I had the pleasure yesterday of attending a performance of my favorite piece of music, Beethoven’s 9th and final symphony, at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. While many people like this piece, and for good reason, I’m not sure that they’ve listened to it hundreds of times or attended its live performance as often as I have. I never tire of it. While my dog moans to the crescendos in the third movement (I can’t listen to that part in his presence), I delight in them. I was once asked at a retreat “If you could, at the moment of your death, transcend into some work of art, which would you choose?” The Ninth was my choice. I not only admire it for its structure and composition, but for the fact that something so beautiful, so powerful, so uplifting, so sublime could be written by a man so tormented, miserable and unhappy (and, of course, deaf). That thought brought tears to my eyes yesterday as I listened to the plaintive opening notes of the third movement and thought of his resounding, defiant triumph over misery.
Beethoven lamented that “They who think me hostile, obstinate or misanthropic, how unjust they are to me, for they do not know the secret reason I appear that way. It is not possible for me to say, “Speak louder. Shout. I am deaf!” How can I live if my enemies, who are many, believe I no longer possess the one sense that should be perfect to a higher degree in me than in others?” Not known for modesty, he declared “everything will pass, and the world will perish but the Ninth Symphony will remain … I leave my music to heal the world.”
If someone gave me a time machine and I were allowed to go to only one place and time, I would quite possibly choose Vienna on the night of May 7, 1824. To be in the audience during Beethoven’s premiere of his masterpiece would be the ultimate thrill. He hadn’t appeared on stage or written a major work in 12 years. He was at this point completely deaf. He had written a symphony that, for the first time ever, included a chorus – not only unheard of, but they actually sat silent for the first 45 minutes of the piece. The entire work was more than an hour long, also unheard of at the time, and was very demanding on the orchestra, who thought it too difficult to perform. Beethoven was so unable to conduct them due to his deafness that they were instructed to ignore his direction.
And yet, just over an hour later, his masterpiece met with such enthusiastic ovations – five – that police had to break them off lest they overshadow the applause and attention given to the royal couple, who were in attendance. At the end of the symphony, Beethoven, not realizing the music had stopped, still had his back to the exploding audience, oblivious to their reaction. When turned around by a soloist, with tears in her eyes, he saw people throwing their hats into the air and gesturing wildly to get his attention. The hall had never seen such a thunderous ovation. Beethoven was moved to tears, and music would never be the same.
A copy of the manuscript sold for $3.3 million in 2003, being called “one of the highest achievements of man”. It is included in the Memory of the World register, and was chosen, in a condensed form, as the official anthem of the European Union. It has been said that “only the most cynical of listeners can walk away from a performance of the ninth symphony without sensing that all could be well with the world, if only the world wished it so.” While the utopian words of brotherhood sung in the finale’s famous “Ode to Joy” are by the German poet Schiller, the first line sung was an uncharacteristic sentiment of Beethoven’s: “Friends, no more of these sad tones. Rather, let us lift our voices in more cheerful sounds.”
If you have never listened to this piece of music, you owe it to yourself to do so at least once in your lifetime (I highly recommend the version conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, or the Ode to Freedom concert in Berlin by Leonard Bernstein). You may not like it upon first hearing, but if you do, you may just discover something special to cherish during difficult times, to remind yourself that you, too, can triumph. It was one of my first introductions to classical music, and its power and pathos had me instantly hooked (I feel similarly towards Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies, and many of his orchestral works).
From Beethoven’s eulogy: “Ludwig van Beethoven is no more. Who will stand beside him? He was an artist, and what he was he was only through music. The thorns of life had wounded him deeply. So he held fast to his art, even when the gate through which it entered was shut. Music spoke through a deafened ear, to he who could no longer hear it. He carried the music in his heart. Because he shut himself off from the world, they called him hostile. They said he was unfeeling, and called him callous. But he was not hard of heart. It is the finest blades that are most easily blunted, bent, or broken. He withdrew from his fellow man, after he had given them everything; and he had received nothing in return. He lived alone, because he found no second self. Thus he lived, thus he died. Thus he will live for all time.”