This Day in World History
May 7, 1824
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premieres
Back to the audience, facing the orchestra, the composer steadily marked the tempo with his hands. He was not conducting, though — he was deaf. Thus it was that, when the orchestra and chorus finished, he could not hear the applause and cheers of the Vienna audience. When a musician turned him around so he could see the joy on listeners’ faces, Ludwig von Beethoven bowed in gratitude — and wept.
It was May 7, 1824, the premiere performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Beethoven’s Ninth was the first symphony to contain a choral movement — in this case, a setting of poet Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven had long admired Schiller’s poem for its vision of peace and universal brotherhood. He first thought of setting the poem to music as early as 1793. He never developed a satisfactory setting, however.
By the 1810s, Beethoven had determined to introduce voices into a symphony. Later in the decade, he began working on his ninth symphony, which he reworked and revised many times over the next few years. Not until 1823 did he decide to incorporate a choral setting of the ode into the symphony — and even then, he fretted over how to do so.
Beethoven solved the problem by eliminating the fourth movement he had written and replacing it with a new movement. It began with the orchestra repeating — and then musically rejecting — the themes of the first three movements. With a brilliant transition from instrument to a solo baritone, he introduced voice, the lone singer soon joined by a chorus that fills the hall with powerful music.
Beethoven’s musical revolution received mixed reactions. A critic who attended the premiere effused praise: “the effect was indescribably great and magnificent, jubilant applause from full hearts was enthusiastically given the master.” A London critic who heard the work in 1825 called the hour-plus length “a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band and the patience of the audience to a severe trial.”
Most listeners today are more inclined to the judgment of music critic Ted Libbey: “Here is Beethoven at his most revolutionary, transforming the symphony, for the first time in its history, into an act of moral philosophy.”