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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 12 The First Romantics
Richard Taruskin

Beethoven now undertook to compose a symphony, his first in more than a decade. Like the Variations and the Mass, it broke all generic precedents, encompassing in its last movement what was for all the world a virtual oratorio, for soloists, chorus, and an orchestra augmented by a whole battery of “Turkish” instruments, on the text of Friedrich Schiller’s famous poem, An die Freude (known in English as the “Ode to Joy”). Feeling that his music was no longer fashionable in Vienna (then in the throes of infatuation with the operas of Rossini and with a new breed of concerto virtuosi), Beethoven made inquiries with an eye toward having the new symphony, the Ninth (op. 125), introduced in Berlin.

On hearing of this, a group of his admirers—among them his old patron Prince Lichnowsky, his new publisher Diabelli, and his last important pupil Karl Czerny (1791–1857)—tendered him a “memo” or open letter imploring that he not forsake his “second native city.” It is one of the most affecting documents of the incipient romantic art-religion (now significantly tinged with post-Napoleonic nationalism), and impressive testimony to Beethoven’s central place in its ideology.

Although Beethoven’s name and creations belong to all contemporaneous humanity and every country which opens a susceptible bosom to art, it is Austria which is best entitled to claim him as her own. Among her inhabitants appreciation for the great and immortal works which Mozart and Haydn created for all time within the lap of their homes still lives, and they are conscious with joyous pride that the sacred triad in which these names and yours glow as the symbol of the highest within the spiritual realm of tones, sprang from the soil of their fatherland. All the more painful must it have been for you to feel that a foreign power has invaded this royal citadel of the noblest, that above the mounds of the dead and around the dwelling-place of the only survivor of the band, phantoms are leading the dance who can boast of no kinship with the princely spirits of those royal houses; that shallowness is abusing the name and insignia of art, and unworthy dalliance with sacred things is beclouding and dissipating appreciation for the pure and eternally beautiful.

For this reason they feel a greater and livelier sense than ever before that the great need of the present moment is a new impulse directed by a powerful hand, a new advent of the ruler in his domain…. For years, ever since the thunders of the Victory at Vittoria ceased to reverberate, we have waited and hoped to see you distribute new gifts from the fulness of your riches to the circle of your friends. Do not longer disappoint the general expectations30

The “Ninth”

fig. 12-9 Kärntnertortheater, Vienna, site of the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Moved by the tribute, Beethoven decided to come out of retirement for what would be the last time. He agreed to a public concert, his first in a decade, to be held at the same theater in which, ten years before, his own much-revised opera Leonore (now called Fidelio) had finally met with favor from the public that had formerly spurned it.

The official announcement read:




HERR L. v. BEETHOVEN which will take place Tomorrow, May 7, 1824 in the Royal Imperial Theater beside the Kärtnerthor.

The musical pieces to be performed are the latest works of Herr Ludwig van Beethoven.

First: A Grand Overture [“The Consecration of the House,” op. 124]

Second: Three Grand Hymns with Solo and Choral Voices [i.e., the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei from the Missa solemnis]

Third: A Grand Symphony with Solo and Chorus Voices entering in the finale on Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The solos will be performed by the Demoiselles Sontag and Unger and the Herren Haizinger and Seipelt. Herr Schuppanzigh has undertaken the direction of the orchestra, Herr Kapellmeister Umlauf the direction of the whole, and the Music Society the augmentation of the chorus and orchestra as a favor.

Herr Ludwig van Beethoven will himself participate in the general direction.

Prices of admission as usual.

Beginning at seven o’clock in the evening.31

As promised, the composer, by then stone deaf for almost a decade, did stand before the assembled orchestra and chorus and wave his arms, but according to the later recollection of the pianist Sigismund Thalberg, who as a twelve-year-old prodigy attended the concert, the court conductor Michael Umlauf, listed as general overseer in the advertisement above, “had told the choir and orchestra to pay no attention whatever to Beethoven’s beating of the time but all to watch him.”32 The most famous story of this great event, for which we have not only Thalberg’s memory to rely on but also corroborating testimony from other witnesses and participants, relates how “after the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony Beethoven stood turning over the leaves of his score utterly deaf to the immense applause, and [the contralto soloist Karoline] Unger pulled him by the sleeve, and then pointed to the audience, whereupon he turned and bowed.” Of all Beethoven’s works, the Ninth Symphony cast the longest shadow over the rest of the nineteenth century, and has continued to lower over the music of the twentieth century as well. In its awe-inspiring vastness it has been so long and so often compared to a mountain that as recently as 1967, the critic and musicologist Joseph Kerman could write, simply, that “we live in the valley of the Ninth Symphony.” Immediately notorious, it has been as strenuously resisted as it has been enthusiastically submitted to. Both submission and resistance have been eloquent testimonials not only to the work itself, but to the cultural attitudes that it quickened and polarized.

One of the most telling contemporary comments was that of Louis Spohr (1784–1859), a violinist and, later in life, the first virtuoso baton conductor in the modern sense of the word. It was the reaction of one who had known and played under Beethoven in his youth, but who could not accept the new turn the master’s art was taking. For Spohr the Ninth was a monstrosity that could only be explained in terms of its creator’s deafness.

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? Yes! I must even reckon the much admired Ninth Symphony among them, the three first movements of which, in spite of some solitary flashes of genius, are to me worse than all of the eight previous Symphonies, the fourth movement of which is in my opinion so monstrous and tasteless, and in its grasp of Schiller’s Ode so trivial, that I cannot even now understand how a genius like Beethoven’s could have written it. I find in it another proof of what I already remarked in Vienna, that Beethoven was wanting in aesthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful.33

The “Ninth”

ex. 12-7 Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 9, Op. 125, IV “Schreckensfanfare” (arr. Franz Liszt)

Recalling Edmund Burke’s elaborate set of contrasts between the sublime and the beautiful, one can only agree with Spohr’s comment, though not necessarily with its intent. If to be beautiful meant to be pleasing, then Beethoven did indeed lack a sense of beauty. Or rather, he rejected the assumption on which Spohr based his judgment, that to be beautiful (that is, to please) was the only proper aim of art. Like Bach before him (though he could scarcely have known it), Beethoven in the Ninth did at times deliberately assault the ear, most famously and extravagantly with the fanfares—Richard Wagner called them Schreckensfanfaren, “horror fanfares”—that introduce the finale containing the “Ode to Joy” (Ex. 12-7). In the second of them, the D minor triad and the diminished-seventh chord on its leading tone are sounded together as a seven-tone harmony with a level of dissonance that would not be reached again until the very end of the century.

However much music like this may move or thrill, it cannot be said to please the listener. By Mozartean standards (recalling his letter about Osmin’s rage aria in The Abduction from the Seraglio, quoted in chapter 9), it isn’t music. By composing it, Beethoven tells us that he doesn’t care what we think of it (or of him); that it is bigger than we are. It was, to many, an insulting message, a sort of declaration of composerly independence, an arrogant emancipation proclamation.

Spohr’s seemingly contradictory charge of triviality was aimed at the famous melody to which Beethoven set Schiller’s Ode. In its folklike simplicity it seemed a sort of urban popular tune, out of place in the lofty precincts of the rest of the symphony; and Beethoven did his best to accentuate its low-class associations by giving it a “Turkish” parade variation that turned it, for all the world, into Viennese street music (Ex. 12-8).

The “Ninth”

ex. 12-8a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 9, IV, “Ode to Joy” theme

The “Ninth”

ex. 12-8b Ludwig van Beethoven, beginning of “Turkish” variation on the “Ode to Joy” (arr. Liszt)

The most radical move, however, was to load the symphony down with a great freight of imagery and symbolism, but an imagery and a symbolism that is not fully explained either within the work itself or by reference to any public code. Maynard Solomon has identified in the symphony a great deal of conventional musical imagery—martial, pastoral, ecclesiastical—that any audience familiar with the works of Mozart and Haydn would have instantly recognized. He has also pointed to an elaborate network within the work of thematic reminiscences and forecasts that unite all of the movements into a single expressive whole. Most particularly, these thematic forecasts prefigure the “Ode to Joy” melody in the finale, and turn the whole symphony (it is possible to argue) into a single quest for “Elysium,” the mythical abode where heroes and other fortunate shades are rewarded by the Gods with the Joy whose praises Schiller sings (Ex. 12-9).

These are the “introversive” and “extroversive” sign systems we first encountered and discussed as expressive media in connection with Haydn’s instrumental music. As always, the two are fully separable only in theory. The Joy Theme that is prefigured in the early movements by a process of introversive signification is itself an extroversive sign, pointing outside of the work to words like “Joy” and “Elysium” and the concepts for which they stand.

But as in every other way, Beethoven maximized and transformed his heritage to the point where, as Hoffmann was first to suggest, it crossed the threshold into a difference not only in degree but in kind. Specifically, by withholding an explicit key to the sign systems on whose importance he nevertheless insists, by offering no explanation of the meanings to which those systems may give rise, Beethoven enlists all listeners in another “quest”—a never-ending process of interpretation. “The precise nature of Beethoven’s programmatic intentions,” Maynard Solomon cautions, “will always remain open,” turning the Ninth Symphony into a vast symbol, “the totality of whose referents cannot be known and whose full effects will never be experienced.”34 And this ultimate uncertainty, Solomon avers somewhat more controversially (but very much in the romantic spirit), is “true to the nature of music, whose meanings are beyond translation—and beyond intentionality.” The message—Solomon’s, to be sure, but perhaps Beethoven’s as well—is clear. We may interpret Beethoven’s meanings in endless ways, depending on our perspicacity and our interests. What we may not do, on the one hand, is to claim to have arrived at a definitive interpretation, or, on the other, to deny the reality of the semiotic dimension or its relevance to the meanings of the work.

The “Ninth”

ex. 12-9a Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 9, foreshadowing the “Ode to Joy” in earlier movements

The “Ninth”

ex. 12-9b Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 9, foreshadowing the “Ode to Joy” in earlier movements

The “Ninth”

ex. 12-9c Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony no. 9, foreshadowing the “Ode to Joy” in earlier movements

This is romanticism of the purest strain. What must forever remain controversial about it is the implication (which Solomon, if not Beethoven, makes explicit) that such is “the nature of music.” Meanings like those Solomon describes had not figured in previous musical discourse, at least not instrumental discourse. The eighteenth century had its semiotic codes, of course: there was the Affektenlehre or system of symbolic figures on which Bach and Handel and their contemporaries had drawn to depict their characters’ emotions. And there was the so-called sinfonia caratteristica, the “characteristic” (that is, pictorial) symphony, to which works like Beethoven’s Sixth (“Pastoral”) Symphony belonged, with its “Scene by the Brook” and its vividly graphic “Storm.” (The Eroica, too, might be called a sinfonia caratteristica in view of all of its military imagery, beginning with that bugle call of a first theme.) The difference was that conventionally embodied meanings like these, whether emotive or descriptive, were always public meanings. No one needs to interpret the “Pastoral” Symphony, just as no one needed to explain to Prince Esterházy what Haydn was getting at with his “Farewell” Symphony. If certain eighteenth-century genres do need to be interpreted now by historians—the expressive conventions of the opera seria, for example—that is only because we have lost the code through disuse, not because it was esoteric. Some eighteenth-century sacred genres such as the Bach cantatas did occasionally embody esoteric meanings, it is true, to which hermeneutic techniques have to be applied. But such theological, often numerological symbolism was a survival of a pre-Enlightenment esthetic and was rejected between Bach’s time and Beethoven’s.

The meanings embodied in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are no longer public in this way. Though they are clearly crucial components of the work, they cannot be fully comprehended according to some socially sanctioned code. They have become subjective, hermetic, gnomic, “not of this world.” They are not so private as to render the musical discourse unintelligible, but they do render its message ineffable and inexhaustible and, to that extent, oracular. Intuitive grasp, aided of course by whatever can be gleaned by code or study or experience, is the only mode of understanding available. Just as often we may be deeply moved without quite knowing why or how. And that must be what Beethoven meant by insisting, in his late years, that he was not merely a composer (Tonsetzer) but a “tone-poet” (Tondichter).


(30) Elliot Forbes, ed., Thayer’s Life of Beethoven (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. 897–98.

(31) Forbes, ed., Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, pp. 907–8.

(32) Quoted in Forbes, ed., Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, p. 909.

(33) Louis Spohr’s Autobiography (London: Longman, Green, 1865), pp. 188–89.

(34) M. Solomon, “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: A Quest for Order,” 19th-Century Music X (1986–87): 8, 10–11.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 The First Romantics. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 The First Romantics." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-12007.xml