The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review for Hiroshima Day: Harvey Sachs’ book “The Ninth” is an insightful and entertaining but flawed view into an iconic symphony by Beethoven

August 6, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Note: I’m posting this book review for publication on Hiroshima Day  — the 65th anniversary of when the US dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945 (below). I suspect many people, if asked to pick appropriate music to mark the occasion, might choose Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with its appeal for peace and universal brotherhood.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote more than his share of iconic classical music that is performed, recorded and listened to over and over again.

Take the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”; the Fifth Symphony; the Seventh Symphony; the Violin Concerto; the “Emperor” Piano Concerto; the “Kreutzer” and “Spring” violin sonatas; the “Moonlight” and “Pathetique” piano sonatas. The list goes on.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the music writer Harvey Sachs (below) turned to Beethoven to write a profile study of a famous classical work and the cultural context that surrounded it from its beginning to the present day.

Sachs turns to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 123 – a late work he explores in his new book “The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824” (Random House, 225 pp. $26).

Sachs, who is well known and well respected for his biographies of pianist Arthur Rubinstein and conductor Arturo Toscanini, is a former conductor and music journalist who now teaches at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. So he is well qualified for undertaking this study that is by turns popularizing and scholarly.

Overall, this insightful book is very successful in providing a new look at the cultural and artistic context of the last and most ambitious of Beethoven’s symphonies. (I will confess: I prefer Nos. 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7 to 9.)  Sachs is particularly compelling in his account of the many details and problems surrounding the difficult work’s world premiere on May 7, 1824 in Vienna.

Sachs explains why the work proved so thorny for the deaf Beethoven to compose and perform — see the autograph below –including the fact that it was the first-ever symphony to incorporate singing.

Less successful to my mind is the liberties Sachs takes in writing an unconvincing interior monologue of Beethoven’s thoughts as he was approaching the premiere of the symphony.

This book needed more careful editing — as well as a companion CD of The Ninth included in the price. (What a perfect occasion for a book-CD mixed media combination.)

Similarly, sometime he seems ot get sidetracked and the cultural context he provides runs a bit too afar from Beethoven – including how various Romantic artists in music, literature and visual art (Pushkin, Byron, Stendhal, Berlioz, Heine, Delacroix) sought to internalize and then express the sense of revolution that permeated Europe just before and after Napoleon and the French Revolution. The book begins to feel truncated, like stitched-together essays or chapters.

But Sachs is a fine and fluent writer, and his extensive footnotes prove the research that went into this book. At times, though, I wish he had used fewer words and just gotten to the point more quickly with quick quotations or sound-bite nuggets drawn from a diary or article to make the same point.

At times I also find the work a bit too confessional and self-indulgent as well as too melodramatic and preachy for my taste: “Until our sorry species bombs or gluts itself into oblivion,” Sachs writes, “the skirmishing will continue, and what Beethoven and company keep telling us, from the ever-receding past yet ever-present past, is that the struggle must continue … The uniquely vital expressive power of the Ninth Symphony, which is one of the most striking products of human beings’ attempts to continue the struggle, as well as to deepen their individual relationships to life, is the subject of the next part of the book.” (Page 111).

Well, yes, the Ninth Symphony (see the manuscript below) has the famous, beautiful and moving “Ode to Joy” finale and plea for universal brotherhood of Schiller’s poetry that is the official hymn of the European Union and is used to mark all sorts of occasions from signing peace treaties to opening new concert halls.

All fine facts and fine sentiments.

But music is music – not world-changing political, economic or military power — no matter how appealing its message. And The Ninth does have an important message, to be sure. But even Hitler and the Nazis liked to hear it. What does that tell us?

Even Sachs’ account of the symphony, movement by movement, seems insufficient and sketchy, given that the book is about the symphony. True, he by and large avoids musicological jargon; but you feel there is more there than he is letting on. Just who is his audience or intended reader?

I would have preferred to see Sachs work more as a cultural reporter. How interesting it would have been to hear some important contemporary conductors (Muti, Abbado, Tilson Thomas, Alsop, Gergiev, Levine) talk about The Ninth and what it — or certain parts of it — means to them now as well as how that meaning has morphed over the years.

And what about what Virginia Woolf might call “the common listener”? It would have been good to have some reactions from ordinary listeners who attend concerts and keep The Ninth so successfully in the mainstream repertoire. (For years, New York Philharmonic conductor Lorin Maazel used it as a New Year’s concert performance that sold out. And whenever symphonies program The Ninth, attendance is usually very good.)

A little oral history would have gone a long way.

Plus, there are some curious and telling details missing. Tens of millions of Americans heard the opening of The Ninth’s scherzo movement as theme to the NBC nightly news with Huntley and Brinkley. And many composers never lived past a ninth symphony to compose a tenth, so Beethoven’s Ninth was seen as a historical curse.

Still, this book is a fine introduction to the meaning of this specific work and to the importance of Beethoven (below) in establishing the Romantic and modern prototype of the rebellious artist and tormented genius.

There are some glaring weaknesses. Beethoven’s Ninth is so well recorded, with so many different orchestras and conductors, that one wonders why Sachs doesn’t offer a critical discography to help guide readers towards what he sees as the best listening experiences and most convincing interpretations.

But in the end, despite its secondary flaws, this is an enjoyable book to read for any Beethoven enthusiast or classical music fan. Indeed, I would like to see a similar approach to other iconic classical works by Bach, Mozart, Schumann and Stravinsky.

It is a way both to freshen and deepen our understanding of the canon, the great and standard classical works. And  classical music can use all the help it can get these days.

My one piece of advice? Be sure to listen to the Ninth Symphony before, during and after you read about it. The direct and personal experience of the music itself is, after all, what really matters.  Sachs, I’m sure, would not disagree with that.

Have you read Harvey Sachs’ “The Ninth”?

What did you think of it?

What do you think of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony itself?

How does it rank among your favorite symphonies and favorite Beethoven symphonies?

What classical music would you choose to mark Hiroshima Day?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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