Beethoven’s Ode to Joy will close the Jacksonville Symphony season
Next week we will give the last classical concerts of the season. We will begin with a brand new work composed by Tarik O’Regan, commissioned by the Jacksonville Symphony. O’Regan was born in England to Irish and Algerian parents and now lives in the United States. His piece, “Transes”, 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.
Then we will 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 works of art in Western culture. It differs 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 one of Beethoven’s other eight symphonies, we are listening to abstract music that has no concrete semantic meaning – it is just music, like an abstract painting is just art. . But because of the introduction of the words, the Ninth is on Something.
You have to wait for the finale to hear words. The first three movements unfold as one would expect in any other symphony: a fast allegro, a scherzo and a slow movement. The first is dark and violent. In my opinion, it is a representation of evil, ruin or death. It is a music of terror: dark and implacable. The second continues in this tone, but in the form of a frenzied dance. Stanley Kubrick was right to use it to accompany scenes of destruction in his film “A Clockwork Orange”. In the slow movement, we finally escape this darkness. In one of his finest adagios, Beethoven writes a set of variations on two sublime themes, each full of consolation.
That sense of relief is shattered as the finale begins, with a chord deliberately designed to offend our ears. It is as if the orchestra were looking 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 had changed. It’s only now that we hear words for the first time, as the lead bass sings, “Oh folks, not those sounds!” Let’s sing happier, happier songs instead. Joy! Joy!”
Beethoven directs Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy. He had been obsessed with this poem since his teenage years, but could not figure out how to put it to music until much later in his life. The poem is largely a product of the Enlightenment, full of the feelings of universal brotherhood, cooperation and love that so inspired Beethoven throughout his life. He had often been something of a class warrior, refusing to bow to members of the Viennese aristocracy, whom he considered his equals. Egalitarian to the core, Schiller’s lyrics inspired Beethoven to write music of relentless and emphatic optimism. Joy is the solution to the darkness of the first two movements. Joy animates us, inspires us and unites us, because “all men become brothers, where the sweet wings of joy light up”.
This optimism can be a sticking point for us today. How can we believe in the common bonds between all people when our country is so divided, after the cruelty of the 20th century, after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine? We are suspicious of anyone who claims that we can all be one after the gulags and concentration camps.
The Ninth may seem naïve, simplistic and old-fashioned. And yet, its ravishing beauty and its power demand that we listen to it. To paraphrase the brilliant writer Richard Taruskin, “Beethoven’s gigantic affirmation still awakens in us the desire 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 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Times-Union Center