The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824
By Harvey Sachs
Random House; 212 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Great works of art can often be associated with great moments in history. Author Harvey Sachs does exactly this with his recent book The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824. What’s especially nice about this volume is that its unique historical take on Beethoven makes it an engaging starting point for both experts and beginners. History buffs will be intrigued as well.

Sachs’s history entwines the political with the artistic. After a few biographical passages of Beethoven and the events surrounding the debut of his final symphony in 1824, Sachs takes us on an extended tour of the creative life of Europe in the 1820s. What was Lord Byron doing during this time? Trying to liberate Greece, the cradle of Western civilization, from her Ottoman oppressors. What about Pushkin? Inspiring revolution against the tsar with his anti-authoritarian poetry. Delacroix? Producing works depicting the ravages of warfare and despotism. Sachs investigates Stendhal, Heine, and others as well.

According to Sachs, these great writers and artists were attempting to find their authentic voices within a Europe whose autocratic leaders remembered the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars all too well. By 1824, Europe was growing more repressive, even as governments began edging away from the pre-revolutionary royalist model. The great artists of the day, with Beethoven at the vanguard, would speak out against tyranny and oppression and celebrate the classically liberal way of life. In a sense, Beethoven’s Ninth, with its calls for universal brotherhood and freedom, embodied this movement whose voices eventually became known collectively as Romanticism.

After setting the stage, Sachs takes on the Ninth itself. He assesses what other scholars and composers think of the symphony, both as art and for its historical value. At stake is the meaning of the great piece, its relationship to its time and how (and why) it continues to reverberate today. When searching for this meaning, The Ninth becomes a highly personal treatise as Sachs, former conductor himself, who writes about what the symphony means to him. He writes in clear, insightful, yet non-technical language peppered with unforgettable anecdotes from his lengthy career as a musician. The man’s erudition is on display as he puts Beethoven in a perspective which includes other great artists and writers such as Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, and Balzac.

Sachs concludes this remarkable volume with a discussion on Beethoven’s greatness. He opines for himself and enlists the insights of other great 19th-century composers, especially Wagner, who saw the Ninth as one of his greatest inspirations, as described in his essay “Artwork of the Future.” The fact that Sachs carries this conversation into the 21st century tells us that we will never be able to discuss human greatness without discussing Beethoven.

This book review appeared in the winter 2011 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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