This weekend, Beethoven’s epic Ninth Symphony brings us the timeless message of humanity and brotherhood, and the Bernstein Centennial celebration concludes with his moving Chichester Psalms. Joan Tower’s homage to women everywhere opens the program.
(Born 6 September 1938; New Rochelle, New York)
First performance: 10 January 1987; Houston, Texas
Last MSO performance: MSO premiere
Instrumentation: 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (suspended cymbals, gong, tam tam, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, temple blocks, tom toms)
Approximate duration: 3 minutes
Joan Tower is “one of the most successful women composers of all time” (The New York Times). Educated at Columbia University, where she studied with Otto Luening (1900-1996), her extensive catalogue includes orchestral works, chamber music, solo instrumental music, choral music, and a ballet (Stepping Stones - 1993), commissioned by Milwaukee Ballet, a selection from which she later conducted at the White House). Tower has taught at Bard College since 1972, and has been composer-in-residence for the St. Louis Symphony, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the Pittsburg Symphony.
Taking her inspiration from Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, over the years Tower has penned six Fanfares for the Uncommon Woman. The first dates from 1986. Commissioned for the Houston Symphony, it is dedicated to the conductor Marin Alsop and “to women who take risks and who are adventurous.”
Recommended recording: Marin Alsop, Colorado Symphony Orchestra (Koch Classics)
(Born 25 August 1918; Lawrence, Massachusetts; Died 14 October 1990; New York, New York)
First performance: 15 July 1965; New York, New York (world premiere); 31 July 1965; Chichester, England (U.K. premiere)
Last MSO performance: November/December 2007; Andreas Delfs, conductor; Mikaela Schneider, child soprano; Milwaukee Symphony Chorus
Instrumentation: 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (rasping stick, bongo drums, whip, temple blocks, wood block, chimes, xylophone, glockenspiel, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum), 2 harps, strings, chorus
Approximate duration: 19 minutes
For the 1964.65 season, Leonard Bernstein was granted a sabbatical from his duties as music director of the New York Philharmonic. He chose that year only to compose, basking in the luxury of nothing to do but experiment. According to the maestro, he wrote lots of music, utilizing 12-tone rows and other avant garde techniques. Much of it “was very good,” he later stated, “and I threw it all away. And what I came out with at the end of the year was a piece called Chichester Psalms, which is simple and tonal and tuneful and as pure B-flat as any piece you can think of... because that is what I honestly wished to write.”
Bernstein had been commissioned by the Very Reverend Walter Hussy, Dean of Chichester (Sussex, England) to write a work for the annual summer music festival held by Chichester, Salisbury, and Winchester cathedrals. In offering the commission, Dr. Hussey—who in past years and locales had commissioned Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Finzi’s Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice, among many others—told Bernstein not to feel inhibited by the fact that the new piece would be premiered in a 900-year-old Anglican cathedral. “I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music,” he opined.
It’s safe to say Dean Hussey got what he asked for. Bernstein the Broadway composer saturated Chichester Psalms with piquant text painting and kaleidoscopic orchestration. The work is sung in Hebrew and cast in three movements. It opens with a striking introit (Psalm 108:2) whose music will recur at the end of this movement and again at the end of the piece. Psalm 100 is set in an aptly rollicking 7/4 rhythm that is then contrasted by the lyrical beginning of the second movement. Here, Bernstein depicts the shepherd boy David, singing Psalm 23 to the accompaniment of a harp. This affecting melody is taken up by the women’s voices, but is fiercely interrupted by the men’s chorus: “Why do the nations rage?” (Psalm 2:1-4). (The influence of West Side Story seems quite evident here.) Even when the pastoral melody is brought back, distant rumblings continue.
Following the densely scored string passage that opens the third movement, we hear the comforting words of Psalm 131: “Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty.” At the very end, Bernstein brings Chichester Psalms full circle by recasting the powerful music that began the entire work for unaccompanied choir, pianissimo—“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 33:1).
Dean Hussey granted Bernstein permission give the world premiere of the Psalms with the New York Philharmonic. After the first U.K. performance 16 days later, the Bishop of Chichester said he had seen David dancing before the Ark. For his part, the Dean was, he told the composer, “excited that [the Psalms] came into being at all as a statement of praise that is ecumenical. I shall be tremendously proud for them to go around in the world bearing the name Chichester.” And sure enough, in no time at all, the Chichester Psalms became Bernstein’s most popular choral work.
Recommended recording: Derek Lee Ragin; Robert Shaw, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus (Telarc)
Ludwig van Beethoven
(Baptized 17 December 1770; Bonn, Germany; Died 26 March 1827; Vienna, Austria)
First performance: 7 May 1824; Vienna, Austria
Last MSO performance: March 2014; Edo de Waart, conductor; Susanna Phillips, soprano; Kelley O’Connor, mezzo soprano; Thomas Cooley, tenor; Christopher Maltman, baritone; Milwaukee Symphony Chorus
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), strings, chorus
Approximate duration: 65 minutes
The brotherhood of man was a longed-for goal for both Ludwig van Beethoven and Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), the great poet whose words Beethoven used in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. Schiller’s ode An die Freude (“To Joy”) had appealed to Beethoven for a long time; he was only 22 (1792) when he first planned to set it to music, though the earliest surviving sketches for the Ninth Symphony date from 1817 and 1818.
Beethoven’s “Joy” theme is one of the best-known melodies in classical music. From its use in beginning piano instruction books to its adaptation as a church hymn to its appearance in countless film soundtracks to its performance at every Olympic Games since 1956, its presence is seemingly ubiquitous. Because of this, notes Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood, there are two “Ninth Symphonies” in the mind of the general public: “One is the ‘Ode to Joy’ itself, as a choral anthem; that is, just the melody, not the elaborate and complex movement from which it comes. The other is the symphony as a complete work, a large-scale four-movement cycle in which the enormous finale brings solo and choral voices into the symphonic genre for the first time.”
Consider, too, the fact that the Ninth has been put to cultural and political use, for both abhorrent and redeeming ends. The Nazis, after declaring Beethoven sufficiently Germanic and racially pure, propagandized his works as the sum and substance of Aryan strength; Furtwängler even conducted a performance of the Ninth to celebrate Hitler’s 53rd birthday. At the other end of the spectrum, it has been used to proclaim freedom, most memorably at the 25 December 1989 concert led by Leonard Bernstein to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall. On that happy occasion, the great maestro instructed the singers to use the word “freedom” (“Freiheit”) instead of “joy” (“Freude”).
In his sketchbooks for the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, both finished in 1812, Beethoven makes mention of at least one further symphony. Over ten years elapsed, though, before he turned his full attention to the Ninth. By the autumn of 1822, he had finished the bulk of the Missa solemnis and had put the finishing touches on his last two piano sonatas. Most of Op. 125 was composed between then and the end of 1823; by February 1824, the score was complete.
On its face the Ninth looks like a conventional symphony. It is set is four movements, though the slow movement is placed third, not second, providing greater contrast to what follows. And what follows, as we all know, is a finale that is unlike anything else in the orchestral canon. It, and the entire work itself, is a watershed in the history of symphonic music, one that would influence composers in the generations that followed—from Brahms and Wagner to Berlioz and Mahler—all the way into the 21st century.
The opening 16 measures evoke the sound of an orchestra tuning up before a performance. “Is this the first theme?” we might wonder, but the true first theme then forcefully erupts: a descending D-minor arpeggio. The main subject is then restated in B-flat major and remains in that key to the end of the exposition. The development section features fugato writing on several motifs and leads to the recapitulation with a return to the “introduction.” This time, though, the full orchestra is in D major, fortissimo. A powerful coda, itself almost like another development section, closes the movement.
The extended second movement—over 1,500 measures, if all internal repeats are counted—is a scherzo (though Beethoven had by 1822 given up the use of that term). Set in D minor, it is characterized by impetuous forward motion, symmetrical phrase structure, and imitative textures. A sylvan trio in D major provides a quiet interlude between the extroverted music of the scherzo.
The songful Adagio is surely some of the most heartfelt music the master ever set down. It is an elegant set of variations on two melodies: the first (Adagio molto cantabile) is in B-flat major; the second (Andante moderato) is in D major. Toward the movement’s end, fanfares for trumpets and timpani disrupt the quiet, warning us that something momentous is just over the horizon. The movement ends quietly, but with anticipation.
Beethoven’s history-changing finale begins with a dissonant fanfare that combines two chords: B-flat major (the key of the Adagio) and D minor (the Ninth’s overall key). Recitative-like passages for the lower strings follow, as music from the first three movements is stated in turn, each time separated by recitative, and rebuffed. The woodwinds at last intimate the “Joy” theme, which is graciously accepted. Cellos and double basses intone this melody, gradually joined by the rest of the orchestra. The opening Presto returns to usher in a recitative for the bass soloist; he then leads the chorus and the other soloists through three verses of Schiller’s poem. A Turkish march for the tenor soloist and men’s chorus follows, replete with cymbals and triangle; it is a variant of the “Joy” motif.
The march theme is developed as a spirited orchestral double fugue, then the chorus repeats the first verse text in yet another guise. A broad new motive sets the words “Seid umschungen, Millionen” and leads to a mystical Adagio. Beethoven quickens the pace to Allegro energico as the first verse returns in yet another variation; this is combined with “Seid umschungen” to fashion a jubilant double fugue for chorus and orchestra. A florid, polyphonic cadenza for the four soloists leads to the concluding Prestissimo, an ebullient stretto on “Seid umschungen” that is checked only briefly by a grand Maestoso for “Joy, the daughter of Elysium.”
The story of the first performance of the Ninth Symphony is one of musical legend. Beethoven was in the middle of the orchestra, following the music with his score, but he was so deaf that he seemed to have lost his place. At the conclusion, there was tremendous applause, which Beethoven could not hear, The incident was described by Sir George Grove, who heard it, long after Beethoven’s death, from Caroline Unger, the alto soloist of that first performance: “The master, though placed in the midst of this confluence of music, heard nothing of it at all and was not even sensible of the applause of the audience at the end of his great work, but continued standing with his back to the audience and beating the time, until Fräulein Unger turned him, or induced him to turn and face the people, who were still clapping their hands and giving way to the greatest demonstrations of pleasure. His turning about, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had not done so before because he could not hear what was going on, acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed.”
In his book on the composer (Beethoven; Schirmer Books, 1977), musicologist Maynard Solomon waxes philosophical about this great work:
“If we lose our awareness of the transcendent realms of play, beauty, and brotherhood which are portrayed in the great affirmative works of our culture, if we lose the dream of the Ninth Symphony, there remains no counterpoise against the engulfing terrors of civilization, nothing to set against Auschwitz and Vietnam as a paradigm of humanity’s potentialities. Masterpieces of art are instilled with a surplus of constantly renewable energy—an energy that provides a motive force for changes in the relations between human beings—because they contain projections of human desires and goals which have not yet been achieved...”
Recommended recording: Claudio Abbado, Swedish Radio Choir, Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)