You know you’ve made it in the music world when anarchists start praising you for having too much power.
According to influential radical Mikhail Bakunin, “Everything will pass, and the world will perish, but [Beethoven’s] Ninth Symphony will remain.”
This is likely true. Big, loud, long and heroic, Beethoven’s masterpiece has become as well known as Happy Birthday. How did Beethoven create a smash hit—and more importantly, why has it endured for two hundred years, while other pieces have disappeared?
To answer this question and others, we turn to Thomas Kelly, one of Harvard’s most popular professors and one of the world’s leading experts in music history. In a speech to IVY Boston, Kelly deconstructed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, attributing its enduring popularity in part to its plea for universal brotherhood. The cry during the choral finale—“all men shall become brothers!”—has famously meant something different to everyone who listens to it: Marxists used it to encourage unity for the proletariat, the European Union usurped it as its anthem, and Americans commandeered it to advertise The Minnesota Twins.
The symphony’s staying power may then lie in its ability to speak to everyone, and its belief in human potential. IVY sat down with Professor Kelly to learn his key insights on music, live performance, and why it matters.
What do you find most compelling about a premiere?
Think of it this way: you and I get to listen to any piece of music we want, whenever we want to. In the middle of a performance we can say, stop! and that whole big orchestra will stop playing while we go to the kitchen and get a beer. And then we tell it to start, and it starts up again.
It’s a privilege to hear all music whenever and wherever you want. Up until 20th century, any music you heard was music you had to play yourself—or, you had to be physically present at the exact moment the music was being performed. I study the magic that happens when human beings in real time sweat bullets and make sounds for me to listen to.
What are the most significant premieres in the last 500 years, in your opinion?
First, Montiverdi’s Orfeo, written in 1607. Then, Handel’s Messiah. Then comes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Berlioz’s Symphony Fantasique. Everyone loves that one because it’s a story about drugs, love, and sex—what more would you want? Then, of course, Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring. If you’ve seen Fantastia, you’ve heard that piece.
I don’t want people to think of these pieces as just five timeless moments. I want people to think of this as the cutting edge of music. The premieres were the one moment when no one had heard that kind of music before. If you weren’t there to listen to it in person, you just missed it.
What’s an example of a musical innovation that we take for granted, but was a huge deal at the time?
Well, look at Orfero. Nowadays, we call that format an “opera,” but at the time, no one had heard of that before. Everyone was thinking: ‘tomorrow night the Duke is giving a play and I’m going to try to go because all the people are going to sing their parts….how weird!’ The audience members thought they were going to a play.
We might see this as simpleminded, but we have to unlisten to the history of opera, and instead try to listen to this as if it were being performed for the first time. If you put yourself in the place of the people who heard this thing for the first time, you hear it differently.
Why does Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony matter?
First, it had some musical novelties that no one had seen before; second, it had the universal message of human brotherhood. For Beethoven, this piece has to do with the worth of every individual human being. He knew all about the American Revolution, and the French Revolution, and the Enlightenment, and at the time, he happened to live in a particularly repressive autocratic monarchy. When Beethoven wrote that all men should be brothers, and when he spoke of joy and unity, he was sending a message to the people of his own time. It’s a message that resonates just as strongly today.
If you personally go back and attend any premiere, which would you pick?
Am I guaranteed not to be subjected to 18th-century dentistry?
It would be fun to go to Stravinsky premier because they say the audience was screaming so loudly that the dancers couldn’t hear orchestra at their feet. People may have objected to music or the dancing (which was very weird for ballet), or the fact that the ballet company had fired its previous choreographer. For whatever reason, there was a Riot at the Rite.
We had a Stravinsky concert in Harvard, and invited the audience to scream. It was really fun. I now know that you can drown out an orchestra.
If you could grab a beer with any composer from history, who would it be?
If you want a good time, Handel is a yes. Mozart is certainly yes. Beethoven is no. There are also composers you know you’d gave a good time with even though they were not necessarily good composers, like Rossini.
What if you had to pick one?
Bach. I’d just want to be in the presence of someone like that. I wouldn’t want to grab a beer with him—I’d kind of want to get him drunk to see what he was really like.
You just wrote a book. Does it recap all of this?
Capturing Music is about all the amazing technological leaps forward that have happened as we’ve tried to record and preserve music. It’s really incredible that we can capture music at all—how is it that you can put marks on a flat surface and have it remind you of something ephemeral, something that you couldn’t see and something that wouldn’t hold still?
Modern musical notation tells us two things: what note is it, and how long it lasts. Early notations don’t tell you either. So how did they do it? I’m tying to get in the heads of the people who wrote this beautiful music, and have audible contact with people who lived one thousand years ago.