In this post I will give one very broad overview of the structure of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Having some context for the purpose of the write-up might help explain the points covered and level of detail: This is actually written as a guide for a friend who is a DJ! We wanted to see what an analysis of a symphony might look like from the perspective of someone who is organizing a DJ set. With that in mind, I focus on interpreting the structure of the work in terms of mood arc, timing, and keys.
Beethoven’s 9th is a full-scoped emotional journey taking place over about an hour — it starts out in a place of uncertainty and confusion, travels through a few moods, and then answers the emotional uncertainty with an emphatic YES to joy.
Overview: The symphony is divided into four distinct movements. The first movement sets the emotional stage of the hour: angsty, uncertainty, questioning that will lead to final positive resolution. The energy is built, and during the middle two movements of the symphony we travel through spirited, playful, and passionate moods. But, all leads to the final movement — the “Ode to Joy.” After harkening back to the initial emotional chaos, Beethoven builds and concludes with a powerful positive conclusion. The main keys used are D Minor (the “home” key), F Major (the “relative” major of D minor), B-flat Major (one key away from F Major), and D Major (the joyous landing point). We will look at each movement separately.
Movement 1: The first movement lasts about 15min and sets up the listener for the hour-long journey between angst and joy. As such, there is a lot of equivocation and bouncing between D minor and F Major. We’ll look at this movement in 3 sections (this is called “Sonata form”). The times are tagged to this neat visualization of the symphony.
1) The opening (start–4:24): The opening kicks off in a furious and high-energy in D minor. Beethoven grabs the listener’s attention, but then backs off into a more searching mood before beginning to build the energy. There is even a short section in B-flat Major — this key will come back later in the symphony.
2) Main section (4:24–11:33): The meat of this movement is a long development section that alternates between moments angst and release, represented as D minor and F major. The energy is building and building via sequences of tension, climax, and release.
3) The conclusion (11:33–end): The movement makes one big slow down, giant build up, and then dramatic ending on D minor. So, the section does end on an angsty note.
Movement 2: The second movement lasts about 10min and settles into a sprightly mood. This feels like a break from the emotional complexity of the opening while still keeping the energy forward. We spend most of the time in D minor (though much of it borders on the happier, related key of F Major), with also a detour to D Major. The same basic mood is sustained throughout, but we do have an A-B-A (theme — detour — theme) structure.
1) First section (0:00–7:00): We’re still in D minor as this section starts, but the mood shifts to become less emotional wrought and more like an energetic march. Much of it is in F Major as well. The rhythm is forward moving and sustains pretty much through the entire movement — not as much breaking and transitioning as in the first movement.
2) Detour section (6:56–9:44): A lovely detour into D major gives us a more playful mood while still keeping the mid-high energy. D Major can be hard to get to from F Major (since the tonic note of F in F Major clashes with the third degree F# in D Major), but Beethoven does a neat transition from D Major to D Minor to F major.
3) First section revisited (9:44 — end): We are back to the mood of the first section. Mostly in D minor and F Major.
Movement 3: The third movement lasts 15min and brings the listeners into a deep and melodic emotional mood. We will spend most of the time in B-flat major, which is closely related to the F Major/d minor keys from before. The mood is sustained throughout and there is not a clear form like the other movements. It is more like a free-flowing exploration.
1) First statement (start — 5:15): A heart tugger in B-flat major. There is less pounding rhythm compared to the previous movement, but we still do get into and maintain a mid-level energy during this emotional movement.
2) Explorations (5:15–11:30): It would be pretty boring in all B-flat major, so there is some cycling between keys during the mid section of the movement. Mainly moving nicely by 3rd’s, e.g. a section in G major and a section in E-flat major. The mood and energy builds throughout.
3) Conclusion (11:30 — end): We’ve eventually found our way back into B-flat and relaxed the mood to finish this movement.
Movement 4: The fourth movement closes the symphony with an answer to the angst vs. joy question presented in the first movement. And the answer will be (spoiler alert)… joy! Though we start in a bombastic D minor, we’ll work our way to and finish off in a triumphant and positive D Major. Three main sections again.
1) Opening section (start — 2:26): We leave the lovely third movement and start straight off in a furious D Minor, reminiscent emotionally of the start of the symphony. But it doesn’t feel like we are settled there; the mood is in bits and pieces, hinting at something else to come.
2) Building the mood (2:26–12:57): At 2:26 we hear the first D Major, which builds for a bit to the first mini-climax of the section. The mood drops down again for another build-up… positive and triumphant. This whole section keeps us within a sustained and building medium energy; we are feeling beautiful and positive and preparing for an epic conclusion. Some of this is in B-flat major, our lovely key from before.
3) The finale (12:57— end): And this is it! The epic, joyful, beautiful finale — all our emotional questioning and journey has led us to the answer… joy. Once we hit this moment we are off to the races. Big chords, big rhythm, happy, dance, all in D Major. Still lots build / climax / release but we are in the the positive mood all the way to the end.
Recap: The overall structure is (1) Opening section in D Minor, with some F Major, building energy and oscillating between the angsty minor and hopeful major keys, (2) Second section in D minor, with a detour D Major, lightening the emotional intensity but keeping the energy forward, (3) Third section in B-flat major, with some harmonic exploration, moving into deep and heartfelt emotions, and (4) Final section in D Major (getting there via D Minor and B-flat major), which revisits the questions from the opening of the symphony and then gives the final answer of positive, joyful celebration. Hope you enjoy the symphony!