Ludwig van Beethoven’s final symphony, his ninth, is one of the best known pieces of classical music and considered by many to be among the composer’s masterworks.
Ted Libbey, in his “NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection,” called Beethoven’s Ninth a “revolutionary innovation,” one that in its famous fourth movement “Ode to Joy” reflects Beethoven’s notion that “high moral truths – joy in the embrace of brotherhood, awe in the presence of the Creator of the universe – have to be felt on that level if they are to have any meaning at all.”
For the fifth year, the Spokane Symphony – joined by the Symphony Chorale – will spend New Year’s Eve performing this monumental orchestral work that celebrates freedom and brotherhood. Conductor Eckart Preu, the orchestra’s music director, said that while the Ninth isn’t monumental in terms of length – it clocks in at about an hour – it’s certainly monumental in musical meaning.
“What it symbolizes has changed over the years. Now it’s worldwide acknowledged as this piece that reflects on all the dreams and hopes and the future of mankind,” Preu said. “And I think that’s why people like listening to it, that’s it’s very often played, particularly in Europe, on New Year’s Eve. That’s why we do it. … We like happy endings.”
The work, Preu said, reflects Beethoven’s common theme of moving from darkness to light. There are religious undertones, he added, although “it’s not really religious. It’s more spiritual.”
Ultimately, it’s a piece that people can relate to on many levels, he added.
“Everybody knows the melody. It’s very dramatic. It’s big,” he said. “What I find fascinating is, if you quiz people on what they know” – he hums the melody of “Ode to Joy – “There’s like 40 minutes of music before that or 30 minutes of music, which is as thrilling.”
That choral piece, by the way, is fully entrenched in popular culture. It’s been used in television commercials. David Beckham once notably played the song in a Samsung Galaxy Note spot by kicking soccer balls at a wall of drums. It’s been covered by Beaker from The Muppets. We know it from movies as disparate as “Help,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “Die Hard.” (That scene when Alan Rickman opens the vault? Yeah, that’s “Ode to Joy.”)
Its use in movies seems appropriate. As Preu said, “It’s as good as any movie in terms of drama.”
For the Spokane Symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth is one of the few classical works the musicians perform every year, along with “The Nutcracker.” And it’s a work that always poses challenges for the orchestra. Complacency is not allowed.
“You need to be on top of your game, otherwise you will not pull it off,” Preu said. “That is for conductor, for singers, for musicians. It is one of the challenging pieces. Beethoven always asks of you the most, in terms of physical fitness, in terms of having your brain in the right spot, being totally focused. It’s one of the most thrilling things to do, but as with all thrilling things, it’s not without risk.”