ShareThis Page

'The Ninth' deepens regard for Beethoven's masterpiece

| Sunday, July 18, 2010

Summer for classical music lovers in Pittsburgh need not be the cruelest season, despite the almost complete evaporation of concerts.

For real music lovers, there's always more than simply going out to concerts. Listening to recordings at home is a wonderful way not only to enjoy music but also to deepen appreciation.

Reading books on music also can take our love of the art to another level. A well-conceived and well-written book on music can help us understand the context in which a composer created as well as take us more closely into specifics that flow by during a performance.

Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 was the first of two climaxes at the end of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's 2010-11 season. However controversial music director Manfred Honeck's interpretation of Beethoven's Ninth was -- some people loved it; others hated it -- the piece itself is so transporting that the desire to experience it again and know it better is almost irresistible.

That desire is particularly well served by a new book by one of the finest writers on classical music working today. "The Ninth" by Harvey Sachs (Random House, $26) is a slender volume, just 200 pages of text, written with personal passion and drawing on broad-ranging research. Unlike many wonderful books on music, it is written for general readers and requires no knowledge of music's technical aspects or the ability to read music. Owning a recording of Beethoven's Ninth will be a useful supplement.

Sachs' book is in four sections, each a marvel of brevity despite fascinating side journeys. He begins at the apartment house in Vienna where Beethoven wrote the Ninth, grounding his narrative in the realities of life for the aging and completely deaf composer. Along with judicious reporting on the circumstance of the premiere, he provides astute comments on classical style and its internal contrasts. For all Sach's enthusiasm for his subject, he is a remarkably clear-sighted and balanced guide. He paints no idealized portrait of the composer, but ends the section by calling Beethoven "a modern man" for his questioning nature that took nothing at face value.

Beethoven's Ninth is famous as the first symphony to use words, the "Ode to Joy" by Friedrich Schiller. Sach's second section explores the significance of Beethoven's need to use Schiller's words in 1824, although he had first contemplated using them a quarter century earlier.

This chapter, "1824, or How Artists Internalize Revolution," looks at the reaction of other artists -- such as writers Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron), Heinrich Heine and Alexander Pushkin -- to the defeat and suppression of the ideas of the French Revolution. The excesses of the revolution itself, the further betrayal by Napoleon when he made himself emperor, and the re-establishment of authoritarian aristocracy after Napoleon's defeat were profoundly depressing to people who believed liberty, equality and brotherhood would be the basis of a better world.

Beethoven's choice of the "Ode to Joy," with its exaltation of brotherhood, for his Ninth Symphony was a brave and defiant statement. It also has proven to be timeless.

Sachs makes the shrewd observation that the restoration of the aristocracy and suppression of personal liberty led many artists to turn inward, which contributed to the emotional characteristics of the romantic age that followed Beethoven.

As fascinating as Sach's narrative has been to this point, his writing about the Ninth itself in the book's third section will be most valuable for anyone wanting to understand the music itself in a more detailed and deeper way. This section is full of fascinating observations and presents a persuasive interpretation of the work as a whole.

Finally, in the fourth section, Sachs looks at the aftermath of a genius such as Beethoven and how composers had to begin anew because no one could see a way to go further than Beethoven.

"The Ninth" is Sach's ninth book and perhaps his most valuable. Easily read in a single day or a couple of evenings, it is an inspiring examination of one of music's supreme masterpieces. It will be years before the Pittsburgh Symphony performs the Ninth again. In the meantime, music lovers can use Sachs' book and a recording to deepen their appreciation and enjoyment of this masterpiece. Then, hearing it in concert will be a different kind of experience.

Additional Information:

Get the book

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.