Whatcom Symphony Orchestra

Performing the Ninth

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I’m sure it will come as little shock to any regular reader of this publication when I say that I am no expert when it comes to classical music. I like classical music, quite a bit. The kind of vision that can see grandeur of scope and scale and intricate precision in equal measure is pretty amazing to me. And the notion that a person can write a piece of music that can not only survive, but also inspire across cultures, countries and whole centuries never ceases to fascinate me as well. In short, I find classical music to be one of art’s most beautiful mysteries.

Despite my purely entry-level knowledge of classical music, even I’m familiar with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op 125, or, as it is more commonly known, Beethoven’s Ninth. Professing to know the Ninth is no great feat of music appreciation—it is, after all, widely considered to be the greatest symphony ever written and is quite possibly the most famous piece of music on Earth.

It has also played an extraordinary role in history during the last 200 or so years, one even a genius like Beethoven surely did not foresee.

For what would be his final symphony, Beethoven decided to go big. He wrote the Ninth to be performed by the largest orchestra he’d ever assembled and had the then-unprecedented idea to add a choral element to the final movement, the now-famous “Ode to Joy.” The symphony premiered in 1824 in Vienna, where it received five ovations from a rapt audience. To the composer, the Ninth was more than just a piece of music, within it was contained his hope for brotherhood in the face of increasing European repression, and it was a message that would prove to resonate for generations to come.

Because the reach of Beethoven’s Ninth goes far beyond the concert halls and venues where symphonies are traditionally heard. Chinese revolutionaries played it in Tiananmen Square as they faced down tanks. When the Berlin Wall came down, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth in East Berlin to celebrate. Chilean women serenaded men in torture prisons with the choral portions of the symphony during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. If social change and hopeful revolution have a soundtrack, it’s worth pointing out that Beethoven’s Ninth predates “We Shall Overcome” by more than 100 years. 

When the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra presents Beethoven’s Ninth on Sun., May 4 as the finale of its Celebrate! concert series, it will be as Beethoven intended: performed by a world-class orchestra with all of its attendant grace and might. And, in performing the Ninth, the WSO acts as yet another link in the chain of this piece of music’s remarkable history. While the WSO’s main performance is sold out, the organization has opened its Fri., May 2 dress rehearsal to the public, and tickets are still available.

The great irony of this great symphony is, of course, that by the time he wrote it, Beethoven was almost completely deaf. He wrote one of the most significant pieces of music the world has ever known and never even heard it. Such is the beautiful mystery that is classical music.

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