Symphony no. 9 -- The Critics
We found Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five
minutes long; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs
of the band, and the patience of the audience to a severe trial ... .
The symphony we could not make out; and here, as well as in other parts,
the want of intelligible design is too apparent.
-- The Harmonicon, London, 1825
Vast masses of idle criticism are still nowadays directed against the
Ninth Symphony in point of form. These criticisms rest upon uncultured
text-book criteria; mere statements of the average procedure. We shall
never make head or tail of the Ninth Symphony until we treat it as a law
unto itself. Its gigantic proportions are only the more wonderful from
the fact that the forms are still the purest outcome of the sonata
style. The choral finale itself is perfect in form.
-- D. F. Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis, 1925
The whole orchestral part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony I found very
wearying indeed. Several times I had great difficulty in keeping awake
... . It was a great relief when the choral part was arrived at, of
which I had great expectations. It opened with eight bars of a
common-place theme, very much like Yankee Doodle ... . As for this
part of the famous Symphony, I regret to say that it appeared to be made
up of the strange, the ludicrous, the abrupt, the ferocious, and the
screechy, with the slightest possible admixture, here and there, of an
intelligible melody. As for following the words printed in the program,
it was quite out of the question, and what all the noise was about, it
was hard to form any idea. The general impression it left on me is that
of a concert made up of Indian warwhoops and angry wildcats.
-- A Providence, R.I., newspaper quoted in The Orchestra, London, 1868
We heard lately in Boston the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. The
performance was technically most admirable. ... But is not the worship
paid this Symphony mere fetishism? ... I admit the grandeur of the
passage 'und der Cherub steht vor Gott.' But oh, the unspeakable
cheapness of the chief tune, 'Freude, Freude'! Do you believe way down
in the bottom of your heart that if this music had been written by Mr.
John L. Tarbox, now living in Sandown, N. H., any conductor here or in
Europe could be persuaded to put it in rehearsal?
-- Philip Hale, Boston Music Record, 1899
A fog of verbiage and criticism surrounds the Choral Symphony. It is
amazing that it has not been finally buried under the mass of prose
which it has provoked. Wagner intended to complete the orchestration.
Others fancied that they could explain and illustrate the theme by means
of pictures. If we admit to a mystery in this symphony we might clear
it up; but is it worth while?
We ought in the Choral Symphony to look for nothing more than a
magnificent gesture of musical pride. A little notebook with over two
hundred different renderings of the dominant theme in the Finale shows
how persistently Beethoven pursued his search and how entirely musical
his guiding motive was.
--Claude Debussy, 1901
If the best critics and orchestras have failed to find the meaning of
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, we may well be pardoned if we confess our
inability to find any. The Adagio certainly possessed much beauty, but
the other movements, particularly the last, appeared to be an
incomprehensible union of strange harmonies. Beethoven was deaf when he
--Boston Daily Atlas, 1853
With the opening of the last movement Beethoven's music takes on a
more definitely speaking character: it quits the mold of purely
instrumental music, observed in all the three preceding movements,
the mode of infinite, indefinite expression. ... It is wonderful how
the master makes the arrival of the human voice and tongue a positive
necessity, by this awe-inspiring recitative of the bass strings; almost
breaking the bounds of absolute music already, it stems the tumult of
the other instruments with its eloquence, insisting on decision, and
passes at last into a songlike theme whose simple stately flow bears
with it, one by one, the other instruments, until it swells into a
--Richard Wagner, 1846
Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of bags of nails,
with here and there an also dropped hammer.
--John Ruskin to John Brown, 1881