Some early listeners encountering Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time dismissed it as the raving of a deaf lunatic. Beethoven’s contemporary Louis Spohr was an enthusiast of his colleague’s prior works, but here he drew the line: its first three movements, he wrote, “are to my mind inferior to all the eight previous symphonies,” and he found the finale “so monstrous and tasteless … that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.” And yet, countered Hector Berlioz, “There is a small minority of musicians whose nature inclines them to consider carefully whatever may broaden the scope of art, … and they assert that this work is the most magnificent expression of Beethoven’s genius. … That is the view I share.”
The Ninth provided much to perplex its audiences. When Beethoven unleashed it, the idea of a symphony running an hour or more was preposterous. Nonetheless, the impact of this piece was such that it inspire some ensuing symphonists to essay structures as long or even longer. Beethoven’s inclusion of voices in the finale also caused consternation.
Like all Beethoven’s symphonies, the Ninth was conceived as a grand experiment; but it held onto its stature as a beacon of the avant-garde even more firmly than its predecessors did. Doubtless that has to do partly with the fact that it was Beethoven’s last symphony. The Ninth takes on a magnified aura of monumentality—of finality, on one hand, but also of pointing to a future that Beethoven would not himself address. The path from the Ninth remained an uncharted challenge to future generations of composers. No masterpiece inspired them more.
—excerpt from liner notes by James M. Keller