(Heh. I guess this qualifies as a Theory Thursday.)
Kind of a metaphysical moment today in Form and Analysis. Follow me for a moment – you know the transition to the Turkish march in the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th? We’re solidly in D major, moving to A (the dominant, what one might expect), then all of a sudden BAM – F/A dyad, implying an F chord. Next thing you know, this 6/8 thing in B-flat. Janissary instruments (triangle, cymbals, bass drum), and the Freude theme, but in the wrong meter and key. (The recording I use, Bernstein with the NY Phil from 1964 or thereabouts, also features a tenor soloist who sounds like he’s about 3 feet tall and wearing a huge Kaiser Wilhelm helmet. That’s why I love that recording.)
Why is that?
Here’s the way I went with it.
“Alle Menschen werden Brüder.” These words are the underpinning of the Enlightenment. Sadly, the leading lights of the Enlightenment – those who first gave voice to this most noble of sentiments – usually fell well short in their actual application of this belief. In America, the young nation founded on these principles, thousands were held in chattel slavery because of the color of their skin. Western Europeans weren’t much better. Vienna was arguably the most cosmopolitan city in Europe at that point because it was both the capital of a multicultural empire and centrally located, but even it treated the exotic as an “other.” Janissary bands were still a novelty item, loved and sought out but still viewed through the filter of what Edward Said would later term “Orientalism.” Still, Beethoven – even as a vaunted master – knew what people liked to hear, so he threw one in. Give the people what they want.
It’s in B-Flat, a key that has been the “Other” key throughout the work. A Viennese audience with any level of sophistication would have caught the Janissary thing immediately, and consciously given it no more thought than “Oh, cool, Janissary stuff.” Subconsciously, though, might something have registered?
What does the Janissary band/soloist/men’s chorus perform? The Ode to Joy. This same theme that was the great Enlightenment ideal set to music. After the statement, the soloist sings a wonderful line over the top of it, and the chorus comes in to reinforce. Here is the Other, the different, the swarthy, the non-Westerner, performing this incredible Ode. This catches the Enlightenment off-guard. “What? These…Not Us-es wanting to hold to *our* ideals?”
A fugue ensues, as the Enlightenment wrangles with one simple question – are these ideals truly universal? The standard Western response has been that these incredibly lofty ideals are reserved to them and to them alone, at least at this point. Perhaps someday, the non-enlightened ones will be worthy of this, but until then, we have to keep them from it. The Janissary setting of the tune destroys that. If what was considered “exotic” in Vienna in 1824 can pick up the tune, what of the slave? The non-European? The native American?
Beethoven gives his answer. After the fugue, the Freude theme returns. It’s in its original key of D major, but now in 6/8. His answer is a resounding “Yes.” Alle Menschen werden Brüder, indeed. If these ideals apply to anyone, they must apply to everyone. Alle Menschen. Every last stinkin’ one of us on this ball of mud.
That was a radical idea for 1824. Still is. And perhaps this is why several composers have written ninth symphonies, but there is only one Ninth. When the orchestra in the Congo featured on 60 Minutes this past week performed, what did they perform? The Ninth. For Beethoven, the “Other” as a concept simply doesn’t exist, and this is his way of telling us that.
It’s a thought, anyway.