Next week we perform the final classical concerts of the season. We’ll open with a brand-new work composed by Tarik O’Regan, commissioned by the Jacksonville Symphony. O’Regan was born in England of Irish and Algerian parents and now lives in the US His piece, “Trances,” is an exploration of his childhood memories of Moroccan pop music. It’s a fascinating look at how time affects our memories, like a haze of fog that affects our vision.
After that we’ll perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s hard to know where to start when talking about this colossus, which is one of the most important, beloved and powerful pieces of art in Western culture. It’s different from Beethoven’s other symphonies because it introduces words for the first time, sung by a choir and a quartet of soloists. When we listen to any of Beethoven’s other eight symphonies, we are listening to abstract music that doesn’t have concrete semantic meaning — they are just music, like an abstract painting is just art. But because of the introduction of words, the Ninth is about something.
We must wait until the finale to hear any words. The first three movements proceed as you might expect in another symphony: a fast allegro, a scherzo and a slow movement. The first is dark and violent. In my opinion, it’s a depiction of evil, ruin or death. It’s music of terror: dark and unrelenting. The second continues this tone, but in the form of a wild dance. Stanley Kubrick was right to use it to accompany scenes of destruction in his movie “A Clockwork Orange.” In the slow movement, we finally escape this darkness. In one of his most beautiful adagios, Beethoven writes a set of variations on two sublime themes, each full of consolation.
This sense of relief is shattered at the start of the finale, with a chord deliberately designed to offend our ears. It’s as if the orchestra is searching for a way forward, a solution to the despair of the first two movements. They don’t find it, and the dissonant chord returns as if nothing has changed. Only now do we hear words for the first time, as the solo bass sings, “Oh friends, not these sounds! Rather let us sing more cheerful and more joyful ones. Joy! Joy!”
Beethoven proceeds to set Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” He’d been obsessed with this poem since his teens but couldn’t figure out how to set it until much later in life. The poem is very much a product of the Enlightenment, full of the sentiments of universal brotherhood, cooperation and love that so inspired Beethoven throughout his life. He had often been a kind of class warrior, refusing to bow to members of the aristocracy in Vienna, whom he saw as his equals. Egalitarian to the core, Schiller’s words inspired Beethoven to write music of unrelenting and emphatic optimism. It is joy that is the solution to the darkness of the opening two movements. Joy enlivens, inspires and unites us, for “all people become brothers, where joy’s gentle wings alight.”
That optimization can be a sticking point for us today. How can we believe in common bonds between all people when our country is so divided, after the 20th century’s cruelty, after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine? We’re suspicious of anyone who claims we can all be one after the gulags and the concentration camps.
The Ninth can seem cloyingly naïve, simplistic and outmoded. And yet, its ravishing beauty and power demand that we listen. To paraphrase the brilliant writer Richard Taruskin, “Beethoven’s gigantic affirmation still awakens in us longings for what we can no longer believe in but wish we could. And that gives us hope.”
Courtney Lewis is music director of the Jacksonville Symphony.
Beethoven’s Ninth: Ode to Joy
Jacksonville Symphony with soprano Elaine Alvarez, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Cooper Nolan, baritone Anthony Clark Evans and the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus
7:30 pm Friday and Saturday at the Times-Union Center