The Beethoven Mystery. Why haven’t we figured out his Ninth Symphony yet?

By Jan Swafford.


The world over, the Ninth has become an indispensable adornment for socio/musical hooplas. Chances are, it will be played soon by an orchestra near you. If you know Western classical music, you know this one. Probably half of humanity can hum the little ditty that serves as the theme of the choral finale—a setting of Schiller’s revolutionary-era drinking song, “Ode to Joy.”

Which is all to say, the Ninth has attained the kind of ubiquity that threatens to gut any artwork. Think Mona Lisa. Still, as with Lisa, when that kind of success persists through the centuries, there are reasons. One reason is its mystery. Figuratively speaking, everybody knows the Ninth. But has anybody really understood it? The harder you look, the odder it gets. In a singular way, the Ninth enfolds the apparently contradictory qualities of the epic and the slippery. First movement: loud, big, heroic, no? No. Big and loud all right, also wildly unstable, searching, inconclusive—everything heroes aren’t

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