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'The Ninth' deepens regard for Beethoven's masterpiece

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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.

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