Feeling HIP? Get Ready for Beethoven 9

Get Ready for Beethoven 9

By John Tamilio III, Ph.D.

According to legend, Ludwig van Beethoven had to be turned around to face the audience after his Symphony No. 9’s 1824 premiere; his hearing loss was so acute that he couldn’t hear their rapturous applause. Nevertheless, this first audience was clearly awestruck by the otherworldly quality of this magnum opus, which would become a staple of the classical canon. Along with being a masterful, complex piece of music, Symphony No. 9 has been used to mark important moments in time, popping up all over Western culture. It was played to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a New Year’s Eve countdown on classical radio stations, in innumerable television commercials, as the centerpiece of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange, and even on Muppets Tonight.

There is a moment in the final movement when the whole piece comes together for me: As the composer joins the “Ode to Joy” motive with the musical idea beginning “Be embraced, O ye millions,” he “sends the sopranos into the stratosphere,” according to Dr. Teresa Neff, H+H’s Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow and Senior Lecturer at MIT. And yet, the moment is all the more magical because the build is executed quietly. As Neff muses, “It becomes ethereal and spiritual.”

My own earliest memory of Symphony No. 9 is singing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” in church, the words supplied by Henry van Dyke, Jr. in 1907. This tune possesses an “ethereal and spiritual” quality for me as well: It enchanted me as a child, and it still does. H+H will share the enchantment with us at their bicentennial performances of this iconic piece on March 15 and 16 at Symphony Hall—which bears Beethoven’s name atop center stage. They’ll be under the baton of guest conductor Raphaël Pichon, whom The New York Times hailed as “A Rising Conductor Who’s ‘Not Just a Pair of Hands’” a little over a year ago. From the almost imperceptible first notes, audiences will accompany the H+H Orchestra and Chorus from moments of solemnity to pinnacles of exuberance. Thanks to H+H’s historically informed performance (HIP), we’ll experience this music as Beethoven intended.

So: What can audiences expect from a historically informed performance of this celebrated piece?

Lower Pitch
To those with perfect pitch, the overall tone will sound a bit lower. Today, instruments generally tune to what the musical world terms “A440”: When an instrument is in tune, the A note will match the frequency of 440 Hz. However, this pitch did not become standard until the 20th century. Before then, composers experimented with lower pitches. This historical variation in pitch can be explained in part by classical music’s original performance context: These pieces were frequently written for use in Christian worship services.  Therefore, the strings had to tune to the organ, which varied from church to church.

Those who attend the H+H performances will hear instruments tuned to a pitch closer to A430; as such, the H+H Chorus will sing a bit lower as well. In Beethoven’s day, the pitch would have been between A415 and A420. The latter, according to Neff, is “what Beethoven would have expected.” But Beethoven is always full of surprises: Listeners will hear the H+H Chorus, particularly the sopranos (and at times the tenors), soaring to majestic heights in this performance.

Period Instruments
H+H is renowned for playing period instruments, whose timbre, or tone quality, will differ from what one might hear from their modern counterparts. For example, Neff notes that string instruments “will not sound as sharp or edgy” because they use gut strings. Instead, the tone quality of the strings will be warm, providing a fullness to the sound and “a lovely sense of blending.” Anyone familiar with an H+H performance can eagerly anticipate how beautifully this amalgamation will unfold in, for example, the slow and lyrical third movement: “Adagio molto e cantabile.”

In addition, H+H string musicians will play using techniques specific to their historical instruments, which audiences will be able to observe from their seats. Some differences from modern technique result from the shape of the bow. For Beethoven 9, most H+H string players will use a transitional bow—partway between a Baroque bow, which is short and has a more convex structure, and a modern bow, which is longer and has a concave design. A transitional bow is thus mid-length and fairly straight. In fact, the hair of a transitional bow is almost parallel with the stick. Neff adds, “The shape of the wood allows the string player to use more of the length of the bow when playing: With a Baroque bow, only about the middle third or so of the bow can be used effectively.” For more on period string instruments, read my blog on the subject from last July.

Audiences will also see differences in the wind and brass players’ techniques. The flutes and oboes will have fewer keys than their modern equivalents, so the flutists and oboists will use different fingerings than one might expect. The horn players, for their part, will be using natural horns, meaning they’ll put their hands in the bell (a technique necessary on modern horns to create that sonorous muting effect) less often. For more on period brass instruments, read my blog on the subject from last October.

What’s Old Is New Again
By the time the H+H Orchestra and Chorus reach the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the audience will have journeyed with some of the world’s finest musicians through one of its most celebrated pieces of music—a journey close to the one its composer intended. They will experience a tour de force that will—to borrow a phrase from Neff—“send them into the stratosphere” before pulling them back to the edges of their seats in Boston. H+H will perform it with all the freshness and vitality of its first performances in Vienna, enabling them to experience this masterpiece as Beethoven envisioned.


John Tamilio III, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Salem State University, Pastor at the Congregational Church of Canton, and Board Member of the Handel and Haydn Society. He holds degrees in Theology, Literature, Philosophy, and English from Boston University, Andover Newton Theological School, Northeastern University, and Salem State University, and conducted post-doctoral research at Harvard University.