Mystery Music March

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

My BBC Proms odyssey last year in which I heard or watched every concert that happened in the Royal Albert Hall, gave me the opportunity to hear Beethoven’s Ninth twice – during the First Night and towards the end. Two different concerts and two different interpretations and by the climax of the second I knew it had become one of my favourite pieces of music in any genre. Since then I’ve heard a Simon Rattle recording with the Weiner Philharmoniker (pictured) and the cd which appeared on the cover of this month’s BBC Music Magazine only confirmed it.

I’m willing to accept that this might simply because it was one of the reasons I stuck with the Proms and changed my outlook on music. That it’s one of the few works which I’ve heard top to bottom on enough occasions to become familiar with it, the classical equivalent of commercial radio playing a record enough times that you feel compelled to buy it when its released -- I absolutely detested About You Now by the Sugababes on first listen for not being anything like their originally material but now absolutely adore it.

But it also talks to the cineaste in me, as it works not unlike a film narrative with an opening bit of excitement, a range of set pieces describing different thematic ideas before blasting into a breathtaking finale. If it was a computer game Uwe Boll would have already bought the rights and be deciding whether to cast Shannon Elizabeth or pay for some special effects instead. But then Beethoven wrote the work when he was on his artistic uppers to in fact it’s more Woody Allen knocking out the only ok Scoop one year and Manhattan the next.

Even in a work which can last for up to seventy minutes (and just how did Beethoven manage to write a symphony of this length, depth and complexity that still manages to fit on one cd?) I know which is my favourite moment. About two and half to three minutes into the fourth movement, after what sounds to these ears like the orchestral equivalent of noodling with no clear direction, suddenly in the midst of everything, there are a couple of bars of what’s popularly known as the ‘Ode To Joy’ theme.

My heart usually skips a beat because I know what’s to come, the full orchestra and choir exploding on the same notes, and in a way the expectation is more exciting because you know that no matter how brilliant that orchestra and choir are, they’re never going to be as good at the version you have in your head. It’s seeing a chocolate sundae in the moments before you eat it, the impression given by the fragrance always better than the taste. It’s your favourite television programme in the seconds beforehand when you hope a classic awaits. It’s the moments before speaking to your teenage crush when she’s still your ideal woman.

Some versions I’ve heard over emphasise the moment, but the best – or in other words the recordings I prefer let it pass by almost unheralded, like one of those thoughts which you have daydreaming on the bus only for them to gain momentum later and turn into the best idea you’ve ever had. It seems to me to be doing exactly what the best pop songs should do – introduce a hook and then yank your ears along by it until it’s the most important thing in your life for the duration. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason I spent over two months listening to The Proms last year was attempting to recapture the thrill of these few seconds.

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