74 Minutes of Joy

This Sunday, musicians from BMPC, Singing City Choir, the National Music Festival Orchestra, Frederick Chorale and Chester River Chorale will descend on BMPC to present Ludwig von Beethoven’s epic Symphony No. 9 (“Choral Symphony”). The concert also includes Mozart’s marvelous Concerto for Bassoon. With 65 orchestral musicians and 151 singers in the chancel of our church, this will be the largest assembled musical ensemble in BMPC’s history. This concert, along with the opening of a BMPC Congregational Mixed-media Art Show, will fill our campus with uncontainable, creative joy.

I once heard someone describe Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as the musical equivalent of a cathedral. Like a cathedral, its structure is vast but orderly. It can be viewed from the outside and from the inside, each view lending a thrilling perspective. Like a cathedral, this symphony is one of the most breathtaking human creations in modern history. It inspires all who encounter it, drawing us heavenward.
Beethoven’s greatest symphony and most influential composition was not recognized at first as a landmark—historians agree that it was one of the most pivotal works ever composed. The night of the premiere, Beethoven went home distressed over the meager profits, and he was very disappointed because the entire evening had been staged to prove that he still had box office appeal in Vienna. Many had expressed their disappointment in his retirement from public life. The concert of May 7, 1824, at which the Ninth Symphony was first performed, was his response.

By 1824, Beethoven was almost completely deaf. He had long ago given up playing the piano in public, and, although he was advertised as the conductor of the premiere performance of this new symphony, and did indeed appear to beat time and turn the pages of his score (and, according to some accounts, even engage in some over-the-top theatrical gesturing), the players and the singers had been warned beforehand to pay no attention to him. Instead, they all followed the discreet beat provided by the concertmaster.

When (in one of the most famous accounts in all music) the audience burst into applause, Beethoven couldn’t hear the ovation. He stood, his back to the crowd, leafing through his score. Only when the alto soloist tapped him on the shoulder and turned him around did he see his public applauding wildly.

The humanistic message of Beethoven’s Ninth has been welcomed far and wide—from Japan, where New Year’s sing-along performances are as popular as our Messiahs, to Berlin, where, to celebrate the destruction of the Wall in 1989, Leonard Bernstein changed “Freude” (joy) to “Freiheit” (freedom), claiming that “Beethoven would have given us his blessing in this heaven-sent moment.”

A few important things to know about Sunday’s performance:

  1. While tickets will be available at the door, they are selling quickly. You may purchase them here.
  2. “Will-call” and ticket sales will be in front of the church (weather permitting)
  3. The public will be allowed in at 2:15 p.m. This is to allow the musicians time to warm-up in the Sanctuary. Entrance to the church will be through the front center doors only.
  4. Edward Landin, our Assistant Director of Music, will present a 30-minute prelude on the organ, beginning at 2:30 p.m.
  5. A special feature of this concert will be the inclusion of super-titles, with the English translation of the text projected over the choir.

As an interesting side note, the importance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is so great that when the Compact Disc Digital Audio standard came out in 1980, it was 74 minutes long. Not 60 or even 70 minutes, but seventy-four. Why? Because the head of Sony, Norio Ohga, insisted that the CD format be able to contain the longest recorded performance of Beethoven’s symphony, that of Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose 1951 performance lasted 74 minutes. That is the power of this work, one of history’s greatest compositions.