Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in Mahler’s Guise

  1. SymphonyNo. 9 (Gustav Mahler's orchestration)
  1. Vasily Petrenko dirigent
  2. Lise Davidsen soprano
  3. Tone Kummervold alto
  4. Daniel Frank tenor
  5. Callum Thorpe bass
  6. Oslo Philharmonic Choir
  7. Øystein Fevang choir conductor

When it was first premiered, Symphony No. 9, Beethoven’s tribute to the human collective, seemed to transcend all boundaries for what a symphony could encompass.

250 years after the composer’s birth, one still feels a thrill when the choir’s jubilant “ode to joy” breaks into the orchestral weave, lifting the final movement to new heights. At this concert, we perform Gustav Mahler’s reorchestrated − and much discussed − version of the symphony.

This concert will be Vasily Petrenko’s final concert with the Oslo Philharmonic as Principal Conductor after seven fantastic years.

Hoftheater, Vienna, 7 May 1824. Ludvig van Beethoven (17701827) stares straight ahead. Only a few seconds earlier, the last note has died away from the very first performance of his ninth symphony. The composer, who is by this time completely deaf, perceives signs from one of the soloists to turn around. Behind him, the audience has risen to its feet, and is applauding wildly.

What Beethoven could not hear, but possibly knew, was that he had composed one of history’s musical milestones and greatest of masterpieces. In his ninth symphony, he succeeded in transcending all the external and internal boundaries for what a symphony could contain and communicate. Even just the duration of an hour was in itself far beyond symphonic conventions. Another significant expansion was the use of choir and soloists in the final movement. In both regards, Beethoven’s ninth symphony was a precursor for many of the 19th century’s greatest compositions.

Far more important than his expansion of the symphonic form was the content of the ninth symphony itself. In this work, Beethoven reached the culmination of his complex thematic development − for instance, the fugues in the final movement, the harmonic experimentation, the dissonant “terror fanfare” which opens the final movement, the musical expansion of form, and the way in which all the movements draw the theme further and further away from the inital starting point than any symphony had done earlier.

The work opens with falling fifth intervals played by the strings; in an empty soundscape which is about to explode into the thundering main theme. Many have interpreted this as depicting the creation of the world − the “big bang” manifested in music. The first movement doesn’t hold anything back and is full of Beethoven’s powerful, complex and intense development of the musical material. The second movement is not typically slow, but a fiery and rhythmically driven scherzo, where the solistic role of the timpani is particularly innovative, relaying a sense of humour as well as an explosive power. In the lyrical and measured third movement, it’s as if the composer takes a step back to admire his masterpiece. The movement is pastoral in character, structurally more simple, and contains some of the exquisite melodies Beethoven ever wrote.

The finale opens with one of Beethoven’s most dissonant and violent chords in what Richard Wagner called “the terror fanfare”. Then follows a recitative, rhapsodic and fragmented passage where chaotic resonances from earlier in the symphony are cast about, before being torn apart by the new musical context. This is Beethoven at the height of his musical experimentation, just at the breaking point for what his generation was prepared to tolerate. After a while, the episodes from earlier in the symphony must step aside for the main theme to take centre stage − the Ode to Joy, which is first presented by a unison of deep strings, but which later folds out into the rest of the orchestra and is in the end accompanied by Friedrich Schiller’s famous text as the choir breaks out with “Freude, schöner Götterfunken”. The movement ends in glorious triumph as the whole orchestral apparatus, choir, soloists and conductor − the biggest orchestration Beethoven had ever used in a symphony − comes together in the phenomenal ending.

As important as Beethoven’s musical innovation was the message of the ninth symphony. Using Schiller’s text and working at the height of his stylistic development, the composer had finally found the expression for the humanistic aims which had coloured his activities from the very first: all human beings must come together and live in peace. The message is a simple one, but its dissemination is one of the most formidable ever seen and heard in the world of music. It is not without reason that namely this symphony is the only musical work which is included in UNESCO’s list of cultural heritage. Beethoven’s intention was to change the world with music, and with his ninth symphony, he composed a work which extended beyond time and place, and which is still as modern for listeners the world over, containing a message still relevant to us all.

At this concert, the orchestra performs Gustav Mahler’s reorchestrated version of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. A master of orchestration and a legendary conductor, Mahler thought that Beethoven’s orchestration should be updated according to how symphony orchestras and sound ideals had changed. Mahler added extra horns and timpani, and undertook many great and small changes in order to make the expression of the work even more grandiose and mighty. Although there is little doubt that Mahler’s changes lend the work more power and weight, they remain a topic of discussion. Purists feel that Mahler was interfering in Beethoven’s masterpiece, but supporters believe it was advantageous and even necessary to embellish Beethoven’s work.

Beethoven’s ninth symphony occupies a unique place in the repertoire of most symphony orchestras, and for the Oslo Philharmonic the work has been a central one ever since it was played at its very first season closing concerts. On 3 May, 1920, Georg Schnéevoigt conducted the orchestra, the Caecilia Association’s choir and the soloists Kaja Eide, Ellen Gulbranson, Einar Ralf and Erik Elfgren in the great hall in Gamle Logen, which, according to critics, was near bursting point. The interest was so great that tickets were also sold for the general rehearsal on Sunday 2 May 1920. For many years it was a firm tradition for the orchestra to perform Beethoven’s ninth symphony in their season closing concerts, and these concerts have always been immensely popular with audiences. The work remains immensely popular as the Oslo Philharmonic performs it a century later, almost to the day.

(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation  from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Vasily Petrenko; Photo: CF Wesenberg)

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  • Adult: 190 - 490 NOK
  • Senior: 160 - 395 NOK
  • Student: 120 - 245 NOK
  • Child: 120 NOK
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