In his Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler wrote,
“With the exit of fresco and oil-painting, the great masters of absolute plastic and absolute music file on to the stage, man after man. Behind Bach and Handel come Gluck, Stamitz, the younger Bachs, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven – in their hands an armoury of wonderful and now long-forgotten instruments, a whole magician’s world created by the discovering and inventing spirit of the West in the hope of getting more and more tones and timbres for the service and enhancement of musical expression … forms that no one now understands.”
Spengler, for all his genius, could be a real downer sometimes.
When one reads Spengler’s final phrase “forms that no one now understands,” the word “balderdash” comes to mind. For having just read The Ninth, Harvey Sachs’ wonderful book about Beethoven and the year 1824, it’s obvious that Sachs has an intimate understanding of the “forms that no one now understands.”
The Ninth is about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – and a whole lot more. And all of it – the 9th Symphony and the whole lot more – took place in and around the year 1824. Along with the 9th Symphony, which Sachs describes as “one of the most precedent-shattering and influential compositions in the history of music,” were such historical celebrities as Byron, Pushkin, Heine and Delacroix. Indeed, Sachs’ discussion of Byron is one of the best in existence. Simply delightful doesn’t quite do it justice.
In his musical musings, Sachs includes the impact of Beethoven’s 9th on composers such as Schubert and Wagner. This reviewer particularly enjoyed the segment on Wagner, whose music is a personal favorite. Anyone who knows anything about Wagner knows that Herr Wagner was not a nice human being. Yet he was a musical genius. And as Sachs points out, even Wagner worshipped the super-genius who created the 9th Symphony.
The Ninth is not a biography of Beethoven. And Sachs doesn’t pretend that it is. Yet he does provide a 20-page biographical sketch of the great composer, who was just as interesting as his music. Beethoven was totally eccentric: opinionated, slovenly, a reluctant womanizer, isolated by his deafness, and neverendingly worried about money. Which is to say he was very, very human. A truth that adds to his universal appeal.
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. For Sachs shows the reader that the beauty of the 9th Symphony conceals another quality which most listeners cannot fathom … just as a woman’s beauty camouflages her more abstract virtues. And it’s those abstract virtues that make the 9th magnetic and mesmerizing.
Essentially, The Ninth is about the world in the year 1824, and how the world infected Beethoven’s music, and vice versa. For according to Sachs, the 9th Symphony expressed Beethoven’s perception of the world in his day. At the same time, the 9th Symphony mirrored the world’s perception of its present and future. Mankind was holding its collective breath, waiting for something wonderful to happen.
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.