How Beethoven Had ‘Big Guns Aimed At The Future’

Harvey Sachs' new book, "The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824," seeks to reveal what Beethoven was telling us.

  • Beethoven

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    Photo: Public Domain

    Beethoven with the Missa solemnis, 1819, portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler.

  • Harvey Sachs

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    Photo: Arlene Collins

    Harvey Sachs

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    Photo: Random House

    The Ninth Symphony was so unorthodox that it amazed and confused listeners at its premiere.

Harvey Sachs is the author of biographies of Arturo Toscanini and Arthur Rubinstein; a history (Music in Fascist Italy); two collections of essays on musical subjects (Virtuoso and Reflections on Toscanini); The Letters of Arturo Toscanini, which he compiled, translated, and edited; and, as co-author, the memoirs of Plácido Domingo (My First Forty Years) and Sir Georg Solti (Memoirs). He is a former artistic director of the Società del Quartetto di Milano and is currently on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Sachs was also an orchestra conductor for more than a dozen years. In his new book, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, he takes us deeply inside Beethoven’s masterwork and explains what he feels Beethoven was trying to tell us.

He spoke with Artworks’ Adam Schwartz from his home in New York City.

Highlights From The Interview

Adam Schwartz: Beethoven’s Ninth clearly has great meaning for you.

Harvey Sachs: Yes. I think Beethoven was distilling everything that he was, everything that he had within himself, as a human being and as an artist, and giving them to us, to posterity.

Before Beethoven, the idea of writing for the future was not really very prevalent among musicians because musical publication was rather limited [and] people wrote on commission. Beethoven really had his big guns aimed at the future. Aimed at posterity. And that’s what set him aside in his day from the composers; from his contemporaries and predecessors among composers.

AS: What made the Ninth, in your words, “one of the most precedent-shattering works in the history of music”?

HS: Specifically, the use of sung text in the symphony is the most obvious precedent-shatterer in the Ninth. But there’s also the fact of the size of the symphony. The dimensions of the symphony. It lasts over an hour; depending on the tempos that the conductor chooses, it will last anywhere from sixty-three or sixty-five minutes to seventy, or a little bit longer. This was by far the longest symphony ever written at the time.

AS: You call Beethoven “a philosopher-in-music.” Can you discuss the ideas that Beethoven put into the Ninth?

HS: It’s very hard. The thing about music is that it is very specific, and at the same time it can’t be expressed in words. It seems to each of us as we listen to this music that it’s saying something to us, that it’s very emotionally and even intellectually specific. But, what it’s saying can’t actually be put into words.

Beethoven himself considered music a higher form of expression than philosophy. I think what he meant was, that through music one could get closer to what’s at the source of human existence with all its joys and sorrows—through this particular medium of sound than through even the most abstract and profound verbal expression.

From a technical point of view, of course, he makes use of the orchestra in a way that would’ve been extremely difficult in his day, and that’s another reason I say that the music, especially of his last years, was big artillery aimed at the future.

He knew perfectly well that the musicians and singers of his day couldn’t cope very well with all the aspects of what he was writing. But he figured that with time people would be able to do it. And of course with time, that has happened.

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824
Harvey Sachs (Random House, 2010)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover

The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824
Harvey Sachs (Random House, 2010)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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