Tuesday, May 7, 2024

200 x 9

Today is not only the birthday anniversaries of both Brahms and Tchaikovsky, but this very day is also the bicentennial of the first performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1824.

Like other famous Beethoven premieres, it was probably a pretty badly under-rehearsed performance in uncomfortable conditions, but it was a great occasion anyway.

The Ninth stands out among Beethoven's symphonies - it's long, monumental in scale, and it has that huge choral finale, something almost (not quite) unprecedented in symphonies, certainly in Beethoven's - but it's not always appreciated how distinctive the Ninth is.

The length. It had been the Eroica which was the path-breaker here, nearly twice as long as any symphony ever previously written, but none of its successors, however monumental (the Fifth!) attempted to outdo it in length. Until the Ninth, which was far longer still - and not outdone by anybody else in symphonic form for some 70 years to come.

The Ninth was the first symphony Beethoven had written in 12 years. He'd written all the other eight during the previous 12 years. Then, nothing. (Lots of other stuff - his profound last piano sonatas among them - but no symphonies.) So for a long time, Beethoven was the composer of eight symphonies. That was it. Then, big surprise, a Ninth, an epic unlike anything he'd done before.

This upcoming season, San Francisco Opera is putting on a performance of the Ninth in the opera house. Probably in lieu of another opera production, since it's a lot less expensive (no sets, no costumes, no acting). This isn't unprecedented: the Ninth was the only music not by himself that Wagner allowed at Bayreuth, considering it the seed of his own work. The Opera is permitting the Ninth as a choice for a subscription package, and since there's little else on their schedule I want to see, I'd have taken it, except that there's only one performance and I have a date conflict.

So, no live Ninth for me this year, though I've certainly heard it often enough in the past, most recently in a two-piano arrangement, but before that, last fall in one of MTT's final concerts with the SFS. I'll take that.

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