Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony may not be, as some have claimed, the greatest piece of music ever written, but it’s surely a nominee.
Phoenix Symphony: ‘Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’
When and where: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second St., Phoenix; and 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 E. Second St.
Details: 602-495-1999, phoenixsymphony.org.
A towering paean to international brotherhood and divine joy, it is one of the most powerful artistic testaments ever written for symphony orchestra, with a chorus added that sings lines from Friedrich Schiller’s famous “Ode to Joy.”
“Freude, schöner Götterfunken . . . ” “Joy, beautiful spark of God, daughter of Elysium.”
Yet, Beethoven didn’t make it easy on his performers. There is little joy in negotiating the odd leaps and long phrases, the sustained notes so high in the register that the singers are threatened with blowing out their vocal cords.
“It can be exciting and nerve-racking at the same time,” says Karin Wolverton, who will be the soprano soloist when the Phoenix Symphony opens its season this week with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D-minor.
“You have to be fearless to sing it,” she says. “It’s what I love about Beethoven; it’s all or nothing, you can’t give anything less than 100 percent to this piece. You have to jump in with both feet.”
Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf by the time he wrote his final symphony, and some have wondered if the difficulties he gives his singers stem from that fact.
“If he were able to hear, might he have changed some of the intervals?” asks Gregory Gentry, chorusmaster for the Phoenix Symphony Chorus. But, even when he was young, with good ears, Beethoven didn’t seem to care about the comfort of his performers.
“It’s unrelenting,” Wolverton says. “He doesn’t give you time to breathe.”
With long phrases that have no natural pause in them to allow a singer to suck in new air, Beethoven asks the impossible.
“You try to make this beautiful line, and then, at the very end, you have to go up and reach into the stratosphere, at the very end when you’ve exhausted all your air supply,” Wolverton says. “When you’re singing in the chorus, you can sneak a breath, because 10 other people are singing the part, but a soloist can’t do that. You have to keep going.”
But it isn’t easy for the chorus either, Gentry says.
“Beethoven looks at the chorus and orchestra as one,” he says. “It makes for unidiomatic singing; it requires a shifting of musculature at a moment’s notice.
“The high notes and the low notes are not problems in themselves, but when you mix them up one after the other, they are a problem.”
Further, Gentry says, Beethoven often sets the “wrong” vowels to his passages.
“Sopranos want to have open vowels, the ahs, and ohs, when they sing ascending lines, and closed vowels, like the ee or eh, as in ‘chaotic,’ when they descend,” he says.
Many great operatic composers do this instinctually. Puccini, for instance, or Verdi.
Not Beethoven. He is not there to make it easy for the performer, but to challenge the performer.
“Another difficulty is the demand he places on his tenor, in the Turkish March section, where he calls for intervals like the tritone or drops an octave over and over,” Gentry says.
Mezzo-soprano Gigi Mitchell-Valesco says she feels she has it easy compared with the other soloists.
“The sopranos have such difficulty,” she says. “It’s either too low or it’s high screechy stuff. As for the alto, if you can hear the alto, she’s making a mistake.”
Altos and violas share a special bond for that, she says.
But it is possible that the difficulty Beethoven gives his performers has an expressive purpose. It’s not just difficult; it sounds difficult. The performers have to struggle to get it right, and Beethoven’s music is about struggle. If it were too easy, it would not suggest to the audience that the glory that resounds is a result of all that effort.
“Where I sit onstage,” Mitchell-Velasco says, “you’re enveloped in the sound. There is the conductor pouring this energy out, and you can feel the energy coming through their bodies and it translates into that gorgeous string sound, and no matter how negative the world is, you feel it is good. No, it’s good.”
It is the element of ad astra per aspera (“to the stars through difficulty”) in the Ninth that makes it believable. If it were too easy, it might just sound naive and sentimental to say, “all men will be brothers.” But it isn’t easy.
“The famous melody in the finale begins just from an idea, from very far away, in the cellos, and it grows and it grows until it fills the entire world,” Mitchell-Velasco says.
And at the end, few eyes in audience or onstage remain dry.
“The symphony has meaning. It is not just notes,” Gentry says. “You sing about all humankind being one, and with all the difficulty in the world today, all the wars and suffering, you can still walk out of the concert hall and feel the beauty of nature, of the world.
“That’s what we all strive to do, to find something in the music that touches us in a theological or spiritual or pleasurable way or sets off an emotion. That’s what we’re all here for.”
Whenever we fall back into believing that art is just another form of entertainment, we can face Beethoven’s Ninth and realize he is asking much more of us, audience and performers alike, and saying there is more.
“I have a 5-month-old son,” Wolverton says. “I have to believe there is something waiting for him.”