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The Genius of Beethoven's Ninth

The Ode to Joy in the finale is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is everywhere. It’s the anthem of the European Union. It’s on adverts. The work appears frequently in the programmes of orchestras across the world. In it Beethoven pulls off a feat of sheer musical brilliance. Here is how he does it.

At the core of every symphony lies musical development; the taking apart, reconstructing and combining of the melodies set out at the start of the piece. It’s what makes symphonies, well, symphonic. One of the issues with development is that the sort of melodies that lend themselves to being deconstructed and manipulated are often have a rather strange quality to them. They are a bit unstable, asymmetric, quirky. It’s precisely these quirks that allow composers to take them to bits and rework them. It is also why melodies from symphonies tend not to be very well known – the best melodies have a self-contained perfection that resists transformation and development. It would be hard to base a symphony on say, Abba’s Dancing Queen for example.

This melody is most definitely not symphonic

But Beethoven’s Joy melody is so seemingly simply, so hummable, that on first hearing it can’t possibly be the basis for a symphony finale lasting some 25 minutes, can it?

A look at Beethoven’s sketchbooks reveals he spent months painstakingly working out this melody, although it sounds like he did it in 5 minutes just running his fingers up and down a piano. It is a simple, happy tune that contains only 6 different notes, so why did it take him so much effort?

The first appearance of the Joy melody in the symphony

Beethoven designed this tune to serve a purpose. First of all, it is hinted at in the disruptive, instrumental opening where some of the melodies previously heard in the rest of the symphony are rejected in favour of the “Joy” tune. So far, this isn’t really remarkable. Then, when the Joy melody is introduced, he composed other tunes, called countermelodies, to be played around it. Very skilful, but not extraordinary in itself.

The bass soloist and then the choir sing a series of variations on the main melody. Here, Beethoven gets going with his symphonic writing, but this is just the start. He then changes the time signature from 4/4 to 6/8 and turns the little melody into a sort of Turkish March. Then, still in the modified form, he uses it as the theme for a four-part fugue. A fugue is where the main melody is played simultaneously with itself, starting at a different point and simultaneously with other melodies, rather than a melody simply being played around it. Think of the children’s song “London’s Burning” with four people singing it but on steroids.

After a restatement of the Joy theme in full, needed for structural clarity, he introduces a completely separate section of unrelated music. Except it isn’t unrelated at all because Beethoven combines the 6/8 transformation of his Ode to Joy theme with a 6/8 transformation of his new section, heralded by a dominant minor ninth chord that shimmers like the stars, in a massive double fugue; yes, twice as complex as a single fugue, before plunging headlong into the conclusion which fragments and combines all of the melodies and propels the music towards its final, triumphant ending.

Not only does he manage to achieve all that, he captures the sense of joy and universal brotherhood in Schiller’s poem perfectly and enhances it, leaving the listener ready to explode with happiness at the final chord.

https://www.schillerinstitute.org/transl/schiller_poem/ode_to_joy.pdf

Some say it is a work of musical alchemy, to take something so simple and turn it into more than anyone would think possible. I disagree with that view because what he starts with in his simple, little melody, is already pure gold. And to achieve all that while being totally deaf and unable to hear what you are composing? That’s just another part of the genius of the Ninth Symphony.

The complete symphony