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Beethoven, Ode to Joy

Text by: Amy Carpenter

What is the opposite of hope? Despair, of course, but despair comes when we feel powerless to influence events and when the sources of meaning in our life disappear. Despair is a kind of disorientation so profound that we lose contact with the sources of life itself. I'm not a very good gardener… and I recently noticed that a carelessly placed brick had squashed a pansy flat. But part of the pansy was still peeking out from under the edge of the brick; and over the next few weeks, that pansy put its energies into creeping sideways around the edge of the brick, pushing its short shoots into the air and sunlight, and blossoming in its friendly purple and gold. When I moved the brick, the pansy's stem was crooked; but, oh, its flower was as glorious as those next to it. This pansy chose life. It experienced adversity, but it chose life. It experienced crippling, but it chose life. It could not have been blamed or faulted for giving up under the brick, but it chose life.
-Chieko Okazaki
It is May 7, 1824. Music-goers crowd the Kärntnertortheater, eager to hear the premiere of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The orchestra quiets its tuning, and the audience hushes in expectation. Two conductors enter the stage. The first, the serious 53-year-old composer with flying, unkempt hair (perhaps a little more combed for the occasion), approaches the lectern. The second, the official conductor of the theater’s orchestra, stands or sits to the side. Beethoven rustles his score around, finds the beginning, raises his conductor’s baton, and signals the orchestra to begin. Soon he is engrossed in the music. His conducting is wild and separate from the orchestra. He acts as if he himself is playing each of the instruments. The other conductor beats out the tempo, keeping the orchestra on track. The orchestra takes its emotional cues from Beethoven and its musical cues from the official conductor.

The audience is enraptured throughout the entire piece, often exploding in crazed applause. The last movement, “Ode to Joy,” is a musical first: the symphony is joined by a chorus and soloists. The voices of the singers are angelic and inspired. The orchestra crashes with joy and noise, and the symphony ends with thunderous applause. Beethoven, however, is several measures off, and continues to conduct. The alto soloist steps over and turns Beethoven around to greet the ecstatic applause of his audience. Realizing that the composer is completely deaf, people lift their hands, their handkerchiefs, and their hats to cheer his masterful, emotional symphony. Tears streak Beethoven’s face. After five ovations, the audience’s enthusiasm is broken up by the police (only the royal family is given three ovations when it enters the room, so this reception, given to a common person, is considered the height of rudeness). All have just witnessed a miracle.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in December 1770 in Bonn, Germany. He was named after his grandfather, a talented musician of the Bonn Court. His father, Johann— far less talented than the elder Ludwig— was a baritone in the Bonn Court. Ludwig’s father began teaching him piano when he was only four-years-old, attempting to shape him into a Mozart-like child prodigy. He even lied about his son’s age to make his gifts appear more phenomenal claiming he was six, rather than eight, when advertising for a 1778 concert. Johann was a harsh taskmaster, said to have driven his little boy to tears during practices. Ludwig’s father was also an alcoholic. Some nights Johann would arrive home late and drag young Ludwig out of bed to play violin for his drinking cronies. Despite his father’s abuse, Beethoven loved music and performing.

After realizing that his son, though talented, was no child prodigy, Johann pushed young Beethoven to become a second breadwinner for the family. He sent his son to the Bonn court at the age of ten to fulfill a musical apprenticeship where he flourished under the skilled tutelage of the Bonn court musicians.

His piano and organ skills vastly improved, and he learned to improvise while he played — the beginning of his genius as a composer. When he was twelve, he started teaching piano to the children of rich families. His experiences in the homes of the rich brought him the refinement that his alcoholic father could never teach him--he was exposed to literature, art, and the ways of polite society, and his fiery temper and introverted ways were softened by his friendships with his more refined peers and their parents.

Beethoven’s apprenticeship ended when he was fourteen. He worked as a full-time musician of the Bonn court until April 1787, when he moved to Vienna to study with Mozart. Two weeks into his adventure, however, he received an urgent letter from his father informing him of his mother’s severe illness. Beethoven rushed home to be with his beloved mother, Maria. She died of consumption several weeks later in July 1787. In a letter to a benefactor, Beethoven described his feelings about his mother’s death:

She was to me such a good, loving mother, and my best friend. Ah, who was happier than I, when I could still utter the sweet name mother and it was heard? And to whom can I say it now? To the images of her only, which my imagination calls up...

Beethoven’s father was devastated by his wife’s death. Increasingly, he turned to the bottle. He neglected his children, and Beethoven was forced to remain in Bonn to take care of his two younger brothers, Karl and Johann, and baby sister Maria. Johann worked less and less, eventually dying of congestive heart failure in 1792.

Shortly before his father’s death, Beethoven returned to Vienna. Mozart had died during the intervening years, so Beethoven instead became a student of Franz Haydn who was himself once a student of Mozart. During his time in Vienna, Beethoven became famous for his piano performances, especially his improvisations, which sent listeners into raptures. He was a fierce competitor, often annoying other pianists he was pitted against with his genius and explosive, boastful attitude. Beethoven debuted his first composition in 1795, establishing himself as a brilliant and promising young composer.

In 1796, Beethoven began to notice an annoying ringing in his ears. He had frequently been ill, complaining of stomach pain and diarrhea and attributed this troublesome, new problem to his bad health. Although he sought medical help, doctors were unable to rid him of his ailments. Over the next few years, the ringing worsened. By 1801, Beethoven could not hear the higher pitches of instruments. He was unable to understand people when they spoke too quietly, but if he asked them to speak loudly, the increase in volume was unbearable to him. Ferdinand Ries, one of Beethoven’s students, described in a letter his experience walking with his master in the country one day:

I called his attention to a shepherd in the forest who was playing most pleasantly on a flute from lilac wood. For half an hour Beethoven could not hear anything at all and became extremely quiet and gloomy, even though I repeatedly assured him that I did not hear anything any longer either (which was, however, not the case).

Afraid to admit his imminent deafness, Beethoven retreated from society. When around other people, he hid his disability by saying he was “absent-minded.” Since he could not hear what people said, he had to interpret what they said by their facial expressions. He often misunderstood and became offended. He apologized many times to friends for misjudging them and begged them for patience. In a will written in 1802, Beethoven explained himself to his brothers:

Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed — Oh I cannot do it; therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you… If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed.

Increasingly, Beethoven found himself unable to perform and conduct. He spiraled into despair and depression. Describing the incident with his student and the shepherd’s flute, Beethoven wrote in his will:

Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended [my] life — it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.

Beethoven overcame his dark thoughts. Though unable to perform, he could still hear in his head the music of his soul. He composed his third symphony, nicknamed “Eroica,” Italian for “heroic.” Indeed, this period of increasing deafness came to be known as his “heroic” period of life. During this time, he also wrote his most famous symphony—the fifth. Fittingly, he composed it in the key of C minor, a key which he felt was a particularly heroic one. The fifth symphony was also nicknamed the “fate” symphony. Beethoven is said to have described the first few notes of the symphony as fate “knocking at the door.” These notes make up a motif which is carried throughout the entire symphony. The symphony alternates between minor (dark and gloomy) keys and major (happy and optimistic) keys, echoing Beethoven’s life of tragedy and triumph. In characteristic Beethoven fashion, the composer wrote to a friend, “I will seize Fate by the throat. It will not wholly conquer me! Oh, how beautiful it is to live - and live a thousand times over!”

As Beethoven’s hearing worsened, he sought inventive ways to magnify the sounds he could still hear. He had special ear trumpets made by the inventor of the metronome, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, but the trumpets did not help much. He also had a special piano with a double soundboard commissioned and had his piano tuned to bring out its vibrations. He attached a rod to the piano’s soundboard, which he bit down on in order to feel the sound vibrations through his jaw. Visitors observed Beethoven pounding on the piano in fierce, desperate attempts to hear his music. By 1817, when Beethoven began composing his ninth “Ode to Joy” symphony, he was completely deaf. Even the gadgets he had amassed over the years could do nothing to help him hear his music.

The ninth symphony is a symbol of triumph over a tumultuous, difficult life. The kernels of this magnificent symphony can be traced back to 1785, when Friedrich Schiller published his poem, “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven first indicated his desire to set this poem to music in 1793. Influenced by the revolutionary tenor of the times, the poem exults in the hope that someday man will come to a great, joyful unity—a time when there will be no more war and no more pain. Beethoven’s heart resonated with this message of hope. Throughout the intervening years, he kept this poem in the back of his mind. When he was commissioned to write the ninth symphony in 1817, Beethoven used ideas he had already formulated in the years since he first read “Ode to Joy.” He put these themes and sketches together to create a cohesive symphony. By using his memory and his inner, imaginative ear, he was able to create a living, breathing masterpiece despite the tragedy of his deafness.

In 1824, with this last, great symphony completed, Beethoven insisted that he himself conduct its premier. Many tried to discourage him from his pursuit. It had been at least ten years since he had last performed, and the last time he attempted to conduct had been an utter fiasco. But “Ode to Joy” was dear to Beethoven’s heart. It was the culmination of his entire life. Not only did it symbolize the hope of mankind, it was a symbol of Beethoven’s own determination to cling to hope and abandon despair. The premier was a triumph not because it was a perfect performance, but because of the miracle of a deaf composer conducting his own piece. It was a miracle because of its spirit.

Ode to Joy

Joy is called the strong motivation
In eternal nature.
Joy, joy moves the wheels
In the universal time machine.
Flowers it calls forth from their buds,
Suns from the Firmament,
Spheres it moves far out in Space,
Where our telescopes cannot reach.
(From the original text of “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller, translated into English)

Beethoven was like the flower crippled by the stone of adversity, but able to grow around it. His determination and unconquerable spirit still lives through his music. He never surrendered to his disability, but learned to work through it. Because he chose life, the world has his last, great “Ode to Joy.” Because he chose life, we too can choose life.

We mortals with immortal minds are only born for sufferings and joys, and one could almost say that the most excellent receive joy through sufferings.
-Ludwig van Beethoven