Harvey Sachs has lived his life in music, including a stint as a conductor; he has authored a handful of other books on musical matters or musicians (notably Arturo Toscanini and Arthur Rubinstein) and he currently is on the faculty at Curtis. The genesis of this book seems to have been twofold. The first was when a friend suggested to Sachs that he write a book on one particular year in the history of classical music, centered around the key musical events of that year. Rather than choosing one of several years marked by the debuts of multiple landmark pieces (1912, or 1876, or 1830), Sachs, in taking up the suggestion, chose the year 1824. Why? It was the year Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was first performed, and - here's the second source - it has been Beethoven's music that has meant the most to Sachs throughout his life. Thus, he writes, "this book is a vastly oversized and yet entirely inadequate thank-you note to Beethoven."
Much of the book, of course, deals with Beethoven's Ninth - which Sachs calls "one of [words of understatement?] the most precedent-shattering and influential compositions in the history of music." The first chapter contains an extended account of the very first performance of the Symphony - on May 7, 1824. Most of the third chapter consists of Sachs' description of the Symphony, as it unfolds or, perhaps more aptly, as it "befalls us". Sachs acknowledges upfront that he is attempting to describe the indescribable, though he comes closer than I would have expected. In the fourth chapter, he discusses the influence the Ninth had on other composers of the 19th Century, from Schubert (who attended that May 1824 premiere) to Wagner.
In discussing the Ninth, Sachs stays away from technical musical analysis and jargon. You do not have to have been trained in music theory to understand and appreciate what he says. On the other hand, you do need some familiarity with the Ninth as a listener (though those who don't have such familiarity probably aren't reading this review). In fact, you may well be inspired, as I was, to re-read Sachs's 30-page account of the Ninth while listening to the symphony on a CD. It was a rewarding and enriching experience for me, non-specialist that I am.
But there are two other parts to the book that I found even more rewarding. One is a brief but very well-done biographical sketch of Beethoven (pages 36-57). The second has to do with the year 1824, the somewhat repressive political milieu then prevailing in Europe, and how this political atmosphere inspired (or provoked) artistic calls for freedom - political freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of the mind and spirit. According to Sachs, Beethoven's Ninth was related to other milestones in the arts, involving figures like Stendhal, Byron, Pushkin, Heine, and Delacroix. "[T]hese artists were not apolitical; they internalized and sublimated revolution in an age of political repression and transformed it into what we call Romanticism."
Thus the scope of THE NINTH is broader than music. It really is a work of intellectual history. It is fitting, then, that in addition to sources from the world of music, Sachs quotes (always aptly) from an eclectic range of figures from other fields - such as Federico Fellini, Saul Bellow, Margaret Drabble, Jacques Barzun, and John Updike. To top matters off, THE NINTH is very well written. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Beethoven is arguably the greatest composer of all time and his Ninth Symphony is aguably his greatest composition. Within the book, the author mentions that other composers didn't see one composer as being better than another, but for us mere mortals, we should be allowed this opportunity. And there are reasons to believe of Beethoven's greatness. For years after his death, his works were studied and revered. Berlioz (as mentioned in the book) comments on the greatness of the Ninth. Wagner studied the Ninth (as mentioned in the book), marveled on it, and played movements from it on the piano. He opened the Bayreuth site with a playing of the Ninth and in 1951, the Bayreuth site was reopened that way. And then there is Brahms (not mentioned in the book) who struggled with his first symphony because of Beethoven's greatness and then released a beautiful symphony (that was called by some critics of the time "Beethoven's tenth).
Much of the book is a review of what transpired prior to Beethoven in music composition (e.g. Bach, Mozart, Hayden, etc.) and Beethoven's own years prior to the Ninth and then the impact of the Ninth on the composers after Beethoven (the ones mentioned above and Schumann, Schubert, etc.). This is good reading but not easy reading as the author gets somewhat technical at times especially when quoting others.
However, in my opinion, the essence of the book is the author's analysis of each movement (in the section "Imagining the Ninth") and part of the Ninth Symphony. Since I have been fortunate to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Choir perform this beautiful piece of music two times (the most recent with Bernard Haitink conducting), this write-up provided a lot of value to me. And, I believe that any lover of Beethoven and the Ninth will get the same value from this section. This section appears to be based upon the best input from other conductors (for example, Sir George Solti is mentioned), and is truly written as a "thank you note to Beethoven".
For all lovers of Beethoven music and his Ninth Symphony, this is a must have book. For all those who haven't heard the Ninth, and haven't experienced the greatest music ever written, let me suggest that you buy a CD of the Ninth and read this book. If you let it, the CD of the Ninth and this book, will transform you just as it was meant to.
Harvey Sachs' new book about an iconic work in the Western musical canon might alternatively be titled "The Life and Times of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony." Beginning with a recounting of the circumstances surrounding the work's Vienna premiere in 1824, Sachs then broadens his view to encompass a quick political history of Europe in the early nineteenth century and an attempt to set Beethoven's philosophical stance in the Ninth in context, by comparing his world view to other major literary and artistic figures of the time, including Byron, Stendhal, Delacroix and Heine. There follows a descriptive analysis of the work itself, followed by a reception history of the Ninth Symphony and Beethoven's output in general, attempting to show what a powerful influence the composer was on subsequent major musical minds of the later nineteenth century.
All this sounds like a lot to pack into a compact volume (200 pages) and in fact it is. Sachs has set ambitious goals for himself: to set the Ninth Symphony within a biographical and historical context, to give a sense of the work itself, and finally to give an idea of its subsequent influence. Each of these areas could generate a book in itself, and the compressed results here I have to say are uneven. Perhaps best is the opening, which gives a vivid sense of the excitement and tension both on Beethoven's and Vienna's part surrounding the premiere of the work. Sachs is frank about how ramschackle the first performance must have been, staffed largely by amateur and pickup players and led by the by now close to totally deaf composer. The subsequent discussion of Beethoven's major cultural contemporaries, interesting in itself, wanders too far afield--it is hard to see the immediate relevance of some of what is being recounted. Weakest of all is the description of the Ninth Symphony itself, in fact wholly inadequate, while the subsequent reception history cops out mightily by opting not even to discuss Johannes Brahms, the great composer perhaps most influenced and intimidated by Beethoven's legacy. Despite many fascinating moments and telling observations, I therefore ended up unsatisfied by the sum total of "The Ninth."
For some, this book may reach too far. It not only deals with arguably one of the most influential and magnificent works of art ever created, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but with the way the world was in the year of its premiere in 1824.
I found the middle section that dealt with Beethoven's contemporaries Pushkin, Lord Byron and others interesting. The author draws connections between the thoughts of these men and how they were shaped (and influenced by each other) during their lifetimes.
The section that deals with the analysis of Beethoven's 9th is excellent. Whenever an attempt is made to describe a piece of music with words, it has to be done carefully. There must be enough description and word painting to keep the reader interested and focused, but without the overly flowery language that is sometimes resorted to. The metaphors used to describe music have to be just right. Harvey Sachs gets it 'just right' the vast majority of the time. His is one of the better analysis of classical music that I've read. That he did it for a rich and complex piece of music like the 9th is remarkable.
For a look at how Beethoven's 9th was a product of the time it was written and an excellent analysis of the work, this book is highly recommended.
This is a book that I want to recommend wholeheartedly, not because I think it's 'perfect' (whatever that might be), nor because I am in agreement with all of it, but because it makes a real attempt, better than I have encountered before, to account for the way in which Beethoven, of all classical composers, dominates the consciousness of modern musicians. Let me say at once that I have long deplored this dominance. However I love and admire Beethoven in my own way, and I am a serious devotee of the 9th symphony, which I like better than all the other eight put together.
The book is only partly about the 9th symphony. The earlier sections are mainly cultural history of the early romantic era. Harvey Sachs seems to me to have a genuine historian's feel for the period. The defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna served to restore reactionary rule across most of Europe, the political justification for which being stability. However radical thinking was still in the air, and there was no way of repressing it entirely, for all the thoroughness with which some rulers tried to. Beethoven was lucky in a sense, because he was viewed as a harmless oddball. Schubert had had the frighteners put on him for merely associating with some persona non grata, and I expect Sachs is right in inferring that the younger composer was badly scared. Elsewhere Byron, Stendhal, Pushkin, Heine et al hawked their enlightened consciences in the name of freedom and equality, and this part of the book is about setting the scene. There is not much real link between this crew and Beethoven, and I soon abandoned any effort to find such a link.
For me, it is the honesty and perceptiveness of Sachs's thoughts about Beethoven as a musician that puts this book in the 5-star bracket. Music is one thing, and history and biography are another, or perhaps two others. Much of what one reads regarding Beethoven is a hopeless fudge of these issues, and Sachs implies rightly that the heroic personal image often wrapped around Beethoven is really irrelevant to his stature as a composer, adding for good measure that the whole notion of personal greatness is highly suspect anyhow. Now here is where Sachs has the angels singing for him -- not only does he deploy an excellent term 'self-reference' to distinguish between the respective impressions created by the first movements of Mozart's Jupiter and Beethoven's Eroica symphonies: he identifies the peculiar individual excellence of Beethoven's music as opposed to anyone else's as being its spirit.
It is this special spirit that makes successive Beethoven productions startlingly dissimilar in a way Mozart's rarely are. A spirit of aspiration is what gives his works their family resemblance on the one hand and their high-profile individuality on the other. For me, Beethoven's purely musical talent was not the equal of that granted to Bach Handel Mozart Schubert or Brahms, and there is devastatingly straightforward support for such a view cited from no less than Verdi, although I can't claim his backing in more than a general way. However Beethoven's special spirit is the true portion of the legend that places him where we find him in the musical pantheon, enthroned deservedly to that extent although obscured by a cloud of waffle about V for victory, Churchill, deafness, personal challenges and the rest of it.
There is music, says Verdi, and it is an entity distinct from anything it may be thought to express. For me it is something from outside above and beyond. If there is any such thing as a 'greatest moment' in music, for me it occurs in the last movement of another 9th symphony, and the hair of my flesh stands up when I even recall what Schubert does with those four repeated notes, insofar as it was Schubert in charge. Schubert features in a thoughtful and sensitive 'trailer' chapter tracing what Sachs views as Beethoven's ongoing influence. He may be right, but it seems to me that Beethoven was more invoked than really influential in that sense. Dutiful obeisance has to be done when anything 'radical' is involved, but the influence of Beethoven's personal style is virtually nil, and the most influential of 19th century composers is surely, beyond comparison, Brahms.
The other thing that I miss is a discussion of the influence of Handel on Beethoven. We are astonishingly blase about this issue, considering that Beethoven thought Handel the greatest of all composers, and this is mainly because we have not yet extricated ourselves from the Serbonian bog of ignorance that we got into regarding Handel and the rubbish that got talked for so long. Never mind, there is a long and affectionate blow-by-blow commentary on the 9th, a modern counterpart to Tovey's. Sachs does not have Tovey's gift of phrase ('the heavens are on fire and the foundations of earth are shaken' at the reprise of the first movement's main theme, for instance), but he is much more honest with himself in his basic thinking.
For the learned and unlearned alike, to misquote Horace, and I guess for those somewhere in between too.
on March 29, 2014
Beethoven = a name that signifies the very best most accomplished Music compositions of the past 300+ years (and perhaps All Time) => his Ninth Symphony representing the Best of the best!
But as is documented in Harvey Sachs highly enjoyable & informative book = "The Ninth: Beethoven and the World of 1824" this milestone Symphonic Work, and of course Beethoven himself, did not exist in a historical vacuum - Ludwig Van Beethoven was profoundly impacted by the burgeoning philosophies of his Time and really became an integral part of the artistic milieu of free-thinking expressive 'Romanticism' pervading the Literary works of Byron, Heine, Pushkin, Stendhal, Delacroix, and other writers and philosophers like Goethe of course(although Sachs should have included substantially more discussion on Friedrich Schiller who wrote the words to 'Ode to Joy' after all = and Beethoven obviously received direct inspiration from Schiller's literary works!) - perhaps a longer book was needed.
Harvey Sachs' book is certainly not the first (and not the most thorough) in terms of covering this philosophically artistic ground - but this relatively brief book (just over 200 pages) reflects a very good overview, introduction - and Harvey Sachs is a very good writer, who obviously possesses a deep connection to and has found authentic inspirations from the Works of Beethoven and the Ninth in particular! And Sachs does an effective job of conveying his enthusiasm for the Ninth - and also his understanding of its context & relevance to history!
People will probably be writing countless books for Centuries to come on the veritable eternal well-spring of inspiration that Beethoven's Ninth continues to bring the human World. There is much about this great Work that is truly indescribable (and only completely conveyed thru the Music itself), that seems to contain within it, the following ==> Hope for a better more humane future + free-will & free-expression + indomitable spirit & resilience to persevere even thru the dark times + pure celebration/ rejoicing for just being alive!
I really don't know of any other single Work of Music that inherently contains all these ideas (and even more) - you can perhaps find some of these similar sentiments in certain Great Films or Theater pieces (though very rarely) - but not within any other single Symphony (or single purely musical piece + Schiller's 'Ode to Joy' of course!)
Thanks to Harvey Sachs for writing this Book = it is a good launching-off point for further exploration - but be certain to also have a good Listen to the Ninth by anyone of the following eminent conductors: George Szell, Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, Bernard Haitink, Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein, Karl Bohm ==> and rejoice!
post-note: I am sure that Beethoven and the Ninth in particular will continue to be relevant and inspirational for as long as any human beings exist, that still carry dreams of ==> a better more humane World for All - but with full preservation of our individual unique identities, and our creative free-will (ie. that which makes us fully human)!
on March 6, 2012
This book tells a lot about Beethoven and the times he lived in. You'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about 1824, but it is interesting to discover what was going on when a great masterpiece was brought to the world. A very nice touch is the author going through the Ninth almost line by line and "explaining" what Beethoven is doing with the music.
on May 17, 2012
I have to admit that over the years I've developed my own relationship with the 9th, and with late Beethoven in general, and my own experience of the 9th is completely different from the experience of the piece he describes in the book. It's probably a good picture of the author's own experience of the piece, but to me it's totally devoid of subtlety, to a point way past the point of banality. For one thing, I experience the whole interplay of light and darkness in the piece is very dynamic, ongoing, and subtle in the piece, and although there are moments when one end of the spectrum gets strong emphasis, it's more like a yin/yang thing - there's never total yin or yang - within the confines of the form when yang or yin reaches a maximum point, it transforms into its opposite, and you never have one without the other. How Beethoven manages to do this is quite amazing, and, to me, that's what gives the piece life - that is it's life - in fact, that's life! Also, although the author spends a good deal of time describing the historic context from which the piece arose, he poo-poos the whole idea of the historically accurate performance, especially, or at least specifically, attempts like those of Roger Norrington to use Beethoven's specified tempos in performance, or to try to figure out what Beethoven's own expectations for the performance of his piece were and to honor them, as far as it's possible to do so, and, to me, that's a big mistake. I mean, just because Georg Solti didn't have the courage to use Beethoven's specified tempo for the first movement of the 9th, is that really a good reason not to use it? Anyway, after reading Sachs' description of the piece, I began to wonder exactly what piece of music he was talking about. I wound up listening to each movement several times after reading Sachs' exposition of it, then going back to Sachs' description of it, and wound up writing off Sachs' description as a piece of fluff - in fact, I began to wonder about how reliable his descriptions of Byron, Heine, Stendahl, and everything else was, if that was the best he could do with Beethoven himself. Still, it made me think. The whole Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic period is interesting and important, and I need to learn more about it. The book was a start.
On the 7th of May 1824, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, op 125 (the Ninth) was performed for the first time in Vienna. The choral finale to the symphony - the singing of some of the words of Friedrich Schiller's ode `An die Freude' - is a paean to the ideal of universal brotherhood.
In this book: part history, part biography, and part personal memoir, Harvey Sachs has focussed on the events of the year 1824. This provides some context for the world in which the symphony was first performed, as well as giving some insight into the difficulties of staging such a performance. These days, the Ninth is one of the most famous compositions in the world and is loved by many. The Ninth recently topped Australia's ABC Classic FM's Top 100 (voted by listeners), and is often used as background music for solemn events.
In 1824, conservative forces in Europe were focussed on repressing populist movements in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Universal harmony might be a glorious ideal, but it was far from a reality. By discussing the work of other artists of the era, such as Byron, Stendhal and Pushkin, Mr Sachs links a number of prominent voices of what became a new Romantic movement.
In discussing the Ninth, Sachs points out some of the challenges in staging such a large and complex work at that time. And how much more difficult for Beethoven himself: by then virtually deaf and with uncertain finance.
I enjoyed this book, especially the integration of Beethoven's personal history into the broader political and cultural history of the era. It is neither a detailed biography of Beethoven nor a detailed analysis of the Ninth symphony. Instead, it provides a snapshot of the times in which the work was first presented and some food for thought about Beethoven's intentions.
on March 4, 2011
The most interesting parts of this book are Part One and Part Four. The former is a description, with some speculation, of the Ninth premier in Vienna in 1824. Part Four is an anecdotal account of Beethoven's influence on several composers born before May 7, 1824 (which leaves out, incredibly, Brahms!) This part also contains some reception history.
In Part Two Sachs analyzes several other pieces of romantic art that have some relation with the year 1824. I found this section of the book weak and most of it, irrelevant to the subject. Part Three contains a verbal description of the Ninth Symphony, but just after some wandering on how useless such a description is. It is indeed not very useful if you know the piece, but may have some relevance for people that want to familiarize themselves with the Symphony.
I picked this book with the hope of gaining new insights on Beethoven in general and the Ninth in particular, but ended up not knowing much more that what can be absorbed through a good documentary. The book is too anecdotal to contain interesting new perspectives. I guess the author is right when he writes: "And I suppose that this book is a vastly oversized and yet entirely inadequate thank-you note to Beethoven" [page 198]. It is indeed.