Members of the SLSO Chorus. Photo courtesy of the SLSO.

At first glance, the two works that make up this weekend's St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) concert might not appear to have a lot in common. Kevin Puts's "Silent Night Elegy," based on music from his 2011 opera "Silent Night," had its premiere in 2018. Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 ("Choral") was first performed in 1824. And yet, despite the nearly two centuries separating the two works, their composers appear to share a similar political outlook.

More on that anon. First, though, I'd like to give you a feel for what you can expect when you see "Silent Night Elegy" performed for the first time this weekend. Unfortunately, I can't.

Kevin Puts
Photo by David White,

When there's a new work on the program at the SLSO, I usually manage to track down a recording of it (more often than not on YouTube) and listen to it multiple times, so I can give you some idea of what it sounds like. So far, I have come up with nothing for "Silent Night Elegy," so I will instead refer you to the composer's web site for a detailed description.

The opera that provided the themes for "Silent Night Elegy" is itself based on the 2005 French film "Joyeux Noël," which in turn was inspired by an actual event: the legendary "Christmas truce" of December 1914 , when around 100,000 British and German soldiers agreed to celebrate Christmas together. Carol singing and even football (or, as we Yanks say, soccer) matches were held. The event inspired many fictional adaptations, including the a cappella musical "All is Calm". St. Louis theatregoers will recall that this was, for several years, an annual event at Mustard Seed Theatre.

Although the truce is seen now as something of a unique event it was (as the Wikipedia article on the truce notes) actually one of the more obvious examples of "the widespread spirit of non-co-operation with the war and conduct by serving soldiers" who, unlike the generals far away (or, for that matter, today's remote-control drone operators), saw the cost and futility of war first hand. It's a reminder (as Peter Weiss wrote in "Marat/Sade") that in a war all soldiers ultimately want the same thing: "Not to lie under the earth but to walk upon it without crutches."

Which brings us back to Mr. Puts's words on his composition:

If there is a message borne by the film--or the libretto--it is that once your sworn enemy ceases to be faceless, war becomes far less possible. This is a message I fully believe in.

It is, in short, a message of universal human fellowship. It's an idea Mr. Puts shares with Beethoven, who expressed it most plainly in his Symphony No. 9 by using Friedrich Schiller's poem "An die Freude" ("Ode to Joy") as the text for his choral finale. It's perhaps most obvious in the first verse:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Which, in a singable English translation, becomes:

Joy, thou source of light immortal,
Daughter of Elysium!
Touched with fire, to the portal,
Of thy radiant shrine, we come.
Your sweet magic, frees all others,
Held in custom's rigid rings,
All men on earth become brothers,
In the haven of your wings.

It's hard to justify warfare with those sentiments. Ditto autocratic rule, which is not surprising, given that Beethoven was "a staunch republican and in both his letters and conversation spoke frequently of the importance of liberty."

Handwritten page from the 4th movement
of the Symphony No. 9, Public Domain, Link

The late Leonard Bernstein certainly understood that. In December 23, 1989, he led an orchestra of musicians from New York, London, Paris, Leningrad, and both East and West Germany in a performance of the Ninth in Berlin to celebrate the lifting of regulations governing travel between East and West Berlin--a change which marked the beginning of the end of the infamous Berlin Wall. To drive the point home, he changed the word "freude" ("joy") to "freiheit" ("freedom"), making it literally an "Ode to Freedom."

Given the current obsession of some of my fellow citizens with building walls and turning large segments of humanity into faceless enemies, the combination of these particular works of Mr. Puts and Mr. Beethoven on the same program feels especially appropriate right now.

Let me conclude with nine interesting (I hope) facts about Beethoven's Ninth:

  1. By the time the Ninth had its premiere, Beethoven was already completely deaf. He never heard a note of his last major work live.
  2. Nevertheless, Beethoven "had absolute pitch, so he could imagine the sounds and the harmony in his mind without hearing them on an instrument."
  3. Beethoven spent at least three decades trying to set Schiller's poem to music. As an article on the Ninth in the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, the composer started working on a musical setting of the poem as early as the 1790s and, once he finally decided to include it in his symphony, he "considered and rejected more than 200 different versions of the 'Ode to Joy' theme alone."
  4. The music (but not the words) of Beethoven's setting of the "Ode to Joy" was adopted by the Council of Europe as its anthem in 1972 and as the official anthem of the EU in 1985.
  5. That last fact might explain why, on July 2, 2019, members of Nigel Farge's Brexit party attending the European Parliament in Strasbourg petulantly turned their backs on a performance of the EU anthem.
  6. All audio CDs are 12 cm in diameter because that was the size necessary to accommodate a complete performance of the Ninth which usually runs between 65 and 74 minutes.
  7. The instruments used by contemporary orchestras are, in many cases, very different from those used in Beethoven's day, so most contemporary performances sound very different from what the audience would have heard at the 1824 premiere. Roger Norrington's 1987 recording with the London Classical Players (a personal favorite of mine) was the first one to use reproductions of period instruments. At 62 minutes, it's also one of the shortest.
  8. The finale of the Ninth makes huge demands on the chorus. You can hear that most clearly in Wilhelm Furtwängler's 1951 Bayreuth Festival recording (another of my favorites, even if it comes from a completely different universe than Norrignton's). At 74 minutes, it's one of the longest.
  9. Bottom line: the Ninth is great enough to have inspired wildly different interpretations from both critics and performers. As Nicholas Cook wrote in his book "Beethoven: Symphony No. 9" (cited in an excellent article by Tom Service at The Guardian): "Of all the works in the mainstream repertory of Western music, the Ninth Symphony seems the most like a construction of mirrors, reflecting and refracting the values, hopes, and fears of those who seek to understand and explain it ... From its first performance [in Vienna in 1824] up to the present day, the Ninth Symphony has inspired diametrically opposed interpretations."

What will Stéphane Denève do with it? Come to Powell Hall this weekend and find out!

The Essentials: Stéphane Denève conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with soloists Ellie Dehn, soprano; Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano; Issachah Savage, tenor; and Morris Robinson, bass-baritone (replacing an ailing Davóne Tines) on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm, February 7-9.. Performances take place at Powell Symphony Hall in Grand Center.

Related Articles

Sign Up for KDHX Airwaves newsletter