#Classical365: 1 – Beethoven Symphony No.9

Listen to one piece of classical music each day of the year and blog about it.

Straightforward enough idea and, like most of my ideas it was one which came to me in a flash, and one which I suspect I will come to regret later in 2015, possibly as early as the end part of next week.

Even so, if there’s something I’ve learnt from blogging the BBC Proms last year and repeating the process in the run up to and after Christmas, one needs a reason to blog. Listening to 365 classical music works in a year seems like a fair challenge. Hardly an uphill struggle.

Or maybe I’m overlooking something. Will finding 365 classical music works to listen to and write about be more difficult than I realise? I assume I know quite a lot of classical music, but maybe I can’t actually name 365 classical music works. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure how many classical music works I do know. And how do we define the word ‘know’? Does vague familiarity count? And why dismiss those works I don’t know? Surely I should be pushing a few personal boundaries at the same time. What about the stuff I don’t know? And on a practical level, can I keep up the marathon? Will I lose interest?

It would be fair to say, I’m still working out the rules as I type. But at the moment, I’m thinking it can be recorded music or live music. It’s fine for me to pick what I want to listen to on what day, but if it turns out I hear something someone else has suggested then I might as well include that – save the effort for those dry patches in the year when I haven’t got a concert ticket or when the UK’s various music festivals aren’t running. One thing seems obvious – I can only listen to one work once: different interpretations of the same work seems like cheating. Like I say, the rules could change. I’ll keep you posted.

So, what to start off with? Beethoven’s 9th symphony seems like a no brainer.

Beethoven’s greatest work (arguably the greatest music ever written) seems apt for the beginning of the year. The first movement conjures up a beautiful sense of chaos from which order emerges after an epic musical battle. The second movement – the scherzo – progresses in militaristic fashion, after which an exquisite adagio tugs at the heart-strings preparing the way for the choral finale. The Ode to Joy – Beethoven’s most famous of choral melodies is a rousing unifying affair that unites both performers and audience by the end of the symphony – was later used by the Council of Europe as its anthem in the 1970s.

The words Beethoven sets to music in this last movement were written by Schiller, except for the opening line. The composer’s additional words (sung by the soloists at the beginning of the fourth movement) seem like a fitting aspiration for the beginning of a new year compared to the frivolity of Strauss waltzes served up in Vienna on New Year’s Day morning:

“Oh friends, not these sounds! Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones! Joy!”

Testify.

I can’t take all the credit for selecting this for the first day of the year. It turns out Beethoven 9 is played quite a lot in the run up to the end of the year in Japan. One story claims the institution of playing the work stems from a desire to time the final chords in the fourth movement with the first strike of midnight. That claim can’t be proved though.

What prompted me to listen to the work on 1 January 2015 was a posting from a Youth Orchestra friend who had spent his New Year’s Day on a beach for the first time in 23 years. “The last time I was on a beach on New Years Day was in 1992 in Aldeburgh with Jon Jacob,” wrote Richard, “before the Suffolk Youth Orchestra performed Beethoven 9.” I had wiped the experience from my memory, as it turned out. Something to do with the alcohol the night before, I suspect.

I listened to Karajan’s Beethoven 9 with the Berlin Philharmonic recorded in 1954, in case you fancy taking a listen yourself.

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