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Parsons, James

Ode to the Ninth: the Poetic and Musical Tradition Behind the Finale of Beethoven's Choral Symphony

Ph.D. University of North Texas, 1992
(JAP614F@wpgate.smsu.edu)

Is there a "text" in the Finale of Beethoven's Choral Symphony? If yes, then where is it to be located: in the domain of the purely musical, in the words the composer derived from Friedrich Schiller's 1785 poem "An die Freude", or in the combined resources of music and words? Historically speaking, most analysts have sided with the purely musical. Indeed, from the work's earliest days the vast majority of commentators have been in agreement with A. B. Marx's 1826 pronouncement that the Finale "is something other than a vocal composition." Thus for Nietzsche, writing a half century later, the Finale is "a purely symphonic work of the most authentic spirit of Beethoven. The music blinds us totally to images and words, and we simply do not hear anything of Schiller's poem." A generation later, Heinrich Schenker upheld the thought when at the start of his monograph on the Ninth he declared: "Am Anfang war der Inhalt!" -- "in the beginning was the Content," and not, by pointed implication, the word.

Mindful of Beethoven's more than 30-year interest in Schiller's poem as well as his often-repeated concern with music's "inner meaning," my study will put forward a rather different view. Part of that view hinges on the facts that Schiller's poem was set some 40 times before Beethoven and that the poem was part of a long-standing philosophical and literary-musical tradition. In establishing the historical context of Beethoven's setting, it will be seen that Freude (Joy) -- addressed in Schiller's poem as "the beauteous spark of the gods" -- was a cardinal tenet of Enlightenment thought, the enduring goal of those who aspired to the era's faith in reason. Precisely this was affirmed by Kant in the 1787 second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason when he noted that the "entire pursuit of reason" has but "one end: that of happiness." The comment closely parallels one made by Johann Adolf Scheibe years earlier when he observed that just as happiness is philosophy's ultimate aim, so too is it music's. Tracing this idea to a category of music that Scheibe toiled hard to encourage -- the emerging strophic Lied -- it will be seen that virtually all the settings of Schiller's poem before Beethoven's were set strophically. Invoking critical theories deriving from genre, namely genre's "horizon of expectation," leads to an enriched critical perspective that points the way towards a number of compelling aspects of the Choral Finale overlooked by previous commentators.

Going further, it will be shown that the lines Beethoven appropriated from Schiller's poem and the order in which he set them are perfectly attuned to the poetic and philosophic tradition in which Freude figured so prominently, specifically the process of Bildung: the harmony of the passions of the heart and of reason. To take but one example, consider the line from the poem's opening strophe that tells of "joining again that which harsh custom has divided." As will be shown, the entire Finale of the Ninth Symphony is given over to the implications of this thought, whether it be the reordering of the text imposed by Beethoven (which allowed him to construct a movement that literally joins again that which has been disjoined), or metaphorically in the "harmony" of music, a point reflected in the use of such an unprecedentedly large array of musical styles and idioms: from the unpretentious simplicity of four-square song through increasingly ornamented variations to double fugue. Thus, to the extent that there is a "text" in the Ninth's Finale, it lies not in music or words alone but in the concord of the two, a concord devised by Beethoven and in turn inspired by his understanding of Enlightenment philosophy.