Friday, October 1, 2010

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824

By Harvey Sachs

New York, Random House, 2010

Week 40 Non-Fiction

Along with many other appreciators of classical music, I am a person who loves Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so I was intrigued to find this new book, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, by Harvey Sachs. It was just what I needed; an overview of the symphony from a cultural, historical, musical, and personal perspective without being outside the scope of interest of a non-professional musician.

I first met Beethoven as an eight year old playing Fur Elise and feeling like a real piano player. For most young piano players, Fur Elise is a transformative event. “Finally, I get to play real music!” Listening to the Ninth Symphony, however, requires a more adult comprehension. Harvey Sachs tells about his own love affair with the symphony as a young teenager and his recurring fascination with the music throughout his long career as a musician, music conductor, and music writer. That personal history becomes the footnote (or postlude) to the book and the driving force for his writing. This is his ninth book, including biographies of Toscanini and Rubinstein.

The first performance of the Ninth Symphony occurred on May 7, 1824, in Vienna, Austria. The details of Sachs’ book revolve around that event. He looks at it from four perspectives: the perspective of the composer, the historical context in which it was written, the listener, and the composers who inherited its legacy. He includes his own experience with the music as a postlude. It is a satisfying format, very readable and not too technical. He lets other biographers delve into greater detail about Beethoven’s life. His interest is in setting the context of the work in the historical era and analyzing the music from the perspective of a listener rather than a musicologist. Taken as a whole, the reader is enlightened and enchanted to know more about this brilliant piece of genius.

I was particularly interested in knowing about Beethoven’s circumstances during the years in which he wrote the symphony as well as the circumstances surrounding its first performance. I had told elementary students for years about his deafness and about how he conducted the performance and could not hear the audience’s response. It was gratifying to know that I wasn’t making up the details. Sachs makes these circumstances quite vivid; he suggests “To say that he (Beethoven) broke new ground is to understate the matter grossly; Beethoven altered the course of Western music. In the astonishingly individualistic compositions that he produced between the ages of thirty-two and forty-two, he extended the boundaries of tonality, lengthened and transmuted the old forms, and allowed intensely personal expression much freer rein than it had previously known in music.” All that genius reached a climax in this first performance of his master work.

The second part of the book was also fascinating. 1824 was a pivotal year in European history. Napoleon had been defeated but there was still a great deal of idol worship regarding him. Additionally, many great artists, writers and musicians were at work, including Shubert, Byron, Pushkin, Delacroix, Stendhal and Heine. Sachs spends a little time on each of these men, helping us understand the way in which artists of all types internalize revolution. He reminds the reader “that spiritual and intellectual liberation requires endless internal warfare against everything in ourselves that narrows us down instead of opening us up and that replaces questing with certitude.” Although European governments were returning to autocracy, individuals and their creativity were opening up to new levels of genius.

I got bogged down a bit in the section of the book that deals with the music itself. Part of it was my fault; I didn’t take the time to find a copy of the music to listen to as I was reading about each movement. It would have been a much more valuable experience if I had done this. However, I have included a link to an NPR Performance Today episode which does a similar analysis of the music, if you would like to spend a time listening and analyzing the music.

The last chapter discusses the legacy of the symphony and especially its influence on Richard Wagner.

Altogether, The Ninth is an enlightening read for music lovers, and I was glad that I took the time to delve into it. It was a confirmation to me that sometimes the easy read is not the most satisfying.

Review in The New York Times:

Interview with Harvey Sachs on Indiana Public Media:

NPR Performance Today: Milestones of the Millennium. Another view of that day in 1824:

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