The Stone which the Builders Rejected

Bagatelle Op. 126 No. 4 L. Beethoven (1770–1827)

Chorale Prelude on "The Ode to Joy"

"Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele" ("Rejoice greatly, o my soul") S. Karg-Elert (1877–1933)

The Christ is of course the Prime Archetype of "the cornerstone whom the builders rejected". But as "the student is not above the master", so lesser mortals amongst us have experienced the same treatment, particularly the innovative ones. Beethoven makes a splendid example, living as he did at the dawn of published reviews of music. His Ninth Symphony is now one of the 'cornerstones' of Western music, and yet in his day it came under scathing attack:

"If the best critics and orchestras have failed to find the meaning of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, we may well be pardoned if we confess our inability to find any. The Adagio [first movement] certainly possessed much beauty, but the other movements, particularly the last [the Ode to Joy] appeared to be an incomprehensible union of strange harmonies. Beethoven was deaf when he wrote it … It was the genius of the great man upon the ocean of harmony, without the compass which had so often guided him to the haven of success; the blind painter touching the canvas at random."

"Should not everyone, the dearer Beethoven and his art are to him, the more fervently wish that oblivion might very soon drawn an expiatory veil on such an aberration of his muse, through which he has desecrated the glorified object, Art, and himself."

"Among new signs which bring about changes in Beethoven's style, this sign that is like the sign of Cain, is nothing less than a violation of fundamental laws and of the most elementary rules of harmony — wrong chords, and agglomerations of notes intolerable to anyone who is not completely deprived of the auditory sense…"

"I confess freely that I could never get any enjoyment out of Beethoven's last works. Yes, I must include among them even the much-admired Ninth Symphony, the fourth movement [the Ode to Joy] of which seems to me so ugly, in such bad taste, and in the conception of Schiller's Ode so cheap that I cannot even now understand how such a genius as Beethoven could write it down. I find in it another corroboration of what I had noticed already in Vienna, that Beethoven was deficient in aesthetic imagery and lacked the sense of beauty."

"The whole orchestral part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony I found very wearying indeed. . . It was a great relief when the choral part was arrived at, of which I had great expectations. It opened with eight bars of a commonplace theme, very much like Yankee Doodle . . . As for this part of the famous Symphony, I regret to say that it appeared to be made up of the strange, the ludicrous, the abrupt, the ferocious, and the screechy, with the slightest possible admixture, here and there, of an intelligible melody."

The Ninth Symphony is his opus 125, this morning's prelude is from a set of piano pieces opus 126. ("Bagatelle" is French for 'a trifle' — something like a 'musical donut'? (Sorry, am I thinking about coffee hour already?)) Somehow his critics missed the opportunity to point out that Beethoven was shamelessly stealing ideas from ragtime and 'new age' composers at least a century in his future. The scandal of it!