The year 1824, viewed through the lens of Beethoven’s final symphony—a mix of cultural history, memoir and musicology.
Former conductor Sachs (Music History/Curtis Institute of Music; The Letters of Arturo Toscanini, 2002, etc.) leaves no doubt of his intentions, declaring immediately that the Ninth is “one of the most precedent-shattering and influential compositions in the history of music.” Following a brief laudatory prelude, the author describes a recent visit to the building where Beethoven was living when the piece premiered in Vienna on May 7, 1824, and then reconstructs that pivotal evening, writing with informed confidence about the vast demands of the piece on musicians and noting sadly that the theater no longer stands. In a bold, perhaps foolhardy, move, the author ventures briefly into Beethoven’s mind, imagining his thoughts—e.g, “Even if my green frock coat were covered in shit it would be to good for the sniveling Viennese.” Fortunately, Sachs quickly abandons this device, sticking thereafter to what he knows and feels, which is more than sufficient. He sketches Beethoven’s family history, summarizes the complexities of post-Napoleonic Europe (taking a shot at historian Eric Hobsbawm) and glances at the lives and achievements of contemporaries, including Byron, Pushkin, Delacroix, Stendahl and Heine. Sachs then provides a long, personal response to each of the symphony’s four movements, sections that engage not for their practical value—we learn few specifics—but for the passion and affection that inform every phrase. The author ends with a discussion about how Beethoven influenced some noted contemporaries—from Schubert to Rossini—and with deeply personal comments about how Beethoven has affected his own life since boyhood.
A fan’s notes—eloquent, erudite, passionate and musical.