The Choral Symphony
Symphony No 9 in D minor by Ludwig van Beethoven
Revelation 13 ix.
This massive and always spellbinding last symphony by the great master has always created difficulties of presentation. The problem is that only the last movement is choral, and even then there is a considerable orchestral introduction. Three solutions have been adopted over the years. One that met some approval in the early years of the twentieth century was to separate the first three movements from the last and to treat the symphony as two entirely separate works. This is hardly ever done nowadays. There is enough introductory material at the end of the sublime third movement to suggest that something important is going to follow; and the beginning of the fourth movement, with its quotations from each of the first three movements in turn followed by the baritone's O Freunde, nicht diese Töne, would not make any sense without what has gone before.
A second solution is to have the chorus file in and take their seats to the rear of the orchestra either at the end of the third movement or during an enforced interval between the movements. Either way, this cannot be other than disruptive however discreetly it is done. Thirdly, the chorus just have sit immobile throughout the first three purely instrumental movements. At least they get to enjoy the music from a privileged position, but given that they are invariably dressed in formal clothes they inevitably look like stuffed dummies.
So the obvious question is: how did Beethoven envisage the presentation of his work? Perhaps there are clues to be found in later nineteenth-century music. One is Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, a single performance that incorporates all the arts; the other is Mahler's insistence that The Symphony should include everything in the universe. We must also remember that Austria in the 1820's was a police state, in which public performances advocating Freiheit would bring down massive penalties. Schiller's An die Freiheit was therefore subtly changed to An die Freude, with the audience knowing perfectly well that the change had been made, and why.
What follows is not my idea; I have tried to flesh it out in such a way that an intrepid film or theatre director might be tempted to try it out for real.
For a start, the orchestra should be moved a little further back on the stage, enough to allow room for a theatrical performance to take place between them and the audience. In my imagined version the chorus should consist of an equal number of men and women. At the beginning of the fourth movement they should enter the stage in front of the orchestra, men and women holding hands in pairs. The women would be wearing dirndls and embroidered blouses; they would be carrying a large bunch of meadow flowers in their free hand. The men would be wearing knee-breeches and jerkins. Immediately they would form up in two rows, men behind, women in front.
The four soloists would then enter and take their places in front of them. Their costumes would be similar to those of the chorus, but more opulent, and more colourful. The conductor's podium would still have to be situated at the very front, of course. There is enough music for the chorus and soloists to enter with the theatricality that I have described.
After the baritone's introduction and the lower strings' announcement of the main melody, the symphony would proceed exactly as we are used to hearing it. I do not suggest changing Freude to Freiheit, though that is a matter of discretion. As the Berlin Wall was being demolished, the Berlin Phil did indeed perform the symphony with Freiheit, and it was a very moving experience too. One suggestion that occurs to me is that as we approach Über Sternen mußt ein lieber Vater wohnen the lights could be dimmed except for a few in the roof of the theatre, then gradually brought back again.
Here is an innovation that is entirely my idea. At the end of the Symphony, when the chorus repeat the first verse, Freude schöne Götterfunken, the words of the verse are projected on to the back of the theatre, the conductor turns round to face the audience, and the audience are invited to sing. The symphony closes with a brief orchestral accelerando (how much accelerando is generally determined by what the conductor thinks he can get away with). Then, immediately after the final few stunning chords, the women of the chorus will throw their meadow flowers into the audience.
I think such a performance, if it succeeded, would be sensational. I also think it would be in the spirit of Beethoven. It might annoy some critics, too!
A film version could be made following the suggestions above. The main problem as I see it would be how to handle the purely orchestral movements, knowing what is to follow. Perhaps Bergman's Magic Flute might give us some ideas. At the beginning we could see the chorus helping each other into their costumes, and maybe the delivery of the bunches of meadow flowers. During the performance individual members of the audience could be filmed. Members of the orchestra could also be picked out; obviously if they are performing a solo, or the astonishing Paukenschlag at the beginning of the second movement. Possibly, in keeping with the spirit of the production, one or two of the lady performers might be wearing a flower in their hair. The conductor and the soloists will obviously be assigned the leading roles. At the end, the credits will roll over a background of audience members ecstatically pelting each other with flowers and cheering the performers.