Opening the Orange County Performing Arts Center with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony harks back to an old and venerable tradition:

Richard Wagner conducted the Ninth Symphony to celebrate the laying of the foundation stone at the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth on May 22, 1872, and the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler chose the Ninth to celebrate the reopening of Bayreuth in 1951 after World War II.

Closer to home, Zubin Mehta conducted the Ninth at the first Los Angeles Philharmonic subscription series concert held in the spanking new Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1964, and Carlo Maria Guilini began his six-year tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a performance of the Ninth in the Pavilion in 1978.

At its own premiere on May 7, 1824, at the Kaerntnertor-Theater in Vienna, the Ninth Symphony--billed as the “Grand Symphony with Solo and Chorus Voices entering in the finale on Schiller’s Ode to Joy"--was actually the third item on the agenda:


The program also included the “Consecration of the House” Overture, Op. 124, and three parts of the Missa Solemnis, Op. 123--the Kyrie, Credo and Agnus Dei (which had to be billed as “Grand Hymns” because the censor would not permit sacred music with the title of a Mass to be performed in a theater).

The Ninth made a profound impression and generated a fury of enthusiasm--heightened by a moving incident:

Beethoven, stone deaf for the past six years, could hear none of the wild applause which the work inspired and continued to beat time to the score while standing amid the players.

As Sir Charles Grove related in the first four editions of his Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the contralto soloist Caroline Unger induced Beethoven to turn around to see the effect his music had made on the audience:


“His (Beethoven’s) turning about, and the sudden conviction thereby forced on everybody that he had not done so before because he could not hear what was going on acted like an electric shock on all present, and a volcanic explosion of sympathy and admiration followed.”

(According to the pianist Thalberg, who also was present at the concert, this incident occurred after the scherzo, but Beethoven’s early biographer Anton Schindler as well as Unger placed it at the end of the concert. The New Grove’s Dictionary accepts Thalberg’s version.)

After such sublime emotions came some grimmer realities:

Beethoven was outraged to find that while the gross receipts of the concert were 2,200 florins, the net receipts were only about 420; and, at a post-concert dinner with the theater’s managers, the composer exploded, claiming that they had cheated him.


Actually, Beethoven’s own promotion of the work hadn’t displayed exactly exemplary ethics:

Beethoven had sold exclusive rights to the London Philharmonic Society to perform the work for 18 months, receiving 50 pounds.

Beethoven kept the money, but didn’t keep the bargain: The premiere took place in Vienna, not in London.

Writing the Ninth had occupied Beethoven for about 6 1/2 years, partly because he was working on other compositions at the same time.


But the notion of setting Schiller’s “An die Freude” to music was not new to him. Beethoven’s democratic spirit had long been fed by the great German dramatist/poet’s praise of Joy as a heaven-descended spark that intoxicates all living creatures and inspires universal brotherhood.

Beethoven first thought of setting the Ode 31 years earlier, when as a young man of 23 he planned a straightforward stanza-by-stanza choral arrangement of the poem.

Nothing apparently came of that idea, but a melodic germ of what later became the Ode theme appeared in his Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra, Op. 80, written in 1800.

And he also returned to Schiller’s poem in 1812 in sketches for an overture that later became the “Namensfeier,” written to commemorate the name day of the Emperor Francis II of Austria.


In 1817, when he began negotiations with the London Philharmonic Society to compose new works, Beethoven actually had two symphonies in mind. It was in the second of these (it would have been the Tenth) that he considered introducing a choral part: He intended to end this other symphony with Turkish music and a full choir.

Somewhere along the line, however, he merged his plans for the Ninth and Tenth (which was never heard of again) and replaced the projected instrumental finale of the D minor with Schiller’s Ode.

The decision did not come easily.

Beethoven realized full well how revolutionary the idea of a choral finale was, and he apparently had serious misgivings about using it.


In fact, two men close to him at the time, pianist Carl Czerny and librettist Joseph Sonnleithner (who provided the libretto for “Fidelio”) maintain that even after the symphony had already been performed with chorus, Beethoven was still wondering if he should not abandon the choral parts and write a new instrumental finale.

Beethoven’s misgivings were partly borne out by the controversy about this choral movement which began almost from the first performance:

--One school of thought, championed in the 19th Century by composer Ludwig Spohr, claims that the symphony is a hybrid that doesn’t quite work, that the finale falls below the level of inspiration in the first three movements and that the “Ode to Joy” theme is merely a commonplace jingle or, worse, a German beer hall song.

--The other--and prevailing--school, embodied perhaps best by Wagner, maintains that the introduction of the human voice raises the work to an ineffable plane on which is expressed a breadth of vision and imagination amounting almost to divine revelation.


History seems to have resolved the controversy in Beethoven’s favor:

The Ninth Symphony is now loved the world over. Performing it at year’s end has become a tradition in Vienna and, of all places, in Japan, where mammoth sing-along versions (with up to 10,000 singers) have become yearly staples.

The current Schwann catalogue lists approximately 40 versions on record, tape and compact disc, but any music-lover knows that more versions can be hunted down.

Using the work for a celebratory occasion such as opening the Center can still generate mixed opinions, however.


“I would not use it for such an occasion,” said Christoph von Dohnanyi, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, in a recent phone interview from Brussels.

“It’s much more complicated than it’s taken for. Also, the last movement can be misunderstood as celebratory music. There is a lot of resignation in it, in that, it is much closer to the last string quartets.”

Kurt Sanderling, who has been guest-conducting throughout the world since his retirement as music director of the Berlin Symphony in 1977, said: “I have used the Ninth Symphony for celebratory occasions. But I don’t like doing it (for that) because it was not written for a special occasion.

“I think it was written for a normal audience as part of an average, usual musical life, not for a special occasion.”


However, Andre Previn, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (who will conduct the Ninth at the Hollywood Bowl this summer), feels: “It is one of the absolute milestones in the whole repertory, and many people think it is the greatest symphony ever written. I can think of very few pieces that are more appropriate.

“Of course, it’s a serious piece, but on the other hand, this is a (new) concert hall and (the Ninth) is a very good harbinger for things to come.”

Beethoven, for his part, however, never turned to the symphonic form again: After completing the Ninth, he spent the last 2 1/2 years of his life writing only string quartets.