Poster Beethoven bust
Ludwig van Beethoven's iconic Symphony No. 9 celebrates its 200th anniversary.
Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

Light a candle for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on its 200th anniversary

On May 7, 1824, an audience in Vienna heard for the first time the symphony that has become one of the most beloved works in the classical canon: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London in 1817, the composer’s final complete symphony is regarded as a masterwork. Many composers (among them Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, Antonin Dvorak and Bela Bartok) borrowed the Ninth Symphony’s motifs for their own works.

Listen YourClassical's Essentials stream

It is “the symphony to end all symphonies,” in the estimation of composer Richard Wagner. Hector Berlioz called it “the culmination of its author’s genius.” Giuseppe Verdi claimed it was “the alpha and omega” — although he dubiously took exception to the composition of the fourth and most famous movement, commonly called “Ode to Joy.”

That movement, the first example of a major composer scoring parts for choral voices, was adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude,” with additional text by Beethoven. It’s been heard everywhere from the films A Clockwork Orange and Die Hard to Sister Act 2 and Dead Poets Society — even the Muppets got in the act.

But the symphony wasn’t always so popular. In 1846, after its first performance in the United States at New York’s Castle Garden, a young lawyer named George Templeton recorded in his diary:

“A splendid failure, I’m sorry to say. The first movement was utterly barren. … The minuet was well enough, quite brilliant in parts [and] the only point I found worth remembering in the whole piece. … Then came an andante (very tedious) … then the fourth movement with its chorus, which was a bore. … [But] after all, ‘tisn’t fair to judge, hearing it under so many disadvantages.”

He apparently was referring to the chaotic scene at the Castle Garden, a popular spot for fireworks and balloon rides in addition to concerts.

Fourteen years later, after hearing the New York Philharmonic play the symphony, Templeton sang a different tune: “Strange I should have missed its real character and overlooked so many great points when I heard it last. It is an immense, wonderful work.”

The symphony might have reached peak immensity on Christmas Day 1989, when Leonard Bernstein conducted a chorus and multiple orchestras in a concert at Konzerthaus Berlin celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bernstein asked the chorus, with members drawn from eastern and western Europe, Israel and the United States, to substitute the word “freheit” (“freedom”) for the word “freude” (“joy”) in the final movement. (See below for a link to this concert.)

The symphony plays a crucial part in many orchestras’ repertoire. It is usually played on the penultimate night of the BBC Proms concert series, and Germany’s Bayreuth Festival always opens with the symphony.

Music writer Nicholas Cook notes, “Of all the works in the mainstream repertory of western music, the Ninth Symphony seems the most like a construction of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the values, hopes and fears of those who see to understand and explain it.

“From its first performance up to the present day, the Ninth Symphony has inspired diametrically opposed interpretations.”

In perhaps one of the most radical interpretations, conductor Marin Alsop in 2022 commissioned rapper Wordsmith to write new text.

“The Schiller poetry is phenomenal, but it’s not relevant for us today,” Alsop told Baltimore Magazine. “The word ‘joy’ meant something different in his day. I thought, why don’t we consider reimagining the text? With the same themes, the global themes of unification, tolerance, humanity, humankind and joy.”

Wordsmith adds that his goal was to use “present-day social issues to highlight the need for positive reinforcement.”  

These nine seminal performances, including some chosen by YourClassical staff, also put their own stamp on a classic.

Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Singverein (1963): Perhaps the reason I love this one is that it was the first version of the symphony I bought when I was in high school. There is always something compelling about the recording quality they get with Berlin. You hear things in the score you never heard before. I’m not sure if it’s the Philharmonie Hall itself, the engineers, the orchestra or all of the above. I saw them in concert in Chicago when I was in college and [Karajan’s] conducting style was so intriguing. I became a fan then. — Lynne Warfel

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 - Ode to Joy; Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan

Leonard Bernstein conducting an international group of instrumentalists and singers (1989): We were living in Scotland and I came home from work one night to see on the news folks demolishing the Berlin Wall. It was such a joyous and unexpected thing. The world rejoiced, and soon after, at Christmas, Lenny led the band in the most emotional and joyful rendition of the work I’ve ever heard. There was always some debate about Schiller’s poem that “freedom” was not as big a theme as “joy.” On that day, both were overwhelmingly present. — Lynne Warfel

Jeffrey Thomas conducting the American Bach Soloists, American Bach Choir, Pacific Mozart Ensemble and UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus (2007): There’s a recording that’s very much off the beaten path that came across my desk many years ago when I worked at Vermont Public Radio. I popped the CD into the player and was absolutely astonished by the clarity of the playing. There’s nothing quite like the sound of an older-style kettle drum, the strings with no vibrato. This recording absolutely cooks. I’d listen to it in the car ad nauseum.  It made the three-hour drive to visit my girlfriend go faster, and now, 16 years after first hearing this recording, we’ve been happily married for nearly 13 years.  Maybe the fact that the music gave me the energy for those long drives helped! — Joe Goetz

Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (2015): What struck me about this one is that it felt just right. The performance, at 67 minutes, wasn’t too fast or too slow; some recordings are very quick, just under an hour, some closer to 75 minutes. It was alive and invigorating when it needed to be, and straightforward and honest at other times, where the richness and tenderness of the strings and talented wind players show through. The audio quality is clear and crisp. It is also fun to think of the Berlin Philharmonic performing this in the backyard of Beethoven’s Bonn, Germany, nearly 200 years after its premiere. — Robin Gehl

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 - Ode to Joy; Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle

Mark Elder conducting the Hanover Band (2021): I’m a huge fan of England’s Hanover Band and their interpretations of Beethoven on period instruments. His music sounds so fresh to me when they play it — vigorous, exciting, strident, in your face — yet gentle and thoughtful, too, when asked to be. I never feel as if I’m listening to an academic lecture on period performance practice. I do feel as though I might be hearing Beethoven the way Viennese audiences might have first heard his music. Here is a brilliant performance of the Ninth that the Hanover Band filmed during the depths of the pandemic.  — Bonnie North

Here are four more notable versions:

Felix Weingartner conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Choir (1935): This recording knit together the many previous interpretations, from Wagner’s to Arturo Toscanini’s, earning Weingartner (the first conductor to record all of Beethoven’s symphonies) acclaim as a master of assimilation.  

Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra (1952): This performance, at the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival following World War II, came from a conductor deeply versed in the German culture from which the music sprang. It is viewed as a joyous reversal of Furtwängler’s 1942 recording made under some duress through the Nazis’ perversely titled “Strength Through Joy” program.

Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (1988): Shaw’s final performance as Atlanta’s music director was recorded live (and the ambient noises put you right in the audience). As befitting the choral master, the balance between human and instrumental voices is sublime.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (2008): The smaller scale of this chamber recording is perfect for Harnoncourt, known for his historically informed performances. It’s been described as a “Ninth without varnish,” punchy and challenging. Harnoncourt said, “It has always been my conviction that music is not there to soothe people’s nerves … but rather to open their eyes, to give them a good shaking, even to frighten them.”

Love the music?

Donate by phone

Show your support by making a gift to YourClassical.

Each day, we’re here for you with thoughtful streams that set the tone for your day – not to mention the stories and programs that inspire you to new discovery and help you explore the music you love.

YourClassical is available for free, because we are listener-supported public media. Take a moment to make your gift today.

More Ways to Give

Your Donation