Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: "The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824" by Harvey Sachs

Many years ago I would often lay awake at night and tune-in to the classical music station (WFMT FM 98.7) in Chicago.  I wasn't necessarily all that knowledgeable about classical music pieces; and I always leaned more toward classic rock and the great American songbook, but my fondness for this music came from somewhere and I don't know where it came from.

On one particular night back in the late 1980's a late night on-air personality said in a deeply embedded German accent "tonight we will be listening to the masters - Haydn and Handel (pause) Bach and Beethoven."  You had to hear him say it to appreciate why I remember it to this day.  It was the way he pronounced their names.  I still say it out loud when I want to get a laugh out of my mom.

My exposure to classical music in the last twenty years was pretty much relegated to seeing Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," several shows at the Hollywood Bowl and motion picture scores. The only way we get new music in the vein of the masters is listening to film scoring achievements.  Thankfully, movies need music.

I came across the book "The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824" when Borders was going out of business last summer.  I put it on my nightstand and finally got around to reading it this past month. I had loved the film, "Immortal Beloved" starring one of the finest actors of all-time, Gary Oldman.  Watching Oldman interpret the life of Ludwig Van Beethoven was a grand achievement.  Not as good as his take on Sid Vicious, but the music was far more soothing to the soul.

Of course, my fondest Beethoven moment is exactly what most people would say.  Yes, I love the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony. It's beyond description.

Writer and music historian, Harvey Sachs has written a 200 page dissertation on the life of Beethoven's world back in 1824.  It was the year the then deaf Beethoven composed the Ninth Symphony.  Beethoven would be dead three years later.

The book meanders into some areas that seem completely out of place in a book with this title, but what the book does do is supply a detailed analysis of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  Sachs manages to explain this 75:00 masterpiece (massive understatement) and he manages to make it somewhat accessible to any reader that approaches the work.

Quite frankly, 1824 was not a particularly interesting year in world history and Sachs' attempt at letting us think it is interesting fails, but Beethoven wrote the Ninth during the first quarter of that year, so that alone makes this worth reading.  Keep in mind, in 1824, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were still alive.  If you are a history buff a thought like this one makes it almost exhilarating.  I'd like to think that Jefferson and Adams heard pieces of the Ninth during some gathering they may have attended.  Genius to genius experience.

Sachs keeps placing his political ideology into oddball locations, but you breeze right past the self-indulgence and pretentiousness.  He even manages to bring up the war in Vietnam.  He is a gifted writer who spins this non-fiction moment in history into a compelling piece of prose.  Yes, I love Beethoven's music!     

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125 is indeed one of the most precedent-shattering and influential compositions in the history of music.  This is the first line of the book and it is shatterproof, because it is the truth.  Since I started reading the book I have been listening to the Symphony over and over again. It is mesmerizing whether you are listening while lying on a couch in total concentration of the piece or if you are letting it ride as the background to cleaning day. I'm listening to it as I write right now.

The Ninth is an auditory experience that is downright extraordinary. The first movement is like being in a maze with no way out. It's a mysterious piece even if you have heard it multiple times.  For a fuller examination of the symphony one must read David Levy's "Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony" which was published seventeen years ago.

No one with a brain that works could ever possibly listen to the Ninth without being in awe; and if you know music you are astounded at the complexities of the music.  Beethoven was doing things that no one had done before; and Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart all existed before Beethoven. No one had ever placed a choral section inside the body of a symphony before. This was historic.

Attempting to describe the Ninth is virtually impossible. Anyone with reasonably advanced musical training can see and hear what Beethoven accomplished in the Ninth and since a great deal is known about how he honed his craft you can understand how he got where he got from a technical perspective.

Sachs gets us into meters, rhythmic underpinnings, crescendos, beats, notes.  It gets technical and only the finest musicians could possibly understand the complexities that we delve into, but you are fascinated by each sentence and you keep going with the read. The "Ode to Joy" choral section is intensely difficult to perform.  It is almost impossible to perform and Beethoven knew that even though he never heard a single note of his own masterwork.

Sachs makes the story of the Ninth quite readable, but the distractions of stories on Napoleon, Pushkin and assorted other people is too off course for a book of this kind.

Just give me Beethoven.  That is indeed an "ode to joy!"

I learned a great deal from this book and I look forward to many more moments alone with the music.  It is deeply satisfying and gratifying.       

Copyright 2012 Read On Read Now 

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