I recently watched Copying Beethoven (review to come), a fictional movie based on the late life of the composer Ludwig von Beethoven. It is centered around his last and most brilliant symphony, Symphony No. 9. This symphony in four movements concludes with the amazing and powerful chorale piece, Ode to Joy. The movie reenacts the symphony’s first performance in Vienna, right down to the vibrating wood floors not quite up to adequately holding the orchestra that played on it. (Watch it here.)
Unlike perhaps any other symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 has endured, and this is probably because of Ode to Joy, which frames the last movement. In fact, the entire symphony is brilliant, powerful, profoundly moving, brooding at times and a delight to listen to. The symphony is so good that I deliberately limit my exposure to it to maybe once a year, lest its brilliance somehow dim from overplaying it.
The world agrees. There is arguably no symphony played more often or that is better known than Beethoven’s Ninth. Even the common layman who never listens to classical music will probably know of the Ninth, likely because they have heard snippets of Ode to Joy off and on over the years. Most can at least hum a few bars of the tune.
Sometimes the Ninth sneaks up on you. So it did with me a few weeks ago, when this version on YouTube showed up on my wife’s LiveJournal. This version shows just the Ode to Joy. Two things make it remarkable. First is that is performed in Japan by the Japanese. Japanese appreciate classical music, of course, as does most of the first world, and a lot of the non-first world. Second is that this was not just any performance. It included a chorus of not a hundred, not a thousand, but ten thousand people, which nearly dwarfed the audience in the huge stadium.
It turns out the Japanese are obsessed with the Ninth, particularly during the holiday season. You can find performances in pretty much any city in Japan, often in multiple venues. The Japanese just get Beethoven in a way that perhaps even Germans do not. They have adopted him, and as you can see from the video their enthusiasm is genuine and uplifting. Probably only a handful of those ten thousand singers actually understand the German they are singing. It doesn’t matter. They emote the joy in Ode to Joy, which is, to say the least, an uplifting and joyful tune, not to mention a terrific way to conclude an almost God-like symphony.
The German poet Friedrich Shiller penned the actual ode itself in 1785. It might well have become a footnote to history had not Beethoven chose to immortalize it in song. It turns out that while joy tends to be fleeting, reacquainting oneself with Ode to Joy is always a joyous experience, as well as something of a marvel, when you realize how it is at once simple, complex and powerful. Without knowing a word of German, or even knowing what it’s about, it is hard to finish the fourth movement unmoved. In fact, it’s hard not to cry. You don’t know exactly why it moves you so, but it certainly does.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Ode to Joy in particular has, like it or not, been adopted as the world’s unofficial greatest symphony, as witnessed by it being played virtually everywhere. This fact would please Beethoven as well as be more than ironic. The poem was written to celebrate the brotherhood and unity of all mankind, something that was in very short supply in 1785. The poem was an aspiration, and remains so. Yet the very fact that the Ode to Joy, as articulated by Beethoven, has been so wholly embraced by the entire world attests that the world aspires for universal brotherhood, even if its steps at achieving it are slow and haltering.
It has a strange and unique power and feels touched by a higher force. There is arguably more beautiful choral music out there than Ode to Joy. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), which aspires to have an orchestra and chorus of a thousand (but usually falls short) is in many ways a better piece of symphonic chorale music. Yet I have yet to hear any piece of choral music more heartfelt, more joyful, more connecting and more powerful than Ode to Joy. It’s unlikely that the world ever will. With the Ninth and its Ode to Joy, it is likely that Beethoven achieved a musical zenith that simply cannot be exceeded.
And that’s a joyful thought. Here’s my little ode to it.
If you enjoyed the above, listen to the competition: Mahler’s Symphony No.8, worth all one hour and 30 minutes of your time.
Update 8/31/16: Changed the embedded Mahler Symphony #8 video. The other one had copyright issues.