Book of da Week: The Ninth – Beethoven and the World in 1824

The Ninth Beethoven and the World in 1824
Beethoven? Yes. History? Yes! A winning combination.

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 is, as you’d expect, about Beethoven’s infamous, famous, and legendary Ninth Symphony. Let’s not mess around here, we’re going to state his work is arguably the finest piece of music ever written. Bold, daring, liberal, and spectacular, it was so ahead of its time critics and musicians of the day weren’t even sure what to make of it.

This follows on from our Vivaldi RV 580 post from last week, so in amongst the silliness on our site we do hope our readers are getting a decent cultural fix as well. Are you?! We try our best, dammit, and this is all that matters.

The History of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

A man of quite spectacular genius, everyone knows the name Beethoven, and everyone knows the Ninth Symphony (we hope). What most of us don’t know is what was going on in the world in 1824 when the symphony premiered. This is what Harvey Sachs relays to us in excellent and accessible detail, and you’ll discover many gems of information in this book.

What about the famous man himself? Beethoven was a highly complex man. A Humanist with liberal ideals, the Ninth was his attempt to signal a cry for humanity to unite for a better future. Despite these ideals, he was also somewhat misanthropic and generally enjoyed steering well clear of other people. This is, in part it seems, due to his failing hearing.

Ridden with angst and existential dismay, Beethoven felt cursed by his hearing difficulties. His testament, written in 1802 but only found after his death, states:

“O ye men who consider or declare me hostile, obstinate or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me, you do not know the secret cause of what seems thus to you. My heart and my soul, from childhood on, were filled with tender feelings of good will, I always felt like performing great deeds, too. But just consider that for six years I have been afflicted with an incurable condition, made worse by incompetent physicians, deceived year after year by the hope of an improvement and now obliged to face the prospect of a lasting disability (the healing of which may take years or even be quite impossible) born with an ardent, lively temperament, also susceptible to the diversions of society, I was, at an early age, obliged to cut myself off, to live my life in solitude.”*

A candid insight into the man there, and whilst he could be belligerent (some of his letters included in the book are hilarious in their brusque wording) Beethoven generally comes across as a keen mind eager to learn about the world around him, whereas other composing greats (such as Mozart) had been heavily pious and based their music around spiritual and religious leanings.

The Ninth, however, truly displays his inner humanity and drive for artistic perfection. Behold the fourth “bit” of the Ninth Symphony in all its glory from Stephen Malinowski’s excellent smalin YouTube channel. For the entirety, click on the next bit: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

What was going on in 1824?

The Ninth offers a helpful insight into Beethoven, his most famous symphony, and the circumstances surrounding its premiere, but it’s also a look at history. Sachs makes his book stand out from other musical account as it provides an overview of the world in 1824, should you already know all about the Ninth.

Lord Byron was living, and dying, it up in Greece (also plagued by incompetent physicians), Delacroix and Stendhal were busy painting, a young Pushkin was busying himself with writing works which soon got him exiled by the tsar, and war and strife covered the planet. Erm, parallels with contemporary society?

Regardless, this is a great book to read if you’re a history and music addict, so give it a whirl!

*You can read all of Beethoven’s testament via the link.

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