New Year’s Eve and the Ninth

Photo © Busalacchi Restaurants

By Melinda Bargreen
For Seattle classical music lovers, New Year’s Eve is not about Dick Clark or Guy Lombardo – it’s all about Ludwig van Beethoven. The Seattle Symphony’s now-venerable tradition of presenting Beethoven’s majestic Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony to bring in the New Year continues this Dec. 31 with British-born guest conductor Matthew Halls on the Benaroya Hall podium. And because the Ninth itself – while clocking in at a mighty 67 minutes – isn’t the length of a complete Symphony program, they’re adding a Mozart side dish: the three-movement “Paris” Symphony (No. 31), composed during the 22-year-old composer’s sojourn in the City of Light.

The subject of articles, chapters, and indeed several books, Beethoven’s Ninth occupies a unique place in the symphonic canon. The final movement, in which the chorus and four vocal soloists join in with the “Ode to Joy” and the promise that “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All men will become brothers) has become an international anthem of freedom. It was conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the fall of the Berlin Wall, broadcast at Tiananmen Square, performed during the Pinochet era by Chilean dissidents, featured at the Olympic Games and claimed as an anthem by the European Union, and chosen by orchestras everywhere to celebrate special occasions.

The Ninth is particularly beloved in Japan, where hundreds of performances take place annually — often in December, and memorably after the 2011 tsunami. (It also has served more sinister purposes: the Ninth was a favorite of Hitler, who particularly liked to hear it on his birthday.)

More recently, the Ninth has been the focus of an iPad app and a documentary (“Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony”).

Even before its premiere in 1824, it was clear to the music-loving public that the Ninth Symphony was going to be something special. Beethoven originally considered premiering the Ninth in Berlin instead of Vienna, but in Berlin. Hearing that this move might take place, Austrian aristocrats and music lovers petitioned Beethoven to keep the premiere in Vienna (the petition was published in two leading Viennese newspapers).

By 1824, Beethoven was totally deaf, and although he coached the soloists and set the tempo, and was present on the stage for the premiere, the real direction of the orchestra fell to conductor/violinist Michael Umlauf (with concertmaster Ignaz Schuppanzigh). According to some reports, when the final chords were greeted with a tremendous ovation of which the composer was unaware, the contralto soloist Caroline Unger turned him around to face the cheering audience.

According to a review from Allegmeine Theater-Zeitung (May 13, 1824): “Imagine the highly inspired composer, the musical Shakespeare, to whom all means of his arts are readily available at the slightest nod, how he glowed from devotion and how in the innermost belief in the holy work of redemption, he sings the praise of God and the hope of Mankind. Then one has, perhaps, a slight notion of the impact of this Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei!”

The noted Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford once concluded a discussion about the meaning of the Ninth with the following passage: “When the bass speaks the first words in the finale, an invitation to sing for joy, the words come from Beethoven, not Schiller. It’s the composer talking to everybody, to history. That’s what’s so moving about those words. There Beethoven greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.”

Glasses will be raised at Benaroya Hall, too, as audiences on Dec. 31 hear this year’s reincarnation of Beethoven’s masterpiece.  Conductor Matthew Halls will be joined by soloists Rena Harms, Deborah Nansteel, Eric Neuville, and Morgan Smith, as well as the Seattle Symphony Chorale, for the 9 p.m. performance, which will conclude with a post-concert party featuring dancing to a live band, and a countdown to midnight.

Those with other plans for New Year’s Eve may want to attend one of three weekend performances of the same program (minus the post-concert dancing): 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 2 and 3), and 2 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 4). For tickets and program notes, consult, or call the Benaroya box office at 206-215-4747. And a very happy New Year to you!

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