824)

Audio of first movement: Here

The rise of nation states following the fall of holy roman rule led to immense monarchies. While abiding by separate cultural or geographic roots, these kingdoms still maintained massive power over their subjects. Centralized power had only trickled down to a handful or large nations from one empire. Primed with the momentum of a successful reformation and the rise of reason via the enlightenment, the notion that citizens could rule themselves was a popular one. The divide between the commoners and the aristocracy was sharp and some of the most outspoken critics were artists. The music of the classical era became increasing popular within the middle class. This was due in part to the actual physical needs of larger works requiring larger orchestras. The symphony had been born and had outgrown the palace chamber. With these larger productions came the need for greater patronage. The public concert was the answer and now a middle class as well as aristocrats could enjoy music by great composers of the time.

While it may be that popular themes beget public performances, it is also true that composers weren’t simply playing to their audience to pay the bills. Beethoven was one of the great composers of the era and sympathetic to the revolutionary movements spawning across Europe. He was born with middle class roots as both his father and grandfather were musicians. The French Revolution (1789-99) was also happening in the prime of Beethoven’s touring career. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony exemplifies a tie to the middle class in two significant ways. The first speaks to the growing physical size of the orchestra. The final movement of the ninth includes a choral part which was very new to the symphony form. This chorus, in addition to the large number of instruments, was likely bigger in magnitude than even previous orchestras. Only a public space could house such a performance. The second is the actual words contained in the chorus. Beethoven takes his choral inspiration from the poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller, an icon of revolutionary Europe. This poem was heavily censored as it was essentially a declaration of independence piece which translates as happiness rather than joy and taken from the notion of “Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Beethoven’s’ inspired words such as “All men become brothers” and “A friend proven in death” become a signal not only of equality but of revolutionary struggle. This sentiment was close to the hearts of the common folk, the middle class, and those who sought to change ruling power structures in Europe.

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3 Comments

  1. After listening to Symphony No. 9 the thing that stood out to me was the string parts. I also like how familiar this piece feels even today 200 years after it was written. The information was very interesting and helped me understand the history behind this particular piece, along with giving all of the information required by the assignment. I think the best part of the analysis was the explanation was the inspiration for the piece and connecting the piece to the middle class.

    The only things I wonder is did Beethoven name the piece “Ode to Joy” or did someone else name it, because the piece I did my analysis on got its name from someone that reviewed the piece? And why do you think that the 9th movement had a choral part, it seems weird considering how new choral parts were in orchestras?

  2. There were many reasons music became a big deal to the middle class, and you really give great explanations for the change. I hadn’t exactly thought about the actual physical need for more people, but that would be a real catalyst for the spread of a new music style. Everything is really connected in your analysis and all the information is there. I wrote my post on a similar piece of music in feel. The work does have that feel of pride and rising humanity that drew me to the one I analyzed as well. I like how the feeling in a work can keep it interesting for longer than the events it was based upon. That’s the quality that I enjoy in the work.

  3. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” has long been a favorite piece of mine. I am pleases that you chose to dig deeper and reveal the history of this work. As for the connection to the rise of the middle class and its appreciation for music, great job on the ties. I agree with Steven, I like your point on the physical need for more space. I had not thought of that reason either. You do a really good job on leading into your analysis of the 9th Symphony and it reads so fluently, I love it. Your analysis is great. However, I would have liked to hear what your feelings about the piece are. What parts did you especially enjoy? How does the piece move you? For me, I enjoy how it starts as a soft strings piece and moves into a powerful piece with percussion and wind instruments by the last few minutes of the piece. Great Blog!

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