Nuts and bolts of Beethoven 9- Finding the Fantastic Four

I’m in the midst of doing the bowings for a performance I’m conducting of Beethoven 9 in November. It’s been just over ten years since I last conducted the work- during that time I’ve conducted all of his other symphonies several times, and it feels long overdue for me to get another crack at the piece.

Of course, Beethoven 9 is not just any piece. I thought it would be fun to try to write  a few blog posts exploring my ideas and opinions about the work now, well before the first rehearsal, then to come back after the November concert and see if I’ve made any major discoveries or experienced any changes of heart.

Beethoven 9 should be a piece that inspires powerful responses and strongly conflicting opinions among listeners and performers. I happen to love it and think it is an ultra-masterpiece. Casual music lovers may be surprised to find that a lot of professional musicians and composers disagree and find the piece flawed or even cheap.

It’s a piece I’ve known since long before I picked up a baton professionally, and it’s probably no surprise that I have some pretty strong ideas about how it is best performed. Of all the Beethoven symphonies, it seems to be the one that most often goes wrong in performance for a whole variety of reasons. I think that, in general, Beethoven performance has improved a great deal in the last 30 years, but the 9th might be the exception that proves the rule. I hear a lot of LvB 9s on the radio that have me rubbing my forehead in anguish after a few bars. More on that, I’m sure.

First, a bit of personal history.

I’ve thought for a while about a blog series called “Last time-This time,” in which I could talk about the circumstances of the last time I conducted a piece as I prepare for an upcoming performance. Last time I conducted Beethoven 9 was at the end of my second year in Oregon, the performances too place in the spring of 2001. It seems a lifetime ago.

Our idea was simple and pretty audacious- to combine the forces of the two orchestras I was conducting in the region (the Grande Ronde Symphony in La Grande and the Oregon East Symphony in Pendleton) and the voices of all the local choirs (in the end, I think we had singers from five choirs who participated). We gave concerts in three venues- the homes of the two orchestras in Pendleton and La Grande and the beautiful cathedral 50 miles east of La Grande in Baker City, a hall that remains among my all-time favorite places to play.

Looking back, I’m amazed it went as well as it did. It was probably a project that could only happen when I was fairly new there. I later learned all-too-well just how improbably lucky I had been to get the directors of all those choirs to cheerfully participate, and to get so many good singers to show up with a smile on their faces to rehearse and perform a work that many choral singers don’t enjoy singing. Likewise, by doing the collaboration between the orchestras at the end of my first year with the OES (I’d joined the GRSO a year earlier) those who might have dragged their feet a little harder a year or two later didn’t have time to think of all the reasons not to do it.

Getting two orchestras, even those that share a conductor, to work together seamlessly is no small feat.  When the BBC Philharmonic and Halle orchestras (who don’t share a conductor) combined last year for Mahler 8 in Manchester, the BBC Phil players played mostly led the strings and Halle players mostly led the winds. My approach was a little more utopian, but it could afford to be, since we had multiple performances in different venues. I decided the double the woodwinds and brass, and to essentially let the home team player take the primary role in their home territory. In other words, the principal clarinet from OES would play first-first clarinet  in Pendleton and second-first clarinet in La Grande, and the reverse would be true of the principal of the GRSO.

Generally, this system worked well, although with a few illnesses and blown tires, it didn’t work out quite that exactly way in practice for all instruments.

Musically, I thought this was a good system- Beethoven would have expected doubled winds for a large-scale performance of any of his symphonies, especially the 9th., and I thought it was fun to hear the solo passages played differently as the personnel shifted from night to night.

Doubling is still badly misunderstood. I was frankly baffled when I read the otherwise very interesting interview with the great Riccardo Chailly in last months Gramophone, in which he discussed his new, quite historically informed, Beethoven cycle. Chailly admitted that he’d not used doubled winds in spite of having a large string section. Somehow, people have this idea that wind doubling is a modern corruption of Beethoven. The Wikipedia article on the 9th even confuses the issue when discussing Mahler’s retouchen of the piece:


“Gustav Mahler revised the orchestration of the Ninth to make it sound like what he believed Beethoven would have wanted if given a modern orchestra.[13] For example, since the modern orchestra has larger string sections than in Beethoven’s time, Mahler doubled various wind and brass parts to preserve the balance between strings on the one hand and winds and brass on the other.[citation needed]”

Beethoven had huge string sections for the first performances of the 7th and 8th symphonies, and quite large ones for the premieres of many of the others (although the 9th was premiered with a medium-sized band and choir, but apparently not entirely by choice).  It seems that whenever large string sections were used, he expected the winds to selectively double in the louder tutti passages, and also often used only half the string players in soft or intimate passages. Mahler’s use of doubled winds was not a departure from the practice of Beethoven’s time, it was a practice that began in Beethoven’s time. (We can talk about what Mahler did that was a departure from Beethoven in a later post).

Anyway, generally, part assignments just sort of worked themselves out. I did have one musician  email to demand that we not double at all, and instead only have one woodwind section on stage at a time. “Their winds can play in their hall, and our winds can play in our hall,” she demanded. “We’ve been a consistent section for many years, and are used to tuning to each other- we shouldn’t have to adjust to other players.”

I found this attitude a little disappointing and defeatist, to say the least. A collaborative series of concerts where nobody collaborates? Where is the fun, or the symbolism, in that? I tried to explain that this was a project about bringing communities together through music, and that it was important to sit side-by-side and try to make something happen with new friends and colleagues, even if the standard wasn’t as high as usual (of course, it was higher in the end because everyone wanted to be at their best). Anyway, it was one of those moments you have as a young conductor when you suddenly realize that there are crazy, vain, lazy and selfish people out there, and you can’t let that get you  too down.

The other funny issue that came up was that some string players thought that since we had two orchestras playing together, they could get out of playing. “But Ken, with both the GRSO and OES there, you’ll have a much bigger string section- you won’t need me….” Again, what’s the point in a collaborative concert if only half the people show up?

Still, out of all those choirs and both orchestras (and all those chorus masters), instances of selfishness and laziness were actually pretty rare. People showed up, and sang and played and went for drinks and had barbeques and it was all pretty mellow. I do remember having the dress rehearsal after an end-of-season cookout for the OES was probably a bit of a bad idea- rather too much beer and wine had been had by some at the party, and the first 40 minutes of rehearsal were not, to say the least, world class.

One thing that was world class about that project was the vocal quartet.  We now come to my first bit of opinion about the piece- you can conduct your heart out and work the orchestra to death, but if you get the wrong voices on stage, the piece really doesn’t work.

The singers were soprano Janice Johnson, mezzo Alexis Hamilton, tenor Brennen Guillory (who has been getting such great reviews for his work on our new Mahler CD), and bass-baritone Michael Dean. I didn’t know at the time, but Alex and Brennen would go on to be great friends and important collaborators. They would sing countless concerts with various goups of mine over the next several years, and both have been important stalwarts at my conducting workshop in Portland, where they’ve helped a generation of young conductors learn everything from Aida to Carmen to Trovatore. Janice had a big but flexible voice with an expensive sound, and Michael (who at that time was singing under the name of Dean Ely) was a proper bass-baritone, who had the power at both the top and bottom of his range that the opening recit needs.

One thing I can’t abide in Beethoven 9 is the creeping absence of proper dramatic voices is so many performances. More often than not in the last few years, the bass recit is sung by a light baritone, even a baritenor, who sounds like a boy, and the last low A  on “freudenvollere” usually lacks any depth or power. Blech! Musically, symbolically, technically, it’s all wrong.  Beethoven, of course, agonized over how to introduce the human voice into the instrumental world of the symphony. Symbolically, when the bass sings “Oh friends, not these tones,” he needs to have tremendous power, stature and authority. Of course, you don’t want him to crack the high note, but you do want him to sound like a figure with the command to speak those words to the world and mean it. You also want someone who can serve as a credible support for the later quarter writing. It’s a part for a Wotan.

The same is true for tenor- he needs power and ping for the Turkish march to sound convincing. Nemorinos need not apply, and it’s certainly not a part for someone with a slender or reedy voice. The mezzo has the least exposed solo writing, but she needs a big enough core to balance the other voices, but also, like a good violist, needs to be sensitive enough in tuning to make everyone else sound good. Dramatic mezzo’s with that kind of heft and flexibility are not easy to find.

Finally, the soprano. If one ideally would like a Wotan singing bass and a Tristan singing tenor, it might follow that you want a Brunnhilde or Isolde singing soprano. Well, yes and no. Often, if you get a dramatic soprano, she goes badly off the rails at the most important moment in her part, resorting to strained barking on the high-B of “Flugelweilt.” Yes, you want the power and the size of core that comes with a dramatic voice, but you don’t want this most exalted and delicate moment to sound like Brunnhilde’s war cry in Die Walkure (or to crack).

The funny thing about that quartet is that I was mostly lucky- I had just moved to the region. I knew a small army of world-class singers back in Cincinnati, but we had no money to fly them out, and I hardly knew a decent singer in the Northwest. It was a lot of word of mouth and good luck, and being able to explain to others what kind of voices I was looking for, since I didn’t get to audition anyone. Janice had just done the piece with Oregon Symphony that year, I figured she’d be fine. Alex and Brennen I found a bit by luck, but they were wonderful. Dean/Michael was the only we flew in- at first, he was a little to quick to remind me that he’d just been singing it the week before with the LA Phil, but once he started telling me I conducted it better than whoever had been running the show in Cali, my ego was assuaged and we got on well.

In the end, the quartet, built mostly on luck and with VERY little budget, is one of the best I’ve heard live or on disc.  I feel comfortably asserting that, especially since I can happily admit it was mostly fortune that brought it together.

Barring luck, and without an unlimited budget, how can one get a good team together for this work? I suggest you focus on what is essential (beyond basic professionalism and musicianship).

1-    Bass. Voice with a large core and a bit of  edge who can sing both low and high F#s with ease and power.

2-    Tenor. A youthful Heldentenor is ideal. Please, not an Italianate or English voice type. Needs to be able to bring some schwung to the Turkish march

3-    Alto/Mezzo.  Someone with a big, Germanic sound who can sing in tune and make others sound good. Basically need someone with a super-star instrument but no ego. No ego is key.

4-    Soprano. Sure, it’s nice to have tons of power, but lyricism is more important, as is easy production in the high tessitura. All those high A’s and the B’s need to sound fluid and natural and not like high drama or hard work.  If the danger in the Bass solo is to cast someone whose voice is not big enough, the danger with the soprano part is to cast someone whose voice is too big, or not flexible enough


Finally, these days, one sees a lot of Beethoven 9’s where the soloists stand behind the orchestra, just in front of the choir. Acoustically, this almost never works. You’ve hired them, put them out front where the audience can hear them (and where you can sense their breathing more easily).

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “Nuts and bolts of Beethoven 9- Finding the Fantastic Four”

  1. Evan Tucker

    Interesting that you mention these criteria, because for me, the best vocal quartet is in Zubin Mehta’s New York Philharmonic recording, a performance that’s otherwise quite undistinguished. The quartet is Margaret Price, Marilyn Horne, Jon Vickers and Matti Salminen. Hearing the four of them together is a total thrill even if the rest of the performance I can do without.

  2. Antoine Leboyer

    Is not doubling a direct consequence of the modifications of modern instruments compared to what ancient composers experienced ?

    This impacts also softer passages where modern woodwinds players have to understand when to come in and when to “come late”. A friend of mine once conducted Weber’s Freichutz ouverture whose first bar is a simple do(C in English, I think …) going from p to ff played by string accompanied by clarinet, oboe and fagott. The three woodwinds would have produced too much sound and were asked to enter one beat later. My friend told me that the majority of the German orchestras he played with are aware of these things whereas he has had to explain this to other ensembles.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    @Evan Tucker

    How funny, Evan. Other than budget, which in this case is many orders of magnitude, the two quartets are very similar, although Sallinen has a huge proper bass voice, where Dean was a bass baritone. I may have to find the recording just for the singing…..

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