Program Notes: Beethoven’s 9th

Beethoven’s 9th

Concert Date: April 9, 2022 

Featuring Haley Sicking, soprano, Jamie Van Eyck, mezzo-soprano, Scot Cameron, tenor, David Robinson, bass, with the Corpus Christi Chorale and the Del Mar Master Chorus.

Program Notes 4: Human Spirit

When people speak of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music, they often talk of the humanity they experience when playing or listening to it. It is to some degree this perceived humanity that sets Mozart apart from the pack. The Ave Verum Corpus is a perfect example of what listeners and performers are referring to- the warmth and beauty that envelops you like a warm hug in a way that few other composers can achieve with such frequency. It isn’t that he’s employing some musical secret weapon- the material is simple, there are no “big moments”. He manages to push all the right buttons and bring you closer to a state of heavenly peace. Ave verum corpus, composed in 1791 six months before Mozart’s death at age 35, is a Latin motet and one of his last completed works. A motet is usually a sacred choral, or solo vocal, composition sung in Latin and intended for use on particular holy days. In this case, Ave verum corpus was composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The text, as follows in translation, dates from the 13th century:

Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, having truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind, from whose pierced side water and blood flowed: Be for us a foretaste of the Heavenly banquet the trial of death! O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me. Amen.

Whether you do or do not support the many social justice movements currently enjoying global attention, hopefully, you will agree on the benefits of one by-product- the rediscovery and reassessment of unjustly neglected artworks in all genres and disciplines created by men and women of color, particularly in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Happily, as a result of this rediscovery, we seem to be in the midst of a Florence Price moment. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1887, Price had originally dreamed of becoming a doctor. But, when her applications for medical school in the South were denied because she was African-American, she changed course, decided to become a composer and enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston. During the course of her studies, Price was encouraged by her mentors to infuse her compositions with traditional spirituals, as well as African and African-American folksong. Along with jazz and blues influences, we can also hear the influence of her devotion to the Christian faith, particularly in her choral and solo vocal works. Price was a prolific composer. There are more than 300 works in her catalog encompassing the symphonic, choral, solo vocal, solo instrumental, and chamber music genres. Price had the distinction of being the first African-American woman to have had a major symphonic work premiered by a major American orchestra when the Chicago Symphony, under the direction of Frederick Stock, performed her Symphony No. 1 in 1933. Adoration, originally composed in 1951 for organ, will be heard in a transcription for string orchestra. Given Price’s deep commitment to her faith, the title almost certainly refers to the worship and veneration exercised in her religious beliefs. 

It is no secret that Ludwig van Beethoven had long desired to set Friederich Schiller’s Ode to Joy to music. There were a few trial runs, most notably with his Choral Fantasy for solo piano, chorus and orchestra. It is with the Symphony No. 9 that his plans finally came to fruition in what is regarded as his masterpiece and one of the greatest artistic accomplishments in music history. But, before we get into everyone’s favorite part, let’s quickly cover the movements that lead up to the Ode. The 1st movement is in sonata form and the extended coda takes up about a third of the movement. The 2nd movement is a scherzo, also in sonata form, and includes a fugue. Both the 1st and 2nd movements feature one of Beethoven’s favorite compositional devices- the obsessive development of small musical motives. The 3rd movement, the symphony’s slow movement, is a double theme and variations. Even before he gets to the grand finale, Beethoven has already pulled out all the stops.

The last movement of the 9th is the heart and soul of the work. Like the 3rd movement, it is also a theme and variations. There is an introductory section that features themes from the preceding movements, which are interrupted by instrumental recitatives. Then the variations begin and after three of them, we hear the voice for the first time. It is the baritone. The words are Beethoven’s, not Schiller’s. It’s the beginning of the big moment that Beethoven has been building to for the last 55 minutes. It is an emotional rollercoaster ride that, to borrow a popular expression, makes you “feel all the feels.” Even if you don’t know what all those people are singing about, can you deny for one minute that the last 10 minutes or so of the piece bring you to a state of unbridled ecstasy that few other pieces do? That as we near the conclusion together, you can’t wait to jump out of your seat and cheer with everything you’ve got? 

Beethoven did not use Schiller’s words exactly as Schiller had written them. He freely adapted them for his own purposes and added a few introductory lines of his own. The following translation leaves out repeated verses:

Oh friends, not these sounds!
Let us instead strike up more pleasing
and more joyful ones!


Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, burning with fervor,
heavenly being, your sanctuary!
Your magic brings together
what custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover.

Whoever has been lucky enough
to become a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!

Every creature drinks in joy
at nature’s breast;
Good and Evil alike
follow her trail of roses.
She gives us kisses and wine,
a true friend, even in death;
Even the worm was given desire,
and the cherub stands before God.

Gladly, just as His suns hurtle
through the glorious universe,
So you, brothers, should run your course,
joyfully, like a conquering hero.

Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.

Do you bow down before Him, you millions?
Do you sense your Creator, O world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars

Almost every day for the last two weeks, one story has repeatedly shown up in my news feed: Beethoven’s Unfinished 10th Symphony completed by AI technology. I successfully managed to avoid this item until I began writing these program notes and my curiosity got the better of me. I’d read poetry and, even worse, pick-up lines written by AI. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading any of these masterpieces, give them a look. They are mostly laugh-out-loud funny due to their many non sequiturs and their awkwardness. But I did give the story and sample recording of the 10th a chance and I must say what I’ve heard so far isn’t bad and does have the characteristics of a late work by the Master himself. I’m curious to hear how the whole thing turns out. Google that title and judge for yourself. It seems that even after 251 years since Beethoven’s birth, we still want more Beethoven. 

Written by

Craig Sorgi ©2021 All rights reserved

Ave Verum Corpus – W.A. Mozart 

Adoration – F. Price

Symphony No. 9 “Ode to Joy” – L.V. Beethoven