Talks About Beethoven's Symphonies

In 1930, Oliver Ditson and Company published Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies by Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock. Rose Fay Thomas, Thomas’s widow, was the editor.

Theodore Thomas, the Orchestra’s founder and first music director, had completed analyses of the first five symphonies, according to the editor, “not intended by their author for professional musicians or dilettanti, but simply to serve as an aid to students and concert-goers in understanding and listening intelligently to these masterworks.” Following Thomas’s death in 1905, Rose Fay eventually asked Stock, Thomas’s successor, to complete the volume, contributing essays for the final four symphonies.

Excerpts from Stock’s essay—written in quite grand style—on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are below.

“If we were to classify the nine symphonies of Beethoven we might attribute the First to Haydn. Not only was it strongly influenced by Beethoven’s teacher, but it could also have been written in homage to him. The Second may go to Mozart, for it is so joyously festive, so permeated with glow and warmth, that it might well be glorified Mozart. The Third, the Heroic, belongs, with the Fifth and the Ninth, in the realm of eternity. Then the B-flat major Symphony, the Fourth, might be called the Lyric, and the Fifth, the Dramatic. The Sixth, as named by the composer, is the Pastoral. The Seventh is, according to Richard Wagner, the ‘Apotheosis of the Dance.’ The Eighth might be called the Jovial, or Frolicsome. The Ninth—dedicated to all Mankind.

“Embracing all phases of human emotion, monumental in scope and outline, colossal in its intellectual grasp and emotional eloquence, the Ninth stands today as the greatest of all symphonies. . . .


“Beethoven must have felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of instrumental expression and that nothing save the human voice could convey with sufficient eloquence the great thoughts he desired to set forth. . . .

“The Ninth is unquestionably the greatest of all symphonies not only because it is the final résumé of all of Beethoven’s achievements, colossal as they are even without the Ninth, but also because it voices the message of one who had risen beyond himself, beyond the world and the time in which he lived. The Ninth is Beethoven, the psychic and spiritual significance of his life.

“In the first movement we find the bitter struggle he waged against life’s adversities, his failing health, his deafness, his loneliness. The Scherzo depicts the quest for worldly joy; the third movement, melancholy reflection, longing—resignation. The last movement, the ‘Ode to Joy,’ is dedicated to all Mankind.”

To open the 124th season in September, Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The concerts currently are sold out, but check the website as last-minute tickets may become available.