Friday, June 1, 2007

Joy of the Ode

Beethoven again. Last week I went to hear the famous Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, the “Choral” Symphony, performed by the Juilliard Choral Union & Orchestra (my 5th grade clarinet student would be so proud). I had never before heard the work in its entirety, least not in one sitting. I must admit that as I eased into my seat at Avery Fisher Hall, I felt a bit of pressure to like what I was about to hear. It is, after all, considered to be one of his greatest masterpieces. It (supposedly) is the reason for the initial 74 minute length CD. It’s “Ode to Joy” theme is the anthem of Europe! What would it mean about my own musicianship if I didn’t agree with the Big B’s musical choices?

Rather than worry about that, I found myself dwelling during the first movement about society’s expectations in art. One can hardly stand up and proclaim their disdain for the world’s favorite “Ode to Joy” with out being pelted with a few stones for being an arrogant traitor. One would at least expect an extremely well supported explanation for their treachery (see DJA’s Milton Babbit quote in “We’re Separated At Birth”).

Regardless, I was relieved when I recognized and fully enjoyed the second movement. The third movement was beautiful, but I must admit to being lulled into a zone of mindless wondering. This in turn instigated a thought process on my short attention span for concerts. I am SO guilty of this and like the media blame my Nintendo and PC versions of Splinter Cell and Tomb Raider. Actually I don’t blame them at all, but I do wish I had the ability to focus on the intricacies of longer works of music.

I was roused from this reverie as the third movement ended and the much anticipated fourth began. Oh, the excitement in the air! People woke up, leaned forward in their chairs, bodies tense as they waited to hear that famous melody. I realized that I was not actually familiar with this movement despite the melody and was shocked then awed to hear “Ode to Joy” begin in unison cellos and bass. Interesting… I thought to myself. As the line repeatedly moved across the orchestra, I felt I finally understood the terms “genius” and “masterpiece.” It was this incredible development of the theme that made the deepest impression on me. I wasn’t the only listener enjoying this movement; people all around were nodding their heads as if at a rock concert! They LOVED this music! It really was the most surreal experience I’ve ever had at a classical concert.

Of course the question I immediately asked was did they like it because of the high level of musicianship in the performance, or the genius of Beethoven’s writing, or the drama of Beethoven writing it while dealing with his recent loss of hearing, or because this melody is pounded at us in church, commercials, even cell phone rings? And then… did it matter? These people enjoyed the concert. Their day was made better. You could maybe go as far as say their lives were improved. And I don’t think the media’s propaganda of this tune is the sole reason people love it. They love it because it is a well written hook that is easy to sing along with making it accessible to all people regardless of their musical training. Interesting.

One last note about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: Only Beethoven could get away with writing a piece that requires over 100 singers to wait almost an hour before getting the chance to sing.

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