The Ninth Symphony
We are approaching the 175th anniversary of one of the greatest works in the world music history – Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. For such an impressive period of time it seems to have been thoroughly studied within the traditional musicology. There appear to be almost no mysteries about it, however, it is this very opus that has given rise to a most interesting story, as a rule, falling out of musicologists’ sight. It boils down to this: for quite a time no one after Beethoven managed to write more than nine symphonies, that is, to surpass his achievement.
What’s that? A coincidence? Just a quirk of figures or, perhaps, something else? Let’s attempt to make it clear, casting a brief glance at the historical course of events.
It is common knowledge that Beethoven wasn’t willing to limit himself with nine symphonies and in the last years of his life he started working on the Tenth. But he never accomplished his conception. There was no way further. And, as it proved to be, not only for him. Beethoven’s younger contemporary Schubert also created nine symphonies (together with the famous “Unfinished” and the unaccomplished Seventh). The most impressive one, with it, the so-called “Great” in D-dur did he accomplish in the very last year of his life. We can find as many symphonies with L. Spohr, a composer widely famous in the first half of the 19th century.
As far as other composers of the last century are concerned, as a rule, they turned to this genre much more seldom. Berlioz, Schumann and Brahms created 4 symphonies, Mendelssohn and Saint-Saens – 5. Quite close to the mystical point were Tchaikovsky (: symphonies and a program symphony “Manfred”) as well as the founder of Danish symphonic art Nils Gade (8 symphonies).
The end of the century was marked by approaching Beethoven’s “record” – A. Dvorak accomplished his ninth symphony. As is appropriate to the Ninth, it enjoyed a special status among the composer’s works, being qualitatively different from all the previous opuses. Both the program title “From the New World” and the music itself witness great influence of new American impressions on the composer. New opportunities seemed to unfold. But no symphony ever followed, although his creative activity lasted for 10 more years. As is something unperceivable was guarding the mysterious limit.
The greatest Austrian symphonist of the second half of the 19th century Anton Bruckner experienced it up to the hilt as well. Some can say, though, that it had nothing to do with Bruckner, as, according to all sorts of reference books, he is said to have written 11 (!) symphonies. His first two attempts in this genre, however, were regarded by the author himself as disciple experience and were not classified as true symphonies. It is no coincidence that he didn’t number them separately. Thus, his last symphony (1890) turned out to be the Ninth. The composer was working on this opus being seriously ill, realizing that it would be his last one. So it was, and Bruckner didn’t even manage to accomplish the conceived symphony cycle, having finished only three of four movements. The last one was a prominent, really delectable adagio, the outstanding music of which proved to be the very crucial point to which the composer was aspiring throughout his creative work. Therefore, no surprising is the dedication of the symphony “To My Lord”.
Bruckner’s disciple Gustav Mahler found himself in a similar situation already at the beginning of the 20th century. He was also incurably ill, however, he managed to complete his Ninth symphony. Its main idea was farewell to life. Nevertheless, the composer dared to peep in further. During the last summer of his life he got to creating the next one - the Tenth, conceptually close to the previous symphony. He was not fated to it, however. Only the general plan and more or less elaborated sketches are preserved, enabling to reconstruct the first and the third movements. The author’s remarks in the manuscript of the third movement, entitled “Purgatory”, are inseparably connected with ideas of death and torments, presenting the last words of crucified Jesus Christ, according to the Mathew testament. As if the composer knew that with creating this opus he was paving himself his last way.
Mahler’s contemporaries, the composers belonging to different national schools in the first quarter of the 20th century were only approaching the mysterious line. The Danish composer K. Nielsen completed six symphonies, American Ch. Ives – seven, Finnish Sibelius – seven plus a program symphony “Kullervo”. Finally, A. Glazunov, having accomplished eight symphonies, started writing the ninth in 1910, but gave it up, perhaps, feeling wrong about it.
The only exception to this rule proved to be N. Myaskovsky, who formally managed to outnumber Beethoven in 1927. It was likely to have been brought about, however, by a radically different approach to the genre of a symphony, distinctly dissimilar to that, having been dominating since Beethoven. For Myaskovsky, an author of 27 symphonies, this genre was no special, but presented a usual, natural form of musical utterance, even conventional one, kindred to the approach of pre-Beethoven epoch. Besides, not all Myaskovsky’s symphonies can be equally estimated. More than that, after the great Sixth could he hardly achieve the same philosophical level of generalization and the effect on the listener.
For other composers the power of the mysterious line remained still burning. In some distance from the breakpoint turned out to be a number of great symphonists of the second quarter of the 20th century, such as Honegger (five symphonies) P. Hindemith (six), S. Prokofyev (seven). Nevertheless, the breakpoint was taken over. By D. Schostakovitch. In quite a peculiar way with it. In some sense he managed to deceive the fate. His ninth was meant to be a festive monumental composition, dedicated to the Victory in WW II. According to the composer, he worked on that very piece in 1945. It could have been his last symphony. Strangely enough, instead, a chamber one of neoclassicist nature under number nine came into being the same year. Quite interesting taken by itself, but not at all epochal. The next appeared not until eight years passed. The composer was making a long pause. Probably, he was aware of the responsibility for crossing the invisible, but objectively existing border.
No less occasional was the time chosen – 1953, that is the time that with Stalin’s death brought to an end the whole epoch in the life of this country. New prospects were ahead and they enabled him to present a new Tenth symphony, a powerful five movement opus full of dramatic power, gloomy and sad at the beginning, but with an optimistic and boisterous final. It was a symphony with a distinct author’s “signature” – a famous DSCH theme, which probably became that mystic sign which provided protection to the one who decided to peep beyond the ninth symphony border.
After the audacious step taken, symphony composers felt somehow easier, meaning that they could fearlessly cross the once forbidden border. A number of representatives of foreign and our schools didn’t hesitate to make use of it, e.g. D. Miyo (12 symphonies), E. Tubin (10 + 1 unfinished), M. Vainberg (20 symphonies). Quite recently Slonimsky’s tenth symphony “Inferno circles” (after Dante) has been completed.
Still, is the ban off for good? One never knows. Anyway, this year we’ve witnessed the performance of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth symphony, which was being created in spite of a severe illness. What can we do but recollect Mahler’s or Bruckner’s experience? Can the mysterious number of nine with respect to the genre of symphony have regained its mystic power?
P.S. While the edition was being issued we received sad news from Germany: on the third of August, 1998 there died Alfred Schnittke.
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