First we hear, scudding quietly on second violins and cellos, and sustained by mournful horns, the two notes of a bare fifth, hollowest of sounds; then the same notes falling sotto voce on violins, viola and contrabasses, as clarinet, oboe, flute join in; then amid a growing crescendo, at the fourteenth bar, the keynote D, heralding at the sixteenth in massive fortissimo the main theme, imperative and concentrated like the words ‘Let there be light!’ supervening on the empty waste. In the second movement the energies of creation dance and play. The third, an interchange of two ravishing melodies, moving from key to key in ever more rapturous variation, leads the hearer to a realm of inward bliss. As even after twenty minutes this music of heaven still lingers, and at last sinks reluctantly away, what is there left to say?
A stormy clamor introduces a passage in which the orchestra actually begins to speak – enacting a consultation in which the previous melodies are recalled and a new one introduced, to general acclaim. Simplest of tunes, and now perhaps the most famous in the world, the anthem of Europe, it immediately displays its huge capacity for development in two delicious variations followed by an exultant reprise by full orchestra. Restless again, the music is interrupted by a recurrence of the stormy flourish followed by – a human voice! Purists tear their hair! Is this the suicide of the classical symphony? Has the master sacrificed the rigors of form for the satisfaction of delivering a message to the world?
And what a message! The melody now bears the words: ‘All people will be brothers!’ ‘All creatures drink joy at the breasts of nature!’ ‘And the Cherubim stand before God, before God, before God!’ ‘Embarrassing idealistic naivety,’ groan the purists, ‘or worse, forced crowd enthusiasm of a fascist stamp!’ Worse is to come: a solemn and hieratic theme sets the words: ‘O ye millions, I embrace ye! This kiss to the whole world! Brothers, above the starry tent, there must dwell a loving Father!’ After the tumult of joy the music now slows to a mystical stasis.
Then comes the structural coup that redeems the integrity of the finale and caps the whole work: the joy melody and the second theme, with their respective words, are combined in a powerful fugal passage (bars 654-729). Everything comes together in glorious affirmation. After another mystical exhortation, we plunge into the final bacchanale, in the midst of which there is a pause for the four soloists to sing again, in tones that combine endless yearning with confident faith, that ‘all people, all people, all people will be brothers!’
Scorn not the Ninth Symphony, and honor Japan that has made this sublime work its favored Christmas music. At a time when violence, hatred and abuse seem to eclipse fraternity, the simple ideals of the Enlightenment, first entrusted to Europe and America, must and can win out. Sixty years ago Japanese and Americans, now the best of friends, hated each other’s guts and showed it in vicious slaughter. What we all wish this Christmas is that the warring camps of today will soon find their way to the joy of fraternity. Music and lofty words may prove nothing, but bloody deeds prove even less.
(Japan Mission Journal, Dec. 2004)