Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs

Why I Read It: I'm a firm believer in setting the background before telling a story. What was the world around Beethoven like when he composed the Ninth?

Summary: The seminal moments of the year in which Beethoven debuted his Ninth Symphony, and a study of that masterpiece.

My Thoughts: What is it that has made Beethoven's Ninth Symphony stand out over time as one of the most revered pieces of music ever written and performed? Why does it affect us the way it does? Why does the repetitive sixteen-note score, played by different instruments at varying volumes and sung bu different voices, cause us to swell our breasts with the grand feeling of just being alive and able to appreciate such artistry?

Perhaps that's just me. But there is something magical about the way the music thrills with the concomitant fluidity of the strings and the abruptness of the drums. Yet, for us, it's old hat, a standard of classical music we can pull up on our iPods at any time. For 1824, it walked the precipice of being so unusual, so different as to be almost heretical. Music until that time had been written for state ceremonies, for religious purposes, for specific events. Beethoven infused his music with raw emotion, and he wrote it for himself. His Ninth signaled the end of the Classical period and the start of the Romantic.

Sachs carries us through the day of its first performance, imagining what it was that went through the master's mind in the moments leading to it. He bases his suppositions on the historic texts we have from Beethoven's life, the "conversation books" he had on hand to communicate with visitors, handlers and friends, a workaround for his deafness. But I think the author secretly reveled in the chance to "play" Beethoven in that crusty, haughty personality we all attribute to him.

He then carries us through the year, and the lives (and deaths) of Romantic era poets and writers, playwrights and more. He intertwines the lives of the great composers as they were so knotted up anyway; this one mentored that one, that one was influenced by this one. He then runs us through his interpretation of the piece, for the most part avoiding the temptation to lay out a manmade storyline.

I truly believe that we are empowered by, inspired by our times, our surroundings. I'm sure Beethoven was, too, but then, he had the perhaps unconscious ability to rise above it all and see the world from a different perspective, one that no one else could see. Actually, I take that back. I really feel he had more of an ability to draw deeply within himself and remove himself from society in the creative moment. He was a risk-taker, willing to break convention and present the world music as he thought it should be, not aligned by the rules of church or state.

If you don't think so, listen to his Ninth Symphony and perhaps then you'll understand.


  1. Hi John,
    Thank you for reviewing this book. In music school we studied the interaction of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Our history professor was enamored with this time period in music history and for good reason. He loved to summarize the succession from classical music to the romantic era by telling a brief story about the three composers.

    When Beethoven was a very young man, he greatly desired to be Mozart's student. He played piano as an audition for Mozart. Mozart was so impressed with Beethoven that he agreed to teach him. Before they could begin their lessons, Beethoven was summoned home because his father had died.

    Beethoven being the oldest in the family stayed home and cared for his younger siblings. By the time he could leave his siblings, Mozart had died.

    In the absence of Mozart, Beethoven applied to Haydn for tutelage. Haydn and Mozart had been great friends and deeply admired each other's work. Mozart had told Haydn about how impressed he was with Beethoven. Mozart had even predicted that Beethoven would become better than him.

    Haydn agreed to teach Beethoven, but they had a very rocky relationship. Beethoven was constantly trying to expand the forms, rules and conventions of music.

    Haydn, a rule breaker himself, thought that Beethoven went too far. Beethoven refused to be bound by convention. Eventually he shattered the mold of classical music and set the course for the Romantic era.

    It is an amazing confluence of talent. It is so rare to be able to look at a single point in history and to be able to identify so clearly how one musical style transitioned into another. Never mind the idea that arguably the three greatest musical minds in history all knew each other, worked together, performed for each other, argued with each other. I can only imagine the conversations they must have had...

    Here is a good link that expounds upon the three composers and their musical styles: http://www.musicanthology.org/?p=105

  2. Hi Greg - thanks for the link. I wonder if there are any other genres through history in which we could find such a crossing of giants. It seems odd to consider it, but does something like Manning-Brady or Montana-Marino in their world measure up?