LENOX — On Sunday afternoon, Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and “Psalm 90” of Charles Ives. Since 1997, it has become a tradition to end the Tanglewood classical-music season with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. This is fitting, for the work is one of faith and optimism, and the concert sends us back to our quotidian worlds filled with the sounds of the “Ode to Joy.”
Tilson Thomas has had a successful career as conductor and educator, beginning in 1969 when he was appointed to the position of assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at the age of 24, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood. His career highlights include leadership of the New World Symphony, which he founded in Miami Beach, Fla., and the San Francisco Symphony. In March, he disclosed he is battling glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer, which has led him to step down from some of his current responsibilities.
Ives was a part-time composer, making his primary living as an insurance salesman. He wrote many psalm settings, and “Psalm 90” comes from the early 1920s. It is based on the text in the King James Bible and utilizes solo singers, a chorus, orchestra, and organ. Ives was one of the early American experimenters in modern music, trying out unexpected harmonies, simultaneous and clashing keys, quarter tones, and powerful dissonances. Already by the third verse of the psalm, dissonant chord clusters accompany the word “destruction.” And yet, towards the end of the work, bells and a gong are heard, along with peaceful harmonies for the concluding sentiment of the psalm: “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us . . . and let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.”
As a young man, Beethoven had been attracted to Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which Schiller had written in 1785, and thought of setting it to music. This didn’t happen until 1824, when Beethoven decided to use the poem in a choral setting for the last movement of his Ninth Symphony. The sentiments of the poem reflect deeply held views by the composer. It calls on all members of humanity to regard each other as members of the same family, to appreciate the gifts of nature, to recognize the spiritual content of the world, and to allow joy to envelop their souls.
It has been played at the Olympics to symbolize international cooperation. Performances of the Ninth with thousands singing in the chorus mark the New Year throughout Japan. In 1972, the music of the “Ode to Joy” was adopted as the Anthem of Europe by the Council of Europe and subsequently by the European Union. In 1980, the size and duration of the newly invented compact disc was settled upon so that one disc could contain an entire performance of the Ninth Symphony. And in 2001, the handwritten score of the work, which is held by the Berlin State Library, was added to the United Nations Memory of the World Register — a system devised to protect the principal documents of humanity — becoming the first musical score to be recognized in this way.
The melody of the Ode is a simple chorale tune, in even note lengths, with a small range and repeated sections. It has sometimes been criticized for its simplicity. And yet Beethoven surely intended it that way, so that it can be sung by “all humanity,” as it indeed is, around the world.
But the Ninth Symphony is not just its last movement. The finale is magnificent in its variety and scope. But it is preceded by three equally magnificent movements, the first a large-scale structure of great power that grows from a mere whisper at the beginning. Many commentators have heard in this opening a depiction of the creation of the world from nothingness, as described in Genesis, when “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The second movement shows Beethoven’s unerring sense of rhythm and how to make the simplest of rhythmic patterns convey both tenderness and strength. Here the timpani come to the fore in spectacular fashion.
The slow movement evokes a faraway world of perfection and beauty, as though suggesting the paradise achievable if all humankind were in fact able to recognize each other as family. The slow movement is a set of variations on two themes, the first in Bb, the second in D Major, echoing and reversing the keys of the first movement. When the finale comes, it starts out with a chord of extreme dissonance, smashing together variants of these two keys. This leads directly into a passage for the double basses, which itself introduces brief reminiscences of the previous movements only to reject them and insist that singing about joy is the only way forward.UNDER THE SHEDA look at Tanglewood concerts at the Koussevitzky Music Shed this week ...
10:30 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 27: Rehearsal: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Ives and Beethoven
Gates open at 9 a.m.
Renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, whose rich association with the BSO dates back to his time as a TMC Fellow, is joined by the young Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev in his BSO and Tanglewood debut for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Gates open at 5:30 p.m.
2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Ives and Beethoven
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the BSO in Tanglewood’s traditional season-ending performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s intensely expressive, innovative, but ultimately uplifting Symphony No. 9. Gates open at noon.
More information and tickets: 888-266-1200, bso.org