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The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824


"Harvey Sachs has written excellent books about music and musicians. Here he turns his -- and our -- attention to one of the great monuments of music. We think we know this symphony quite well. How wrong we are! This book will help us to understand it better."

--Andras Schiff

"This book is a great read for expert musicians and for people who can't read a note of music. It is a very personal, loving view of Beethoven and his last symphony, but it also presents a fascinating historic panorama."
--Placido Domingo

The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini): “… as Harvey Sachs writes in his insightful new book, ‘The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824,’ Beethoven’s last symphony has been ‘used as a battle flag by liberals and conservatives, by democrats and autocrats, by Nazis, Communists and anarchists.’ Yet, as Mr. Sachs makes clear here, Beethoven’s Ninth, whatever ideas and ideals we charge or clutter it with, is also an ingenious composition by a towering master in his transcendent late period, a path-breaking work that defined its cultural era. Mr. Sachs, a historian and critic who is the author of valuable biographies of Toscanini and Rubinstein, convincingly relates the symphony to contemporaneous works by champions of Romanticism in other fields, including Byron, Pushkin, Delacroix, Stendhal and Heine… Mr. Sachs astutely points out that this piece proclaiming all men brothers, an unabashed call for freedom, appeared in the middle of a decade characterized by dynastic repression and ultraconservative nationalism… As someone who describes music in nontechnical terms for a living, I admire Mr. Sachs’s perceptive, often vivid account… [Beethoven’s] pieces were not expressions of his life; they were his life, Mr. Sachs argues. Reading this book, you feel for the composer, trying to bond with others through an astonishing symphony.”

The Washington Post (Michael Dirda): “As Harvey Sachs reminds us in his study of this masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony – and especially the ‘Ode to Joy’ that is at the heart of its conclusion – has become our go-to music for occasions of deep solemnity… In ‘The Ninth,’ Sachs – author of a fine biography of conductor Arturo Toscanini and several other books – looks at the symphony from various perspectives. In Part 1 he situates the work in Beethoven's life and career, with a detailed account of its first performance in Vienna in 1824. He reminds us that Beethoven was the first composer to think seriously about posterity, to intend his music to survive him… In Part 2, Sachs sets the work in its time… He notes that ‘if there is a hidden thread that connects Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to the works created in and around 1824 by other significant artists, it is precisely this quest for freedom: political freedom, from the repressive conditions that then dominated Europe, and freedom of expression, certainly, but above all freedom of the mind and spirit.’ Part 3 is largely given over to an extended verbal analysis of the music itself. Sachs apologizes for even attempting to ‘describe the indescribable’ without resorting to technical musical terminology. He does a superb job… In Part 4 Sachs offers another survey, this time tracing the impact of the Ninth Symphony on 19th-century composers born before 1824, Berlioz and Wagner in particular… Finally, in a ‘postlude’ Sachs recalls his own boyhood discovery – in Cleveland – of Beethoven and touches on the composer's importance to him. Not just the Ninth, he concludes, but Beethoven's music in general ‘adds to the fullness when life feels good, and it lengthens and deepens the perspective when life seems barely tolerable. It is with me and in me. And I suppose that this book is a vastly oversized and yet entirely inadequate thank-you note to Beethoven.’ It's more than that. ‘The Ninth’… will send readers to their CD players.”

The Wall Street Journal (Norman Lebrecht): “Mr. Sachs, whose previous books include landmark biographies of Arturo Toscanini and Arthur Rubinstein, adds depth of field to the Ninth Symphony by presenting it as the first sounding of a free new world. He analyzes its content with clarity and accepts that assigning meaning to the music can only mislead… ‘The Ninth,’ a fresh, often challenging approach to one of the cornerstones of civilization, is a hugely welcome antidote to the excesses of academic musicology… Mr. Sachs strikes a truer note, affirming that it is possible to write about a great symphony in a way that makes the music relevant to each listener at every level of individual engagement. Just as Beethoven intended.”

The Spectator (UK; Michael Henderson): “Harvey Sachs… has written a book worthy of its subject. Part music lesson, part tour d’horizon of European cultural life in the early 18th [sic] century, and part homage to the immortal Ludwig, it may not reveal anything that is not already known, but there is more than one kind of revelation, and the author’s expertise, conveyed in uncluttered prose that falls short of zealotry, will delight the curious reader… As Sachs makes clear, in this engaging book, in a manner that neither hectors nor cloys…, every human society will find Beethoven’s music eternally hopeful, eternally modern. We cannot live without it.”

The Telegraph (London; Philip Hensher): “Harvey Sachs’s excellent book modestly states its ambition as to tell ‘what takes place in the Ninth Symphony’, as well as to set out the place it took in its world…. This is not the first and will not be the last book to be written about this symphony, but is an unusually good one. Sachs’s interests are much wider than those of most musicians, and his account of literary and political contemporaries enriches the music’s significance. He is a conductor and understands the music from inside. He offers as good an account of the music as anyone since Donald Tovey. He comes, too, from the right position: he says that ‘music that does not accompany words presents no image whatsoever to me’. That might seem problematic when thinking about so very extra-musical a work as the Ninth Symphony. In fact, it allows him to engage with it at the level of argument, with a sense of struggle, strain and a full respect for its many difficulties…. Sachs treads warily, accurately and responsibly round the great unsleeping beast.”

TLS – The Times Literary Supplement (London; Leon Plantinga): “In this engaging book, Harvey Sachs sees Beethoven’s final completed symphony as a subversive act, a counter-argument to the central aims of Restoration rule, notwithstanding the fact that the composer depended on the highest echelons of the Habsburgs for at least part of his living…. There is a refreshing sincerity to it all, and something clearly to be gained from this frankly subjective and broad-gauged revisiting of a familiar subject.”

The Independent (London; Boyd Tonkin): “In The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, writer-conductor Harvey Sachs registers the huge shock achieved by a composer who by that stage had his ‘big-calibre artillery aimed at the future’… Sachs paints in all the local colour but also broadens the artistic backdrop…. Although he insists that ‘To me, music... resists verbal description’, in the end Sachs just has to bite the baton. Thus, on page 133, begins a virtuoso 30-page account of what happens in the Ninth from first bar to last. And very impressive it is too: light on technical terms beyond those strictly necessary, and free of figurative flights of fancy... Sachs's language enriches a lay listener's grasp without evaporating into fantasy or stumbling into mechanics.”

The San Francisco Chronicle (Benjamin Ivry): “Like all of [Sachs’s previous books], ‘The Ninth,’ about Beethoven's most mythic symphony, contains eloquently discerning distillations of a lifetime of thinking and feeling about music… Deftly putting into words what many Beethoven fans have always felt, Sachs describes the composer's use of ‘self-revelation as a means toward the achievement of world-wide human harmony. I call this process the universalizing of the intimate,’ and he persuasively explains how ‘in many ways, Beethoven was - is - much more modern than we are.’... Light-years away from the output of a self-satisfied, sedentary tenured professor or smug, bloodless critic, this short book by a learned, informed yet non-academic author with practical music experience, taste and writing talent is so rare as to deserve special commemoration. All music lovers should run, not walk, to purchase ‘The Ninth.’”

San Francisco Examiner (Cy Ashley Webb): “Sachs’ new volume… goes places that most recent Beethoven scholarship overlooks…. Whereas others argue that the European aspiration for freedom was the inspiration behind Romanticism, Sachs claims that the Romantics were not children of the revolution, but rather its orphans. Sachs’ arguments are so fascinating that whether his supposition is correct is almost beside the point…. Sachs’ scholarship and his easy familiarity with Romanticism in general makes [sic] this an engaging read. One gets the feeling that Sachs had been waiting a long time to write this book… waiting until he was older – if not more seasoned – than his subject. He thinks both broadly and deeply, which is a refreshing change. He takes on critics as disparately related as Baudelaire (who considered Beethoven the harbinger of Romantic excesses), Theodor Adorno (who was frustrated with what he perceived as Beethoven’s populism) and Adrienne Rich (who claimed that the Ninth demonstrated the creator’s sexual impotence or infertility) and patiently brings them back to the context of post-Napoleonic Europe. In the closing chapter Sachs writes that his book was ‘a vastly over-sized and yet entirely inadequate thank-you note to Beethoven.’ Insofar as Sachs’ volume manages to do the impossible by enlarging his subject for musician and historian alike, his modesty is misplaced.”

The Atlantic (USA, online; Benjamin F. Carlson): “Harvey Sachs…, like so many Beethoven-philes over the last 150 years (I'm one too) loves the Ninth, and so can't help developing a theory about its meaning. In his new book The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, Sachs circumspectly, and persuasively, describes Beethoven's only vocal symphony as a statement of freedom in the repressive political environment of Europe after the Congress of Vienna…. Sachs himself admits… prior to his admirable, ‘highly personal’ analysis of the Ninth: ‘there is one inescapable fact’: the symphony ‘belongs to each person who... attempts to listen to it attentively.’"

The Weekly Standard (USA; Lawrence Klepp): “…[an] engaging and far-ranging account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and its resonance in European culture in 1824… [T]he same precipitous spiritual landscape [Beethoven] explored was simultaneously being traversed by other composers, writers, and artists,… all of whom Sachs discusses with insight and deft biographical sketchwork.… The author of eight books on music, Sachs has been a conductor as well, and he helped Sir Georg Solti write his memoirs, experiences that supply anecdotes and insights on playing and conducting Beethoven. It’s a book full of personal asides and tangents, and it’s not meant as a systematic or scholarly study of the music. That’s what makes it accessible to readers who have little technical knowledge but who think that, to fine-tune Nietzsche’s aphorism, life without Beethoven’s music would be a mistake. Anyone who has been deeply moved by listening to the Ninth Symphony… without quite understanding why, will understand why after reading Sachs’s movement-by-movement evocation. The book is full of incidental illuminations. It conveys the musical atmosphere of Vienna in Beethoven’s time.… It offers an original perspective on Carlyle’s cult of heroism and a thoughtful discussion of just what music can and cannot express. And it reminds us that writing music with posterity in mind was revolutionary.”

Literary Review (UK; Jonathan Keates): “The writer’s exposition, designed for non-specialists as much as for seasoned musical analysts, is eloquent, witty and imaginative, placing the whole achievement within the wider contemporary framework of a post-Napoleonic Europe dominated by Metternich and his conservative satellites. Parallels and contrasts with such distinguished contemporaries as Byron, Pushkin, Stendhal and Delacroix enable us to see Beethoven’s lofty gesture for what, in Harvey Sachs’s reading, it essentially was, a rearguard action of Romanticism against humanity’s dismal hunger for orthodoxy, obedience and simple answers.”

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Mark Kanny): “…the piece itself is so transporting that the desire to experience it again and know it better is almost irresistible. That desire is particularly well served by a new book by one of the finest writers on classical music working today. ‘The Ninth’ by Harvey Sachs… is a slender volume, just 200 pages of text, written with personal passion and drawing on broad-ranging research…. Sachs’ book is in four sections, each a marvel of brevity despite fascinating side journeys…. For all Sachs’ enthusiasm for his subject, he is a remarkably clear-sighted and balanced guide…. ‘The Ninth’ is Sachs’ ninth book and perhaps his most valuable. Easily read in a single day or a couple of evenings, it is an inspiring examination of one of music's supreme masterpieces.”

Seattle Times (Melinda Bargreen): “…a new book by author and music historian Harvey Sachs probes this masterpiece in its milieu…. a relatively short but thought-provoking study of the times in which Beethoven wrote his last symphony, as well as a reflection on the work itself – and the man who created it. Sachs looks not only at Beethoven's life and work, but also at the European political situation of that time.... He examines, in connection with Beethoven's culminating symphony, the creative output of the composer's contemporaries and fellow Romantics, from Byron and Stendhal to Delacroix, Heine and Pushkin. Sachs’ account of the premiere of the Ninth is extraordinarily detailed…. He creates a vivid picture of a half-amateur orchestra and chorus grappling with error-strewn, hard-to-read manuscript parts during the course of only two rehearsals…. The effect of the Ninth on the composers and other creators who followed Beethoven is outlined in Sachs' section, ‘The Hardest Possible Act to Follow’... What sets Sachs’ book apart from others on this subject… is the deeply personal nature of this narrative. This work clearly means a great deal to Sachs, who describes at length his own experience of this symphony and its effect on him.”

The Washington Times (Priscilla S. Taylor): “Reading Harvey Sachs’ meditation on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the era in which it was produced – grim post-revolutionary and post-Napoleonic Europe – is like taking a short course in music appreciation with your favorite professor. That’s fitting because Mr. Sachs is on the faculty at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There are no course prerequisites – anyone can sign up, but one suspects the course is always oversubscribed on campus. The author, who describes himself as a music historian, was a conductor for a dozen years, and he is a gifted writer. In this, his ninth book, Mr. Sachs, with considerable charm, tells you all you need to know to appreciate what is perhaps the most profound secular piece of music ever created….

Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Randall Radic): “Harvey Sachs’ wonderful book… is about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – and a whole lot more…. Sachs' discussion of Byron is one of the best in existence. Simply delightful doesn’t quite do it justice…. In his explication of the 9th Symphony, which is more of a letter home about one’s beloved than anything else, Sachs excels. He eschews technical, musical language, thereby bringing Beethoven’s masterpiece down to a level less gifted human beings can understand. It’s wonderfully done.… The Ninth is one of those rare books, the kind that come along every once in a while, books that swarm with erudite analyses, shimmer with vibrancy, and add flavor to the intellectual side of life. Such books are not to be missed. Don’t miss this one.”

Publishers Weekly (USA; starred review): “Just why the composer and his works endure is the question behind this absorbing book by music historian Sachs. Through detailed musical analysis and condensed readings of cultural politics and 19th-century history, Sachs ponders ‘what role so-called high culture played, plays, and ought to play in civilization.’… Sachs shines with a close reading of the Ninth’s musical score, interpreting its techniques and emotive narrative.”

Booklist (USA; Alan Hirsch): “This discussion of the cornerstone of Romantic music, whose influence extended deep into the twentieth century, is concise, thorough, and written from the heart of a great biographer, musicologist, and lover of fine music.”

Kirkus Reviews (USA): “…eloquent, erudite, passionate and musical.”
Library Journal (USA; Timothy McGee): “Sachs draws together the major influences in the political and artistic worlds of the early 19th century as a way of highlighting the importance of Beethoven's monumental work. His discussion ranges from large historical concepts to detailed analyses of specific works of art, politics, and musical compositions, which serves to paint a vivid picture of the intense artistic life of the period.… There is a bit of technical discussion that requires music theory background, but the bulk of the narrative is eminently readable, insightful, and often very personal. A thought-provoking, broadly based, well-informed discussion that should appeal to well-educated general readers as well as music specialists.”

USA Today (Maria Puente): “Sachs’ enthusiasm is infectious, his knowledge impressive. Reading him may not be strictly necessary to enjoy the symphony, but it can certainly better inform the listener. At the end, Sachs quotes a young orchestra executive who tells him, ‘I can't imagine what my life would be without Beethoven.’ After this book, even readers who don't know much about Beethoven will have to agree.”

Newark Star-Ledger (Susan E. Saltus): “Harvey Sachs’ new book puts the creation of this masterwork into its political and social context, while also undertaking to explain the musical reasons for its emotional power. Sachs writes compellingly about the thread that connects Beethoven’s work to other artists of that period...”

BBC Music Magazine (Michael Tanner): “…consistently enjoyable, conveys a large amount of information without wasting words… informative and thought-provoking.”

The Scotsman (UK; Andrew Crumey): “As well as giving a fresh angle on Beethoven's life, Sachs offers a detailed analysis of the symphony… The book is highly enjoyable.”

Dallas Morning News (Jane Sumner): “The author's sweeping excursion through the repressive era in which the Ninth was composed… [is] a revelatory ride through a creative time and four symphonic movements…. After a revealing account of the musical, economic and political problems that beset the premiere, Sachs explains how Prince Metternich and the royals silenced any populist voices encouraged by the French Revolution and Napoleonic era. Next he chronicles the difficult, eccentric life of Beethoven the tortured genius, who had contempt for most people but an ‘all-embracing love for humanity.’ Then in a fascinating section, he calls forth a cast of 19th century writers and artists, who, like Beethoven, railed against suppression, hailed freedom and helped launch Romanticism…. Want to escape news of the BP oil gusher, economic malfeasance on Wall Street and the countless erectile dysfunction commercials on TV for some 65 minutes? Spin a CD of Beethoven's Ninth, clamp on earphones and follow the author as he attempts to decipher in mostly nontechnical terms the Ninth from its dark beginning to its dazzling end…. As a kid in Cleveland, what young Sachs wanted most for his 12th birthday was an LP of the Ninth. He loved it so much he wrote a thank-you note to the composer. This edifying, entertaining book is it.”

Tucson Citizen (Larry Cox): “Harvey Sachs, writer and music historian, uses this incredible piece of music to view politics, aesthetics, and overall climate of the era to illustrate why and how this symphony set a standard for subsequent generations of creative artists, while its composer came to embody the Romantic cult of genius. Part cultural history, part music history, and part biography, this engaging book documents how Beethoven’s last symphony brought forth the power of the individual while celebrating the collective spirit of humanity. This is one of the better books this summer about both art and artistic achievement.”

Providence Journal (Jeanne Nicholson): “Sachs has written engaging books before — eight in all… Here he explores the impact of Beethoven’s politically repressive era, in which romanticism in the arts was often a proxy for, or a symbol of, forbidden political liberalism…. This is a fascinating read — part cultural history, part musical history, and part biography as well as a collector’s book for informed listening.”

Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana; Peter Jacobi): “Sachs explores the age in which the symphony was created, the music itself, and the future that has come to be built around the Ninth… [I]f the Ninth Symphony continues to capture your heart and imagination, you will find yourself quickly immersed in Sachs’ enthusiastic treatise on the work that, through the words of Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ and Beethoven’s stirring music, preached repudiation of the restrictive and repressive nationalism that dominated the period. Importantly, Beethoven himself comes alive in these pages, his yearning to be heard at a time he could not hear, at a time he felt increasingly isolated from those around him.”

The Telegraph (Calcutta, India; Rudrangshu Mukherjee): “Sachs by devoting this book to that great work earns the gratitude of music lovers.... He relates Beethoven’s personal condition around the time; he delineates the world that influenced the composer; and he offers an analysis of the kind of music Beethoven was writing around the time he embarked on the composition of the Ninth…. The richest part of Sachs’s work is a detailed analysis of the symphony. He sees the Ninth and Missa Solemnis as complementary works since both force ‘listeners to confront a brave new emotional, spiritual sound universe’…. Writing on music is always difficult since so much of music is ineffable. Through history and deep analysis simply expressed, Sachs conveys the sheer magnificence of Beethoven’s great Choral Symphony.”

Classic FM (UK): “This is not merely an account of the ‘Choral’ Symphony’s genesis, structure and premiere – Sachs draws on many contemporary documents to colour his sparkling descriptions of these – but an attempt to set the Ninth in its historical and political context.”

Music Media Monthly (online): “If you’re a Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony aficionado (and most music lovers are,) and want to learn everything about the “Ninth,” I highly recommend the just-published book on this great masterwork: The ‘Ninth’- ¬Beethoven and the World in 1824, by Harvey Sachs, published by Random House…. Books such as this, devoted to a single work, run the risk of becoming a book-length program note. That’s not the case here…. an outstanding literary companion to the ‘Ninth.’ Highly recommended.”

Metroland online (Fultonville, NY; B. A. Nilsson): “This is a masterful study, accessible to layman and expert alike, an entertaining journey through history and well-formed opinion.”

Historical Novel Review (USA; Wisteria Leigh): “As Beethoven would have wanted, this meritorious and philosophically meaningful book is for all to appreciate. It reads as if you have opened a time capsule that looks upon the early 19th-century cultural stage.”

Excerpt from Part 1:

Beethoven’s contempt for most human beings conflicted with his all-embracing love for humanity. He hoped, and may even have believed, that art would somehow transcend the constrictions imposed on us by our "mortal coil" and would gradually teach us to achieve a godlike status. He himself, Ludwig van Beethoven, in his exceptionally overburdened mortal coil, would never manage to attain that new condition, but the Thing that he felt had been planted in him, the force or capacity that he did not understand but had learned to live with, allowed him to create moments of transcendence in and for himself and others. There were many periods in his life when economic worries would have made him nod in agreement with Samuel Johnson’s statement: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," but had he lived long enough to read the second part of Faust, which was not published until five years after his death, he would much more readily have agreed with Goethe’s statement that beautiful words (or -- why not? -- notes) "must come from the heart. / And when the breast overflows with longing, / One looks around and asks who will partake."

It was in the works of his last years that Beethoven delved ever more deeply into his subconscious while affirming ever more strenuously the artist’s obligation to use self-revelation as a means toward the achievement of worldwide human harmony. I call this process the universalizing of the intimate. His Missa Solemnis, Ninth Symphony, last three piano sonatas, "Diabelli" Variations for piano, and last five string quartets are above all a search for transcendence. In them, he carried the process of universalizing the intimate as far as and probably farther than any other musician had or has ever done; at the very least -- as Maynard Solomon, a lifelong student of the composer’s life and works, has written -- in these works Beethoven "forever enlarged the sphere of human experience available to the creative imagination."

The question of whether or not we ought to read artists’ lives into their works ceases to matter in Beethoven’s last years. His late works were his life. Deafness was to Beethoven what exile has been to others, and "the condition we call exile," according to the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, "accelerates tremendously one’s otherwise professional flight -- or drift -- into isolation, into an absolute perspective: into the condition in which all one is left with is oneself and one’s own language, with nobody or nothing in between." By the mid-1820s, the external events in Beethoven’s life -- quotidian and banal events, such as his constant changes of dwelling, or dramatic and upsetting ones, such as his nephew Carl’s attempted suicide -- were nothing but an exoskeleton; the vital substances had been distilled into music – his "own language," as Brodsky put it, "with nobody or nothing in between" it and himself. Weary and careworn though he was, Beethoven did not want to die, but he did want to exist in an ideal Elsewhere -- an Elsewhere that he then created for himself and for anyone who was or is or will be willing and able to enter. By March 26, 1827, when his devastated body and exhausted spirit ceased to be, Beethoven had given everything that he had had in him to give. Maybe he would eventually have achieved even higher transcendence than he reached in the finale of the Sonata Op. 111 or the twenty-fourth and thirty-first variations of the "Diabelli" set or the "Benedictus" of the Missa Solemnis or the third movement of the Ninth Symphony or the "Great Fugue" or the entire String Quartet Op. 131; but we -- the rest of us -- cannot imagine him, let alone anyone else, going any further in that direction. Wonderful musical creations by other geniuses followed and continue to follow, but no one since Beethoven has gone farther than he went along the path to transcendence. When, a quarter-century after Beethoven’s death, Schumann described the twenty-year-old Brahms as the musician of the future and a sort of successor to Beethoven, he entitled his article "New Paths" -- unconsciously summoning up the perceptive phrase in the poet Franz Grillparzer’s funeral oration for the composer from Bonn: Beethoven’s successors, Grillparzer had written, would have to "begin anew, for he who went before left off only where art leaves off."

In many ways, Beethoven was -- is - much more modern than we are. "We live ‘as if,’" says the protagonist of Claire Messud’s novel, The Last Life, "as if we knew why, as if it made sense, as if in living this way we could banish the question and the ‘as if’ness itself, the way we speak and act as if our words could be comprehended [...]." Beethoven, in his terrifying isolation and his terrible pride and his unsurpassed capacity to transform experience into organized sound-complexities, went beyond that stage. In the last quartets, and certainly in the Ninth Symphony, he obliterated the ‘as if’ness of comprehension, and then went on to obliterate obliteration -- to dance on obliteration’s ashes.