Likely you have been touched by its painful beauty, made to stand a little straighter, eyes closed, as that familiar pulse of notes, in their simple phrase, moistens even the hardest eyes. Ah, that's the Ode to Joy! Such simple notes, laughing, exultant, and at once there is nowhere you do not see beauty. And while its melody is with you, your steps ascend to stars.
That men such as Beethoven have existed is enough to transform one's life into one of laughter. For where is any indignity, any offense to the great and the beautiful, not at once rebutted by conjuring his name and achievement?
This man, of the same pulse of blood, the same genetic alphabet of which any of the anonymous hordes are made, produced his Ninth Symphony. Any one of his works would prove that the lineage of homo sapiens is touched with the stuff of gods. But this one work in particular, even if all the rest were lost, would be statement enough of the heights to which a human mind can soar.
The symphony begins from nothing, coalescing, as it were, from the ether itself. In the first notes Beethoven mimics the sound of an orchestra tuning up, with only the subtlest pulse suggesting what is to follow. But from this, gently, comes a descending fifth, echoed tentatively, before the first movement's theme blasts full from the orchestra and the symphony is upon us. The music thus begins in mid-air, like first light in a void.
What follows is the supreme symphonic statement of man and Beethoven intended no less. The first movement's searing pulses and chaotic fury lead to a scherzo which is so filled with laughter that the notes can hardly hold it in it spills out and surges upward, the timpani teasing, the strings like dancers. But this is not the laughter of schoolchildren, nor the snide snicker of a guilty man these notes are merry, but they are fierce. As H. L. Mencken said of Beethoven, "there was something olympian in his snarls and rages, and there was a touch of hell-fire in his mirth."
We know where the great man is taking us. The first three movements share this anticipation, and though its theme is not heard there, the finale, like a beacon, casts its light upon the rest. Even the serenity of the adagio, with its reflective, languid notes, ends with unbearable anticipation. The music is full to bursting.
The most memorable theme from this most memorable symphony is, of course, the ecstatic song of the final movement. It was a melody Beethoven had kept waiting for most of his life; he conceived it thirty years before the Ninth's 1824 premier. The integration of orchestra and chorus in a symphony was an innovation preceded only by one of Beethoven's earlier works, the Fantasia in C minor, in which the Ode to Joy theme is foreseen. As complex and innovative as the Ninth's final movement is, its ultimate aim, indeed the ultimate aim of the whole edifice of notes preceding, is this simple, irresistible song. Deliverance.
The finale starts with the famous recapitulation of the first three movements. The double-basses, in ingenious mimicry of a human voice, interrupt each theme with notes anticipating the first words sung: "O friends, not these tones." Beethoven casts aside the dissonance and irresolution that has come before. There is another theme. We have arrived.
It comes quietly from the double basses, a first light of resplendent dawn. Then it is in the strings, bursting to prismatic counterpoint, before the whole orchestra, and finally the chorus, take up the song.
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuer-trunken
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Joy, thou source of light immortal,
Daughter of Elysium,
Touched with fire, to the portal
Of thy radiant shrine we come.
Friedrich Schiller truly intended to write not freude, but freiheit. It was to be an ode to freedom. But Beethoven and Schiller knew the dangers of challenging the state; in the early nineteenth century, "freedom" too much smacked of revolution. What we have instead is as true to the original intention as it is to exalted joy, and Beethoven surely saw the connection between the two. He spent his life at odds with any type of mediocre man, and to the aristocracy Beethoven gave his full contempt, seeing them as a class of pandering poseurs. Beethoven's early support of Napoleon, who initially inspired his Eroica symphony, was due to what Beethoven saw as Napoleon's republican ideals. When the composer realized that Napoleon was fighting not for individual freedom, but for empire, Beethoven tore the dedication from the symphony's score. Just as he despised the parasites among men, so Beethoven saw glory in the man who stood alone. Each of his works expresses this passion, but the Ninth is the summit. It is his ode to Man.
I will not describe the final moments. It is a thing of music, ill-contained in words. And it is not a thing to beg of further comment; it is complete. Its power threw the composers after him into long paralysis, their pens silent. It has pressed heartless men to tears. Like the skyscrapers that reconfigure horizons, the landscape still reverberates with this unrepentant, elated song, and we are greater for it.
When you face the unfocused eyes of sneering youth, or read of bodies crushed beneath the myths of elected men; when you feel the sharp pinch of despair, wishing the night a little warmer; it is enough to know the Ninth exists. For if a man has walked tall enough to see such notes as this, there is no end of hope for we are human, and here is human glory.
If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe?