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Symphony no. 9 -- The Critics

We found Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial ... . The symphony we could not make out; and here, as well as in other parts, the want of intelligible design is too apparent.
                 -- The Harmonicon, London, 1825

Vast masses of idle criticism are still nowadays directed against the Ninth Symphony in point of form. These criticisms rest upon uncultured text-book criteria; mere statements of the average procedure. We shall never make head or tail of the Ninth Symphony until we treat it as a law unto itself. Its gigantic proportions are only the more wonderful from the fact that the forms are still the purest outcome of the sonata style. The choral finale itself is perfect in form.
                 -- D. F. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis, 1925

The whole orchestral part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony I found very wearying indeed. Several times I had great difficulty in keeping awake ... . It was a great relief when the choral part was arrived at, of which I had great expectations. It opened with eight bars of a common-place theme, very much like Yankee Doodle ... . As for this part of the famous Symphony, I regret to say that it appeared to be made up of the strange, the ludicrous, the abrupt, the ferocious, and the screechy, with the slightest possible admixture, here and there, of an intelligible melody. As for following the words printed in the program, it was quite out of the question, and what all the noise was about, it was hard to form any idea. The general impression it left on me is that of a concert made up of Indian warwhoops and angry wildcats.
                 -- A Providence, R.I., newspaper quoted in The Orchestra, London, 1868

We heard lately in Boston the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. The performance was technically most admirable. ... But is not the worship paid this Symphony mere fetishism? ... I admit the grandeur of the passage 'und der Cherub steht vor Gott.' But oh, the unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune, 'Freude, Freude'! Do you believe way down in the bottom of your heart that if this music had been written by Mr. John L. Tarbox, now living in Sandown, N. H., any conductor here or in Europe could be persuaded to put it in rehearsal?
                 -- Philip Hale, Boston Music Record, 1899

A fog of verbiage and criticism surrounds the Choral Symphony. It is amazing that it has not been finally buried under the mass of prose which it has provoked. Wagner intended to complete the orchestration. Others fancied that they could explain and illustrate the theme by means of pictures. If we admit to a mystery in this symphony we might clear it up; but is it worth while?

We ought in the Choral Symphony to look for nothing more than a magnificent gesture of musical pride. A little notebook with over two hundred different renderings of the dominant theme in the Finale shows how persistently Beethoven pursued his search and how entirely musical his guiding motive was.
                 --Claude Debussy, 1901

If the best critics and orchestras have failed to find the meaning of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, we may well be pardoned if we confess our inability to find any. The Adagio certainly possessed much beauty, but the other movements, particularly the last, appeared to be an incomprehensible union of strange harmonies. Beethoven was deaf when he wrote it.
                 --Boston Daily Atlas, 1853

With the opening of the last movement Beethoven's music takes on a more definitely speaking character: it quits the mold of purely instrumental music, observed in all the three preceding movements, the mode of infinite, indefinite expression. ... It is wonderful how the master makes the arrival of the human voice and tongue a positive necessity, by this awe-inspiring recitative of the bass strings; almost breaking the bounds of absolute music already, it stems the tumult of the other instruments with its eloquence, insisting on decision, and passes at last into a songlike theme whose simple stately flow bears with it, one by one, the other instruments, until it swells into a mighty flood.
                 --Richard Wagner, 1846

Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer.
                 --John Ruskin to John Brown, 1881

  Copyright (C) 2005 William Lane