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Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
By: 
Harvey Sachs
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Beethoven and the World in 1824

A-The NinthThis is the ninth book by Harvey Sachs, a composer and an author of several well-regarded studies of classical music.

The Topic: One of the most famous compositions in the world, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, op. 125, is often the background music for solemn political events, with the lyrics of its final choral movement celebrating the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of all humankind. But in The Ninth, Sachs notes that the symphony emerged from a time in which conservative forces had again risen to the fore throughout Europe after the French Revolution, especially in Beethoven’s own Vienna. The debut of his work, perhaps a sign of political liberalism, could have been ruinous, given the composer’s deafness and the slapdash setup of the unprecedentedly large and diverse orchestra. As Sachs explains, several critics noted these problems, but on the whole, the piece wowed the audience, as it still does today. Sachs’s own gloss on the symphony and its significance helps explain why.
Random House. 225 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400060771

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"In The Ninth, conductor, writer and music historian Harvey Sachs considers the last and most remarkable phase of Ludwig van Beethoven’s artistic development amid his world’s quest for political freedom. ... This is a fascinating read--part cultural history, part musical history, and part biography as well as a collector’s book for informed listening." Jeanne Nicholson

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What sets Sachs’ book apart from others on this subject (such as Esteban Buch’s estimable 2003 Beethoven’s Ninth) 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. At times, The Ninth takes on the tinge of a love letter: ‘I still think of him,’ Sachs muses of Beethoven, ‘as my alpha and omega.’" Melinda Bargreen

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Sachs ... adds depth of field to the Ninth Symphony by presenting it as the first sounding of a free new world. ... 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." Norman Lebrecht

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Sachs] reminds us that Beethoven was the first composer to think seriously about posterity, to intend his music to survive him. ... Sachs apologizes for even attempting to ‘describe the indescribable’ without resorting to technical musical terminology. He does a superb job." Michael Dirda

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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. ... In putting the symphony in its historical context and analyzing it in detail, Mr. Sachs ranges far, sometimes very far, losing focus in the process, as when he ventures to explain the origins of polyphony in the Middle Ages." Anthony Tommasini

Critical Summary

The aspect of The Ninth that most consistently impressed critics is Sachs’s explanation of this musical masterpiece in a way that is accessible to all readers. They disagreed somewhat on the value of the work’s attempt at historical and cultural contextualization, however. A few reviewers found that Sachs overreaches a bit by providing commentary on Beethoven’s life from various perspectives, setting him in his historical context, analyzing his music, and then also examining his wider impact. But on the whole, reviewers praised The Ninth as an excellent introduction to the symphony and the man who created it. As the Washington Post noted, "it will send readers to their CD players."