Ode to Joy

These notes appeared in the printed program for distribution on February 18, 2017 at the Sandler Center for Performing Arts for the performance of “Ode to Joy” conducted by Daniel W. Boothe. All programs notes for this performance were written by Jo Marie T. Larkin.


Overture to La belle Hélène

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)

Background

Jacques Offenbach was born in Cologne on June 20, 1819, and died in Paris on October 5, 1880. It is hard to believe that Jacques Offenbach was a German by birth, for his music has always symbolized for the world the glitter of Paris; an age of carefree frivolity that satirized almost every aspect of French life and culture. He was blessed with that great requirement of all composers for the light theater– he was inventive and funny and became especially well-known as a composer of light operas, writing over ninety within a span of twenty-five years. La belle Hélène (German: Die schöne Helena) was an operetta in three acts; it was first performed on December 17, 1864, and was an immediate success. Today, however, the operetta is rarely performed, and Offenbach is remembered chiefly for his operetta Tales of Hoffmann, for his overtures to Orpheus in Hades and La belle Hélène.

What to Listen For

The overture to La belle Hélène is easily enjoyed and provides a medley of the favorite tunes in the operetta, which include some of the best-known melodies from all of Offenbach. The melodies are frequently repeated and are easily remembered; the rhythms are simple, yet effective. His compositions, like many other French works, are designed to entertain rather than to provide intellectual complexities, and they still retain much of their charm today.

This great master of the French operetta wrote music that fairly bubbled with wit and satire, and La belle Hélène is one of the liveliest of them all. This “fair Helen” is Helen of Troy, but the Paris who steals her away is no hero, simply a foolish idol, while her husband, King Menelaus, is the epitome of the bored middle class. Helen herself pretends throughout to be uninterested in Paris’s advances, but she has been warned in advance of how fate had decreed her story should unfold, and every time Paris forms a plan to get her away from Menelaus, she cheerfully joins him, all the while crying, tragically, “Ah, Fate!”


Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in D minor, Op. 125
“Choral Symphony” Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

I. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso

II. Scherzo: Molto vivace – Presto

III. Adagio molto e cantabile – Andante Moderato – Tempo Primo – Andante

IV. Moderato – Adagio – Lo Stesso Tempo

Background

The Symphony No. 9 is the final complete symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven. Completed in 1823, the symphony is one of the best known works of the Western classical repertoire, considered by his critics to be one of Beethoven’s masterpieces and one of the greatest musical compositions ever written. The symphony was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony (thus making it a choral symphony), the words sung during the final movement by four vocal soloists and chorus.  Since his early twenties, Beethoven had wanted to write music for “An die Freude,” translated “Ode to Joy,” a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785.  Musical sketches for what was to become the Ninth Symphony began to appear before 1817, but it was in 1822 that Beethoven started to work seriously at it, pulling together all the ideas he had germinating in his imagination for thirty years.  By this time, Beethoven’s hearing, which had been steadily declining since 1800, speeded its downward course, and by 1824, he was almost completely deaf. Although billed as the conductor of the new symphony on May 7, 1824, Beethoven shared the stage with Michael Umlauf, the theater’s Kappellmeister.  He did indeed give the tempos, turning the pages of the score, beating time for an orchestra he could not hear. When the audience applauded through five standing ovations, there were handkerchiefs, hats, and raised hands in the air, so that Beethoven, who was received with the utmost respect and sympathy, could see the ovation gestures.

What To Listen For

There is something astonishing about a deaf composer choosing to open a symphony with music that reveals, like no other music before it, the very essence of sound emerging from silence. The listener can feel Beethoven’s struggle with deafness in the opening of this monumental symphony as he fights to recall what it was like to hear sound, what it was like to hear music. The famous introduction, with no feel of rhythm or key, immerses the listener in the challenges, struggles, and frustrations of the deaf man’s everyday life. The opening theme, played pianissimo over string tremolos, seems to grow out of nothingness before the fortissimo theme of power and clarity emerges, as if from a dream. This is topped  by the startling climax at the beginning of the movement’s recapitulation, whose long-delayed return to the tonic key builds tension to an almost unbearable level.

The second scherzo movement is characterized by its rhythmic drive, its sudden eruptions into violence, and a short variation of the opening to the first movement before the violins enter with the principal theme. The variety of color and texture in the orchestration in this movement is musically brilliant and provides a much-needed break from the intense feelings of passion rooted by the first movement. When the lyrical, slow third movement begins, the powerful feelings immediately become overwhelming. The lovely, wordless song moves with grace over rhythmic accompaniment. The Adagio, placed before the finale for maximum dramatic effect, is utterly gorgeous; it is said, “a person who can listen to this movement and not give way to emotion is a person without a soul.” Beethoven sets the stage for the finale, first with the hymn-like step wise melody of the main theme, and then, in the final measures of the movement with two fanfares for trumpets and drums which warn of something momentous to come, before the music dies quietly.

Peace is shattered with what Wagner called “a fanfare of terror; a wrenching eruption that is actually the dissonant combination of two triads,” and with that sound, Beethoven opens a new chapter in the history of music. He welcomes the sound of the human voice into the symphony and Beethoven’s wonderful melody is finally given words.

The finale is like nothing else written for the symphonic genre; scored for four soloists, full chorus, and orchestra, this famous choral finale is Beethoven’s musical representation of Universal Brotherhood. Characterized as a “symphony within a symphony,” the movement has a thematic unity. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” is the text with which Beethoven gloriously brings his masterpiece to a triumphant end. The symphony that began with the birth of sound comes to an exultant close, creating sounds so splendid that for decades composers would not dare to write a ninth symphony.

English text to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”

O friends, no more these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, More full of joy!

Joy, bright spark of divinity, Daughter of Elysium, Fire-inspired we tread Thy sanctuary. Thy magic power re-unites All that custom has divided, All men become brothers, Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Whoever has created An abiding friendship, Or has won A true and loving wife, All who can call at least one soul theirs, Join our song of praise; But those who cannot must creep tearfully Away from our circle.

All creatures drink of joy At natures breast. Just and unjust  Alike taste of her gift; She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine, A tried friend to the end. Even the worm can feel contentment, And the cherub stands before God!

Gladly, like the heavenly bodies Which He sent on their courses Through the splendor of the firmament; Thus, brothers, you should run your race, like a hero going to victory!

You millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world! Brothers, above the starry canopy There must dwell a loving father.

Do you fall in worship, you millions? World, do you know your creator? Seek Him in the heavens; Above the stars must he dwell.