Symphonic lighthouse

Beethoven’s Ninth and the Berliner Philharmoniker: a retrospective

1968: Photograph of the film recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
(Photo: Lauterwasser/Achiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

For his inaugural concert as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko has programmed one of the key works of Western culture: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which broke the boundaries of Beethoven's time with its structure, length and unusual choir finale, and redefined the form, purpose and conception of the genre of the symphony. Moreover, with the setting of Friedrich Schiller’s verse in the final movement, the work conveys a humanist message, a timeless appeal for peace and brotherhood.

Perfect and inspired

Performances of the Ninth have played a decisive role in the history of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and it is fascinating and intriguing to see how the programmatic context has changed over time. The Berliner Philharmoniker performed the Ninth for the first time in October 1883 – a little over a year after the orchestra was founded – under the direction of Franz Wüllner. The still new orchestra scored a great success. The publication Signale für die musikalische Welt said that it was the best performance of the work ever offered in Berlin: “Under Wüllner’s direction, the orchestra gave a technically perfect and immensely inspired performance.” Before the symphony, they played chorales by Bach and the transformation music and final scene from the first act of Wagner’s Parsifal. The pairing of the symphony with music by Richard Wagner, for whom the Ninth was a crucial source of inspiration in the creation of his own music, is more common in the early years of the orchestra, as well as programmes in which the symphony was given with other works by Beethoven.

Double the pleasure

Hans von Bülow, first chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Beethoven enthusiast, gave a double performance of the Ninth in March 1889. An absolute novelty for the Berlin audience, but one which the press found quite controversial. It was derided as “whimsical” and “foolish”. The critic of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, who was completely enchanted by the first performance, confessed that when “the dark a-e fifths sounded again, when it was necessary to walk through Tartarus once more after already looking into the sunlit regions of the finale, I soon felt that I had overestimated my powers”. Bülow pursued two goals with the double performance, an event which turned out to be a triumph for him in Berlin: first, as no other pieces were played, he had more time to rehearse the work, and secondly, by doing so, he could make the audience more familiar with the symphony.

Also Arthur Nikisch, Bülow’s successor, put the audience to the test in one concert by putting Schumann’s music to Manfred and the Ninth on the same programme. In the opinion of the journal Signale, performers and listeners both suffered as a result of “too much good”. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Berliner Philharmoniker had regular annual events when Beethoven’s Ninth was often performed: a yearly Beethoven cycle, charity concerts for the pension fund, and New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day concerts at the Volksbühne. In some years there were up to four performances of the work. An incidental curiosity: a Berlin factory owner bequeathed 40 000 marks to the orchestra for it to hold an annual memorial concert for him, in which, among other things, Beethoven’s Ninth should be performed. The Philharmoniker fulfilled this wish for years, but they played only the first three movements of the symphony without the elaborate choral finale.

A new tone

Another constant was the regular performances of the Ninth with the Bruno Kittelscher Chor, one of the leading choral associations in Berlin. It also participated in the first Ninth Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted with the Berliner Philharmoniker. That was in March 1922, shortly after the sudden death of Arthur Nikisch, and Furtwängler did his utmost to become his successor. His interpretation of the work made audiences sit up and take notice: it was “very individual and of a thoroughly persuasive power,” as the press wrote. The acclaimed concert probably contributed to Furtwängler becoming chief conductor. This Ninth was to be followed by many more, and Furtwängler continued to set standards with the performances, and with the work, he also underwent an exciting artistic development process. In 1935, the Kittelscher Chor and the Philharmoniker celebrated their 100th performance of the symphony together, about which the critic of the Berliner Tagblatt wrote: “Even those who know Furtwängler’s Ninth well were in for a surprise. No longer, as a few years ago, are the dynamic contrasts pushed to their extreme limits, no longer does he glory in the frisson of a barely audible pianissimo [...]. A new austerity hangs over the performance, and Furtwängler is increasingly approaching a classical ideal.”

Despite its musical grandeur, one thing must not be forgotten: the Ninth was also always a hit at the box office and a secure source of income. Thus, Furtwängler’s penultimate performance of the Ninth with the Philharmoniker in December 1950 came at the urgent request of the orchestra, which desperately needed income in the wake of the recent currency reform.

Flowing melodiousness and differentiated tonality

In any case, the Ninth was and is regarded as a work for special events: it was performed for the 50th birthday of the Philharmoniker in 1932, and again 25 years later for their the 75th. At this event, Furtwängler’s successor, Herbert von Karajan, was at the helm of the Berliner Philharmoniker. He also conducted the work for the official opening of the Hans Schouron-designed Philharmonie in 1963. Although Karajan had long since proved that he could deliver an individual, compelling interpretation of the work, he was still compared to his predecessor: “Karajan gave the symphony the stamp of his personal musical style aimed at flowing melodiousness and differentiated tonality. The surges and crashes of the first movement do not have the demonic grandeur as formerly with Furtwängler” (Kurier). Nevertheless, Karajan developed his own, unmistakable reading of the work which served as a model for future generations. After the Second World War, the Ninth was performed much less frequently than in the first half of the 20th century. It increasingly took on a lighthouse function. It was given at the Easter and Summer Festivals in Salzburg as well as during Karajan’s legendary Beethoven cycles in Paris, London, New York and Japan.

Verdi-like and robust

He was followed by Claudio Abbado, a chief conductor who regularly put classical masterpieces in a new programmatic context. When he presented the symphony for the first time with the Berliner Philharmoniker, he preceded it with Wolfgang Rihm’s contemporary work In-Schrift. In 2000, there was a small anniversary to celebrate: 10 years of the European concert. The orchestra did not travel as usual, but stayed in Berlin and presented Beethoven’s Ninth, whose melody to Schiller’s Ode to Joy has been the official anthem of the European Union since 1985. Abbado’s interpretation was marked by brilliance and vitality. “However, some dramatic thunderclaps came close to Verdi” (Der Tagesspiegel). Of course, the piece was also part of the two acclaimed Beethoven cycles that Abbado performed with the orchestra in 2001 in Rome and Vienna.

During the tenure of Sir Simon Rattle, too, there were outstanding performances of the Ninth. The audience experienced the work on several occasions together with compositions from the Second Viennese School: Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra and works for choir and orchestra by Anton Webern. On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker thrilled audiences with a performance of the Ninth. “Under Rattle, the wrestling avoids titanic weightiness, it remains deeply individual, not smooth, but robust” (Der Tagesspiegel). This was followed in 2013 by the Waldbühne concert with Beethoven's Ninth – as a foretaste of the entire Beethoven cycle which Simon Rattle played and recorded with the Philharmoniker in the 2015/2016 season.

And the story of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Beethoven’s last symphony continues with their new chief conductor Kirill Petrenko. The programme for his inauguration had been clear for him from the outset, as Petrenko said at a press conference in May: “There is only one work with which I can start my position here in Berlin: Beethoven's Ninth.”


Hans von BülowArthur Nikisch
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
Wilhelm Furtwängler