Friday, May 3, 2019

Up jumps the baritone

It's one thing when you're bored. Tired of the same old, easily distracted, ready to move on to something else without having adequately explored the bountiful terrain you have at hand.

It is something else entirely when you are trying to take the next step, the next great step in an epic journey, to go beyond what you've known, what your people have known, to transcend the old limitations and to obey the voice that beckons to the beyond, the unknown, with all of its promise and risk, and unexplainable unfathomable richness.

Beethoven used a baritone to tell us. Up he jumps, 7 minutes into the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, and sings, "Friends! No more of these tones..."

Those tones had cost Beethoven about a decade of labor. They take nearly an hour even to listen to at performance speed. They are full of drama and intensity, and they don't let up even for a moment. They explore, in great detail, every interval, every melodic fragment, every rhythmic surprise that Beethoven has on his symphonic pallet. In between the storms and the stress they keep returning to variations on a melody that hasn't come into being yet, with the promise of the sun breaking through the clouds only for an instant before the dark returns.

And then, without explaining himself, Beethoven begins the finale with an explosive chord that puts the key of the third movement against the key of the rest--Bb and d minor, simultaneously, and when the dust settles, the celli begin their long recitative, preparing the way for the tenor to come. And they do something else.

Each of the first three movements appears for a moment in snatches, and is rejected by the celli, apparently remembering their taming by the piano in the fourth piano concerto and back for another round, saying, "no, not this one." "No, not this one either." Every possible answer that has been put forth to this point is not the right one. For more than an hour we've been searching for the right way to live, and it has eluded us. For it's more than a symphony.

Nobody had ever included voices in a symphony, and trying to make that work; to suddenly, after an hour of just instruments, to bring in a choir, and soloists, without making the piece break in two, and seem disjointed, was a problem that vexed Beethoven for a long time. Until, he had a breakthrough and decided he had the answer.

"Friends, no more of these tones! Let us sing more joyful sounds!"

It is Schiller's Ode to Joy, in which even the earthworms get to share in the happiness, in which there is at last a universal answer to a composer's personal restlessness, which provides the climax.

But along the way, the symphonist has been preparing us carefully, relentlessly, each moment and in every detail, so that when that moment comes it has been there waiting all along. It is both inevitable and a surprise, a thing that had to come into being except that we didn't recognize it until it was upon us. The great hope, springing on us suddenly, in an instant, and longed for forever.

It is a shame that most people only know the Ode, the thing ripped from its universe like an answer that no longer seems to be an answer to anything. If you have the patience for it, the Ninth unfolds with a stunning narrative, gripping in its need, thrilling beyond measure in its fulfillment. All you need is ears to hear.

Which can take a lifetime.

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I don't bite...mostly.