[7 June 2007]
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has always been the site of perfervid contestation and unmitigated joy—unmitigated but not unmediated. Indeed the Ninth was one of the most anticipated premieres in the history of concert music and critics (advocates and detractors alike) have attempted to elucidate its sounding presence in print ever since. This music manages simultaneously to attract and repel. It conflates alluring charm and brash vulgarity, a concern with beauty and a penchant for intimations of grotesque sublimity (in the sense conveyed in the contemporaneous writings of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant—that is, the opposite of beauty; where beauty is small and orderly, the sublime is overwhelming and chaotic; while we may master beauty through aesthetic understanding, the sublime eludes our intellectual capacity and confounds our cognitive grasp).
Yet, despite an enduring critical ambivalence, the Ninth figures into the political and cultural landscape of the West (and increasingly the East, as well) to such a pervasive extent that it seems to have surpassed its existence as a piece of music altogether to embrace a new ontological category; it has become the marker (perhaps, in some cases, the maker) of events. This is the music that was performed as the Berlin Wall crumbled; this is the music that replaced symphonic concert programs immediately following September 11th and then served to memorialize the anniversaries of the attacks for various orchestras throughout the country. As such, the symphony demands and defies interpretation. It seems somehow overfull; anything that we might say is never enough. And yet somewhere in the midst of this exultation lies disappointment; we seem always to feel that we ought to be able to say more and that it ought to say more to us, to be more explicit, to disclose whatever secret lies hidden behind its sonic gesticulations, its gnomic extravagances.
And so the concomitant need to deflate the work arises. We want to tear down the citadel we have erected in the place of Beethoven’s Ninth. After all, it is full of gaps, moments of rupture, discontinuities. The extrinsic (Turkish marches, recitatives, a choral finale, awkward horn solos, disjunctive modulations, irresolution where there should be closure) intrudes upon its musical structure and dismantles any hope of coherence. We might explain these ruptures away through recourse to Beethoven’s deafness (that is, after all, why Mahler claimed he was justified in reorchestrating this symphony) but this fails to satisfy us. The symphony is what it is, in large part, because we have fashioned it, we have continually remade it in our image. To employ the most obvious example: when the Berlin Wall came down, the event was marked by a performance on 25 December 1989 of the Ninth in which Leonard Bernstein had the word “Freude” (the “Joy” of the Ode to Joy finale) changed to “Freiheit” (“Freedom”) to commemorate the occasion.
To take another example: the Philadelphia Orchestra (among many others) marked the anniversary of the September 11th attacks with a performance of the finale of the Ninth because “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony carries a universal message of the ability of humankind to transcend the strife and violence found throughout the world.” And yet it is the finale that includes the famous Turkish March (the violence of which was made exceedingly clear in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), a topic in the Enlightenment for the exotic and the militaristic—not necessarily the stuff of transcendence. Perhaps this is why we feel the need to stand somewhat aloof from the work even when we erect it as a monument to our humanity. Such epic struggles are all too easily made to appear ridiculous and even if no one wants to say so, the Ninth entices us toward ridicule. Indeed, it has been awarded some of the choicest condemnations in music history—but almost always with at least a hint of reserve, a touch of demurral, because, after all, we all know that it ought to be so much more than it is.
The premiere of Beethoven’s final symphony was not supposed to take place in Vienna (where Beethoven resided for the majority of his life) but rather the Ninth was written to satisfy a commission by the London Philharmonic Society (London did not receive the work until roughly six months after its Viennese premiere). Beethoven seems to have had doubts about allowing the work to be performed in his adopted city of Vienna, where—he claimed—musical taste had degenerated through overindulgence in the musical debaucheries of Rossinian opera to the point where Viennese society could no longer be counted on to receive a serious symphonic composition in an adequate manner.
Beethoven considered a premiere in Berlin but a group of music enthusiasts (some of them the patrons of Beethoven) intervened in the form of an open letter:
Although the name and creations of Beethoven belong to all the world and to those lands where art finds a welcoming spirit, yet it is Austria that may claim him as its own. There still lives in its people the appreciation of the great and immortal works that Mozart and Haydn created within its bosom for all time, and with happy pride they know that the sacred triad, in which their names and yours shine as symbols of the highest in the spiritual realm of tones, sprang from the earth of the Fatherland…. Need we tell you that as all glances turned hopefully to you, all perceived with sorrow that the one man we are compelled to name as the foremost of all living men in his field looked on in silence as foreign art invaded German soil, the place of honor of the German muse?
This became something of a platitude. True music was German music (that is, it was the music of the German-speaking people but it had a distinctly Austrian accent). The petitioners cajole Beethoven into protecting them from the aberrant pseudo-music of “foreign art”, which is, of course, “art” in name only. But there is more at work here. Notice the wonderful ambiguity of the use of the term “triad” to connote both the three great “Viennese” composers (what later became known as the so-called “first” Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) and the musical entity that serves as the foundation of tonal music. Thus the names of the composers of import are inscribed onto the very fabric of musical meaning; through the “spiritual realm of tones” (music here transcends the worldly, the corporeal to hint at the truer world beyond—as E.T.A. Hoffmann would have it, the Infinite), these names “shine as symbols” of the highest achievement. What an image! Music attains its ineffable power by evading the visual and the concrete to embrace the aural and the suggestive and yet, in its fugacity, it manifests the names of authority in a resplendent luminosity that appeals to the visual—but not the light of the eye so much as the light of reason; the bodies of the composers are transmogrified to become the intangible symbols of the sounding presence of music itself. After such anticipation, how could the symphony fail to disappoint?
And disappoint it did—eventually. The early reviews were largely positive. How could they not be? The story is just too good (that is why we keep telling it ad nauseam): Beethoven was deaf and yet he continued to compose; he stood before the orchestra waiving his arms as he heard his music unfold within the confines of his imagination (the orchestra actually followed the conductor standing next to the composer); he was so bereft of hearing that the actual conductor had to take him by the shoulders and turn his visage to the adoring audience after the conclusion of the final movement (or was it the second?—accounts differ) so that he could see them on their feet, applauding jubilantly.
But it was precisely his deafness that served as the excuse for the aberrations that others heard in the symphony. Louis Spohr, another composer who spent time in Vienna, believed that it was Beethoven’s pursuit of originality that, when coupled with his physical ailment, led to the bombastic excesses of the Ninth:
His constant endeavor to be original and to open new paths, could no longer as formerly, be preserved from error by the guidance of the ear. Was it then to be wondered at that his works became more and more eccentric, unconnected, and incomprehensible? ... I find in [the Ninth] another proof of what I already remarked in Vienna, that Beethoven was wanting in aesthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful.
There is something beguiling about Spohr’s criticism: Beethoven in the image of the Philoctetes of Sophoclean drama, the hero whose wound makes him simultaneously desired and detested by incapacitating him while allowing him access to realms unreachable by other mere mortals. Philoctetes (and with him Beethoven) is somehow debased and deified, subhuman and superhuman. Indeed it was the confluence of contraries that bothered a young Schubert, who wrote in his diaries as a 19 year-old (and therefore years before the premiere of the Ninth) of “that eccentricity [of Beethoven’s] which joins and confuses the tragic with the comic, the agreeable with the repulsive, heroism with howlings and the holiest with harlequinades.”
Of course, the charge of grand pomp masking mere circumstance was most often leveled against the choral finale but it can be applied equally to the three earlier movements and indeed has been applied to the second movement Scherzo—at least implicitly—by two relatively recent television commercials. The Scherzo did not seem to bother early reviewers of the symphony to any great extent. Many found it refreshing after the difficulties of the first movement. However, taken on its own, it is indeed a rather troubling piece. The movement manages to conflate fugal technique, scherzo and trio form, and sonata form; opening in D minor, the music modulates to C major (the flattened seventh), a strikingly peculiar choice; most importantly, the piece moves beyond what responsibly could be termed “rhythmic verve” to enter into the realm of the barbaric, Dionysian romp. The fugal entries lay out the architecture of the movement (as opposed to a series of phrases punctuated by cadences), creating a sense of inexorable impetus, a driving force that will brook no surcease. And the percussion dominates the aural landscape with a perverse exuberance that constantly threatens to turn the piece into a timpani concerto.
No one saw the inherent contradictions of the Scherzo (its strange admixture of grandeur and banality) with clearer vision or used it to greater effect than Kubrick in the extended scene from A Clockwork Orange in which young Alex listens to the movement while in his head he sees “such lovely pictures” involving a woman being hanged, huge rocks falling on cavemen, and visions of himself as a vampire. Kubrick captures the sense of the music’s grandiosity, the tempest of its atmosphere, while constantly undercutting it with displays of kitsch. The foreboding visage of Beethoven emblazoned on Alex’s window shade billows in the breeze, a pet snake moves provocatively before the vaginal area of a drawing of a voluptuous nude on the wall. The most brilliant touch is Kubrick’s imaginative use of the ultimate piece of kitsch—a group of four porcelain Jesuses (all complete with marks of the crucifixion) with their arms around each other and a leg lifted in the air in the manner of a chorus of dancers performing a can-can. Through a series of clever cuts, Kubrick animates the can-can Jesuses so that they seem to dance to the music; it should come as little surprise to realize that they begin their corybantic excesses just as the timpani returns to the musical texture. The scene perfectly encapsulates the combination of bloated magnificence and questionable taste that makes the symphony as a whole such a disturbing experience and so appropriate as the sounding avatar for Alex’s forays into “ultra-violence”. Kubrick manipulates the music in no way; he merely brings to the fore through imagery what was always lurking there and he embraces what others revile.
But this is Beethoven’s exalted Ninth! We are not supposed to revile such music. Better to tame it, to make palatable what must be revered. This is not so easily accomplished with respect to the music on its own. Despite repeated attempts (on the part of conductors and critics) to “tone down” the timpani, there is nothing subtle about the percussion writing here. The point is made at the outset of the movement. The strings set up a two-measure pattern wherein the first measure presents a falling octave set to the rhythmic cell on which the remainder of the movement is based (a dotted quarter-eighth-quarter) followed by a measure of rest. The initial gesture presents the octave on D while the second marshals forth the octave on A. We therefore expect the pattern to continue two measures later—perhaps with the next pitch of the arpeggiated tonic chord, the F. And indeed we get the F but it is the timpani that delivers it followed immediately, not by a measure of rest as previously, but by another octave in the strings (now joined by the winds and horns) presenting the D octave that closes the arpeggiation. Thus the timpani serves as both an unexpected interruption and the logical continuation of the arpeggiation while disrupting the established pattern by pushing the strings back a measure. The timpani creates disorder by imputing itself within the established order, making the final string octave stumble over itself.
Ed Harris in Copying Beethoven
However, if the piece cannot be tamed through sound, then perhaps it can through imagery—albeit imagery of a less abrasive and suggestive sort than that presented by Kubrick. The opening gesture of the music has made a number of appearances of late in the closing sequence of a series of commercials for Sunsilk Color Boost, a product designed to bolster one’s “natural” hair color through application in the shower. The commercials pit age-old rivals against each other in order to demonstrate for all time just which stereotype is the more enduring—the dumb, plastic-surgery-enhanced blonde monopolizing “the spotlight”, or the relatively nerdy but unremarkable brunette living in the shadow of the blonde.
In its efforts to lampoon such stereotypes by blowing them up to the level of an epic struggle between diametrically opposed contraries, the series manages to produce at least a mild chuckle. The blondes are represented as gold-digging airheads while the brunettes are consoled with the uplifting reassurance: “At least your moms think you’re pretty.” Each commercial ends with an obnoxious voice-over declaiming the product’s catchphrase, “Boost your color and get hairapy”, while silhouetted female figures (with ridiculously long legs, luxuriant hair, nonexistent waists, and stiletto heels, of course), helpfully colored brown and gold so that we understand the Manichean underpinning at work here, wrestle each other until a large tube of the product itself falls from nowhere, crushing one of the combatants as the other gently primps her hairdo. The short battle sequence is set to the opening of the Scherzo with the fatal blow being struck in coordination with the aberrant timpani entrance. The music reinforces the overwrought contestation parodied by the commercials themselves—its empty, yet forthright gestures underlining the decisive silliness of the advertising concept. The commercial does not attempt to teach us anything about the Scherzo in the manner of Kubrick (indeed, it seems to rely upon at least some of our understanding of these musical gestures—whether or not we are able to identify them as Beethoven’s composition—in order to make its effect) but it manages to remind us (however unwittingly) of the peculiar, self-contradictory nature of the music itself.
A more ignominious use of the Scherzo within a television ad can be found in the new Lexus commercial featuring rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Costello. Costello, looking decidedly bourgeois these days with his characteristically large black-framed glasses and designer suit, sits in the backseat of a Lexus listening to the opening of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth. He opens with what seems to be a quip (“Beethoven, he wrote a few toe tappers”) but then quickly lapses into the tired rhapsodic meanderings that have plagued this work since its premiere: “When he wrote this he was completely deaf, poor man. He was hearing this all in his head.” Costello seems to use this biographical item as an excuse to launch into a participatory engagement with the music (“You can almost see the orchestra in front of you”) as though because of Beethoven’s Philoctetian wound, this music impinges upon the visual in a manner unavailable to other works—thus undermining precisely the vague intimations of the unseen beyond that the Romantics used to valorize Beethoven’s late works. It just gets worse from there. Costello tells us, “It doesn’t start like a rock ‘n’ roll record, but it’s exciting like a rock ‘n’ roll record”, as we see the commercial’s selling line printed across the screen (“This is music you can see”) and Costello indulges in a ludicrous bit of “air-conducting”.
Beethoven’s Ninth - Photo from Brandeis University
Various fans have objected to Costello’s presence in the advertisement, labeling him as a sell-out and condemning him for abandoning his earlier insistence on avoiding the commercialization of his image and music. I was not aware of his anti-commercial leanings, so I have little opinion on the matter other than to say that he looks perfectly comfortable in the role of a shill to me. However, it is a strikingly odd commercial in several respects. First, why attempt to sell a car by talking about its stereo system to the exclusion of all of the aspects of a car that make it valuable as a car, like, I don’t know, safety features, gas mileage, and driving function? Of course, the idea here is that the Lexus affords us a closed-off world in which we are so happy with the car’s performance that we can settle in and listen to music in high-quality stereo reproduction—although I still wouldn’t recommend that anyone follow Costello’s advice and close one’s eyes to “see the orchestra” while driving, no matter how safe you feel in Lexusland. Ultimately, the line, “this is music you can see”, is revealing. It not only refers to Costello’s escapade into visualization but it draws on an old platitude usually applied to architecture—that is, in respect to its utilization of proportion, architecture (and here the Lexus) is frozen music.
However—and this is what bothers me somewhat—the commercial does more than sell a Lexus, it attempts to sell an image (all commercials do) but this is an image that tries to make Beethoven’s music and our understanding of that music somehow complicit in our turn-of-the-21st Century late-bourgeois vision of ourselves. You need not feel alienated from this music. It is just like rock ‘n’ roll! It may not start off like a rock record (this is an odd statement—the raucous opening is one of the aspects of the piece that might justifiably call up a comparison with rock) but it is “exciting like a rock ‘n’ roll record!” This is not stuffy music or intellectual music; it is the same homogenized brand of aural joyriding that you hear on any radio station—something Costello drives home through his strange amalgam of conducting and headbanging. Now that the first two generations to grow up on rock ‘n’ roll are aging parents and grandparents, it is Beethoven that must be made reputable with respect to rock—a beautiful inversion, I suppose. Roll over Beethoven, indeed! The problem is that by reducing Beethoven’s Scherzo to those characteristics that may appear to be analogous to rock, the commercial vitiates the symphonic work of those very elements that might make the analogy revealing at all. It is the untamable aspect of the Scherzo, its ebullient non-conformity, that has troubled listeners for so long and it is this that is lost when we attempt to tame it by showing ourselves that it is just like something else—not coincidentally, something else that was, in its roots, nonconformist and yet has been continually co-opted to mouth the words of the master logic of the status quo with the brash voice of pseudo-youth culture.
I fear (and this is a fear that far outstrips any quibbles I might have over commercial spots) that by making the Ninth an image of our humanity (and why are we always convinced that images of our humanity are inherently enlightening and gratifying?), we have conditioned ourselves to filter out all of those elements in the music that make it a worthwhile (if troubling) listening experience. Indeed, I fear we may fail to hear this music as music (as opposed to hearing it as symbol of hope, etc.) altogether. Forget Hairapy! Forget Lexus and Elvis Costello! Forget the Berlin Wall and September 11th with respect to Beethoven! Forget (for a while) even Kubrick! Listen to the music again. Hear it without the filters insofar as that is possible. Surely this music has more to say to us and we have more to say through our understanding of it than all of this. Surely this music—with all of its eloquent contradictions, its rich impasses, and its disturbing disjunctures—means more than we have allowed. Doesn’t it? It ought to.