I live on the 24th floor of a high-rise in Chicago. My entire west wall is a vast window. There are no other tall buildings to obstruct the picture, so I have a panoramic view of the city’s west side.
Of course I have enjoyed countless spectacular sunsets from the vantage point of my apartment. But once a year I witness something that is worth many of those sunsets.
Every July 4th, rather than join the thousands of citizens who gather at the lakeside to watch the city’s stunning fireworks display, I sit at my west window, turn on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and simultaneously watch more than 30 suburban fireworks displays.
The shows decorate the entire horizon, and range from the near ones in Oak Park and River Forest to the barely visible ones in the far west suburbs.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the perfect underscore for this theatrical experience.
When a piece of music has been heard too often, it can lose its impact. When I hear Beethoven’s Ninth in passing—on the radio, or in a store—I enjoy it but it doesn’t always affect me deeply.
But on July 4th, I imagine that the world and I have never before heard this masterpiece. I am in the presence of the orchestra, and the composer himself is conducting. I see the huge choir sitting in silence through the first 60 minutes of this magnum opus, storing a vast supply of potential harmonic energy that waits to be released.
I am privy to the first-ever public performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
I begin the ritual shortly before dark.
I set up a chair at my window, and turn off the lights.
I plug in my best noise-reducing headphones. They eliminate all unwanted stimuli so that I can hear subtleties and details in the symphony that I might otherwise miss. Thus they bring the music into sharper focus.
I sit back in my chair. The symphony begins.
I. ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO, UNPOCO MAESTOSO
The opening strains are barely audible. As the music builds, it sounds like the cacophony of a hundred different instruments being tuned. I imagine the preparations being made for the multiple fireworks shows.
Mortars are slid into their stands; shells are loaded into the mortars; and firing systems are wired and checked. Families, friends, and couples gather on shores and hills and in yards. Locations are scouted; lawn chairs are set up; blankets are spread; and cumbersome coolers are lugged and then thankfully planted onto the ground.
Austere descending fourths and fifths emerge from the opening strains. My left brain appreciates them because they are the opposite of the ascending fourth that constitutes the “perfect cadence” that ends many symphonies. My right brain appreciates them because they create a tension that only grows as they crescendo into an abyss of thick, foreboding chords.
Soon the music becomes less dissonant but still frantic, and I imagine the formerly open spaces filling up with people. Now those who arrive are having to push and jostle one another to find spots for themselves.
Minutes later, the first subtle hint of the “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” theme appears, and gently propels the music into a more pastoral feel. I imagine that the crowds are now settling in. Soon the fireworks begin as the music again grows darker.
II. MOLTO VIVACE
The second movement begins with a pattern of bare descending octaves, similar to the previous descending fourths and fifths but more extreme. This more extreme nature is appropriate, since we are now in the midst of the big fireworks show.
Then the instruments begin to play a fugue.
And now the fireworks shows are also forming a fugue: Each show performs a dazzling melody that can stand alone. Different shows enter and exit the fray at different times. Yet the shows all work together to create something intertwining and breathtaking.
III. ADAGIO MOLTO E CANTABILE
The adagio movement gives me a sense that I am floating through the air. I leave my apartment and float up and out and into the fireworks shows. I drift through the coruscating lights as they explode all around me. I am suspended in the air, surrounded by the ephemeral points of light as they scatter toward the earth.
Over these 20 minutes I travel over the entire western landscape of Chicagoland.
Early in the fourth movement the low strings begin to play the “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” theme. That theme is my signal to begin the journey back to my apartment. I arrive home just in time to hear the bass sing the first words of the symphony:
O Freunde, nicht diese Tone!
Sondern Laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen
(O friends, not these sounds!
Instead let us turn to sounds more pleasant
and more joyful.)
Soon the swelling voices culminate in the triumphant “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” chorus. Finally comes the sudden choral outburst (“Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” or “Be embraced, ye millions!”) that marks the culmination of this collective fireworks display.
Ludwig van Beethoven was completely deaf by the time he conducted the world premiere of his final symphony, the Ninth, on May 7, 1824, at the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna. The story is often told that he was unaware of the audience’s enthusiastic applause at the end of the performance. One of the singers turned the maestro around so he could experience the adulation of the audience.
Historians differ as to the veracity of this story.
It is of course a great story. But I imagine a slightly different version:
As the complex masterpiece concludes, the audience erupts into thunderous applause and stomping of feet and shouting. Beethoven physically feels the clamor of the audience’s reaction reverberating through his body. Yet, having just bared his soul to the world, and knowing that he will never hear the symphony himself, he is so overcome with emotion that he cannot bring himself to face his audience. Finally a singer turns him around, breaking the maestro’s reverie.
Of course this is pure speculation.
But there are some things I know to be true.
I know that this piece will be revered as long as there are human beings with the ability to hear. I know that this composer, whose health and hearing were failing, spent almost two years laboring tirelessly to give the world this symphony, whose performance he himself would never hear.
And I know that, like every great designer of fireworks displays, Ludwig van Beethoven saved his best for last.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|