Our music for this week is the famous Ninth Symphony by Beethoven.
We’ve all heard this piece before. It is on the Mount Rushmore of classical music. It is as familiar as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Bach’s Ave Maria. I would even venture to guess that we all have similar images in our head when we hear its themes. We see the dark portrait of an angry-looking Beethoven glaring at the viewer; we picture a massive choir filling a cathedral with the sounds of “Ode to Joy”; or perhaps we picture Leonard Bernstein conducting it in Berlin as the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Although we’ve heard it time and again, I think there are a few nuances worth mentioning that could make our understanding of it more complete.
As you can imagine, the Ninth Symphony was Beethoven’s greatest struggle. Faced with near-complete deafness and a receding circle of friends, he was wracked by despair and loneliness throughout many of the months he spent composing this piece. The sheer size of the symphony is mind-blowing, but what is perhaps even more impressive is the fact that it is based entirely on a simple German folk tune. “Ode to Joy” was nothing more than a popular countryside poem before Beethoven catapulted it into posterity.
Listening to the entire symphony in one sitting is highly recommended. It is a complete journey in and of itself. Although we can see these types of journeys in Beethoven’s earlier symphonies, none are as developed as the Ninth Symphony. Beethoven takes us with him on his journey from darkness to light, and we begin to see his gradual acceptance of his deafness as well as his constant struggle to remain relevant. None of Beethoven’s compositions have such a strong sense of fate and destiny, and given that this was Beethoven’s final symphony, we can easily conclude that he knew his life was nearing its end. These new and powerful themes, however, cannot displace the elements of Beethoven that are so characteristic of his works. For instance, the second movement showcases his typical explosion of furious energy, but the third movement reminds us of his uncanny ability to reduce a simple theme to an even more simple prayer. Over all of this complexity reigns the unmistakable and incredible “Ode to Joy,” unmatched in both its glorious power and its youthful serenity.