When Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824, a second conductor instructed the orchestra to ignore the wildly gesticulating and nearly deaf composer on stage.
“At the end of the performance, the audience was screaming with applause,” said Tom Hall, guest conductor with the Santa Fe Symphony. “The conductor had to turn him around because Beethoven couldn’t hear a word of it.”
The symphony will perform Beethoven’s masterwork with Brahms’ Tragic Overture at 7:30 p.m. May 17 and at 4 p.m. May 18 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe.
Generally considered one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, the Ninth contains Beethoven’s signature “Ode to Joy,” set to a poem about universal brotherhood by Friedrich Schiller.
The “Ninth” was Beethoven’s final symphony before his death three years later. The composer was a hit-maker for the ages. Today its signature theme remains recognizable even to those who know nothing about his music.
“Beethoven set out to write a hit tune,” Hall said in a telephone interview from Baltimore, where he hosts a radio show for the local NPR affiliate. “He also was very purposeful about making it a universal anthem. It is a universal plea for brotherhood and peace and joy.”
At the time, Beethoven’s personal life was in tatters. He suffered from both liver and kidney disease. He was self-medicating with alcohol stored in lead containers. He was locked in a bitter custody fight with his sister-in-law and in love with a woman he could not have.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted the piece with an orchestra comprised of both East and West German musicians at the Brandenburg Gate, Hall said.
Brahms Tragic Overture, one of a pair that includes his Academic Festival Overture, was written in about 1880, Hall said.
“Brahms’ nemesis was Wagner,” he explained. “Wagner represented all that was new. Brahms represented the old school. He was the guy who was still writing symphonies.”
The composer was a Bach scholar who venerated Beethoven.
Composed in B minor, the “Tragic” looms dark and somber.
“It is heavy, but it’s masterful,” Hall said. “The notion that music could be personally expressive didn’t take hold until Beethoven and his followers. Beethoven is all about heart on your sleeve.”