Structure of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

by Derek M. Kwait
Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony while completely deaf.

Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony while completely deaf.

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Most people are familiar with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as the famous "Ode to Joy." In fact, the "Ode to Joy" is only the fourth movement of a much larger symphony. According to music theorist Michael Vidmar-McEwen, the the entire Ninth Symphony, and the famous fourth movement in particular, is a benchmark in the history of music for its daring structural innovations.

First Movement

The first movement is in a moderately fast sonata-allegro form typical of first movements of the period. It begins with a long, drawn-out 16-bar introduction on an open fifth, which invokes instruments tuning up, before a storm in D minor erupts across the orchestra. Following the storm is a brief appearance of melodic material that foreshadows the "Ode to Joy" theme in the fourth movement. It then moves to a secondary key area of B-flat major, which Vidmar-McEwen calls "an unusual choice that anticipates the importance of B-flat later in the symphony" before an unexpected recapitulation in D major (instead of D minor).

Second Movement

The second movement is a scherzo -- a light, quick movement -- in D minor. According to Vidmar-McEwen, this is unexpected since most four-movement symphonies have a slow second movement following an allegro first movement and a scherzo third movement; Beethoven here reverses the expected order. The movement begins with an aggressive tympani solo and includes a contrasting trio section in D major.

Third Movement

The tempo of the slow third movement is marked "Adagio molto e cantabile," which indicates a slow pace and songlike feel. Its key of B-flat major was prefigured in the first movement. It has a "theme and variations" form in which increasingly elaborate versions of the theme are interspersed with contrasting musical passages in distant keys. Vidmar-McEwen says this theme sounds reminiscent of the slow movement from Beethoven's famous Piano Sonata, op. 13, the "Pathetique."

Fourth Movement: Structure

The fourth and most famous movement is itself structured like a symphony containing four movements: A "first movement" introduces the "Ode to Joy" theme and quotes features from the previous three movements like flashbacks. After an enormous crescendo, it ends abruptly and the music of a Turkish Janissary Band begins, fulfilling the role of the scherzo. After this comes an "Andante maestoso," a majestic passage acting as a slow movement. Finally, Beethoven concludes with a climactic fugato, or densely imitative segment, the "fourth movement" of the movement.

Fourth Movement: Distinctiveness

According to Vidmar-McEwen, the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony is the first symphonic movement in history to feature voices. To heighten the drama of this historic moment, the vocal parts are introduced with a chord featuring all seven pitches of the D harmonic minor scale being played simultaneously -- an unprecedented sound. The movement is also notable for its extensive use of percussion; in the first three movements, as well as in most other Classical pieces, percussion is limited to tympani, but the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth also features bass drum, triangle and cymbals.

About the Author

Derek M. Kwait has a Bachelor of Arts in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh and has been writing for most of his life in various capacities. He has worked as a staff writer and videographer for the "Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh" and also has training writing fiction, nonfiction, stage-plays and screenplays.

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