By Celia Coates
It was a surprise to find an antidote to our current dark divisiveness in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I’d heard the music many times before but, last weekend, reading the program notes and then listening to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s performance (conducted by Marin Alsop) was truly enlightening.
Beethoven had gone through a time of emotional turmoil between writing the Eighth Symphony in 1812 and 1820 when, although he’d become stone deaf, he began to create music again.
To quote the Strathmore Center program notes,
“Beethoven always believed music had a higher purpose than merely the making of beautiful sounds, that it could express and inspire human aspirations toward a more exalted life, in closer harmony with neighbors and strangers alike, and ultimately with God. In the Ninth, he drove home this message by crowning his instrumental symphony with an unprecedented choral finale, a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” in which joy is defined as a state in which ‘all men are made brothers.’ ”
At the end of this sold-out performance, the audience immediately stood up, cheering and applauding. It was a joyful, long, and loud ovation.
A young man had taken the end seat near us just before the concert began, excited that he’d had a chance to find a last-minute ticket. The woman sitting next to him had needed to turn it in because she’d bought it for a friend who’d become ill. Their bad luck had turned into good luck for the young man. He said that he really needed to hear this music because of all the ugly anger and fear filling his world after the election. His heartfelt applause, and the heartfelt applause of everyone in the hall, came from a great sense of joy. That’s what Beethoven had wanted to create for the world of his time.
The program notes also taught me something else I did not know, something wonderful,
“In an era when countries were beginning to adopt national anthems, Beethoven intended this to be an international anthem for all humankind. … At the end, Beethoven drives his voices almost beyond their capacities to express his glorious vision of a new world just beyond human reach.”
An international anthem! It’s a vision of a harmonious new world, a hymn for humanity, that seems far beyond our reach today. Schiller was both a poet and a philosopher who believed that a “beautiful soul” could be found in people who had refined their emotions through the use of reason. He combined aesthetics and ethics to shape his idea of the truly good life. Schiller wrote his “Ode to Joy” in 1785, and Beethoven had long wanted to set it to music. It was first performed in 1824 in Vienna, and he was able to see the powerful effect his symphony had on the audience:
“(T)he first performance reportedly moved its audience to tears as well as cheers. Beethoven was on the podium, but the real conductor was Michael Umlauf; the musicians had been instructed to follow only his beat and ignore the deaf Beethoven’s. … At the end of the Symphony, the alto soloist, Caroline Unger, had to turn Beethoven around to see the audience’s tumult; unable to hear them, he had remained hunched over his score.”
Schiller has been quoted as saying, “Live with your century, but do not be its creature.” We could do that. We have the freedom to choose to live truly good (not perfect) lives in this century and to search together for that higher world. Many people in many places have worked to extend our reach so that we might know we are all one and part of something beyond us. Now, to keep going….