Trial, Triumph, and the Art of the Possible: The Remarkable Story Behind Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”

It is a hymn to rage and redemption.

“Day by day I am approaching the goal which I apprehend but cannot describe,” Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827) wrote to his boyhood friend, rallying his own resilience as he began losing his hearing. One year later, shortly following the completion of his studies, he was able to write again. Second SymphonyHe sent his brothers an amazing letter about joy in suffering overcame, which he addressed to them.

Ah! Ah!

That year, he began — though he did not yet know it, as we never do — the long gestation of what would become not only his greatest creative and spiritual triumph, not only a turning point in the history of music that revolutionized the symphony and planted the seed of the pop song, but an eternal masterwork of the supreme human art: making meaning out of chaos, beauty out of sorrow.

Across the epochs, “Ode to Joy” rises vast and eternal, transcending all of spacetime and at the same time compacting it into something so intimate, so immediate, that nothing seems to exist outside this singularity of all-pervading possibility. It is a place of total calm and revolt. The story of its making is as vitalizing as the masterpiece itself — or, rather, its story is the very reason for its vitality.

Beethoven by Josef Willibrord Mähler circa 1804-1805. Prints available.

As a teenager, while auditing Kant’s lectures at the University of Bonn, Beethoven had fallen under the spell of transcendental idealism and the ideas of the Enlightenment — ideas permeating the poetry of Friedrich Schiller. A volume of it became the young Beethoven’s most cherished book and so began the dream of setting it to music. A timeless poem put to music has a singular magic.

One particular poem especially entranced him: Written when Beethoven was fifteen and the electric spirit of revolution saturated Europe’s atmosphere, Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” was at heart an ode to freedom — a blazing manifesto for the Enlightenment ethos that if freedom, justice, and human happiness are placed at the center of life and made its primary devotion, politically and personally, then peace and kindness would envelop humankind as an inevitable consequence. A “kiss for the whole world,” Schiller had written, and the teenage Beethoven longed to be lips of the possible.

It was a decade after this Elysian dream that the Reign of Terror brought down the blade of death upon Marie Antoinette. Then upon tens of thousands of other heads with the same dreams. Schiller died considering his “Ode to Joy” a failure — an idealist’s fantasy unmoored from reality, a work of art that might have been of service perhaps for him, perhaps for a handful of others, “but not for the world.”

The young Beethoven was among those few it touched, and this was enough, more than enough — he took Schiller’s bright beam of possibility and magnified it through the lens of his own genius to illuminate all of humanity for all of time. Epochs later, in the savage century of the World Wars and the Holocaust, Rebecca West — another uncommon visionary, who understood that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity” — would contemplate how those rare few help the rest of humanity endure, observing that “if during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”

While Schiller’s poem was ripening in Beethoven’s imagination, the decade-long Napoleonic Wars stripped and bludgeoned Europe. When Napoleon’s armies invaded and occupied Vienna — where Beethoven had moved at twenty-one to study with his great musical hero, Haydn — most of the wealthy fled to the country. In the city, he fled with his sister, brother-in-law and young nephew. Thirty-nine and almost entirely deaf, Beethoven found himself “suffering misery in a most concentrated form” — misery that “affected both body and soul” so profoundly that he produced “very little coherent work.” From inside the vortex of uncertainty and suffering, he wrote:

Only a very short time ago I was able to build a life that is solid on weak foundations. It is a chaotic, destructive life that I can see around me. Nothing but drums and cannons and misery of all kinds.

That spring, Haydn’s death only deepened his despair at life. It was six more years of heartache that lasted unremittingly. His love went unreturned. His brother, Beethoven’s sister, became distant from him. He lost his other brother. In an interminable legal fight over the guardianship of his nephew, he lost. He spent a year bedridden with a mysterious illness he called “an inflammatory fever,” riddled with skull-splitting headaches. He lost almost all of his hearing. He became irritated by new musical trends’ trendy mysticism, which did not permit for raw emotion from the human heart. This was his truest form and product.

One of William Blake’s paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. Prints available.

Beethoven kept writing and this act became his fulcrum, lifting him out of the darkness to reach the summit of a new period with great creative fertility. While Blake — his twin in the tragic genius of outsiderdom — was painting the music of the heavens, Beethoven was grounding a possible heaven onto a disillusioned earth with music.

He was eventually sent to prison.

In 1822, the composer, now fifty-two years old, put on his moth-eaten shirt and started walking around the city. He was only going for a quick walk, but his mind became a torrent of thoughts. His primary tool for problem solving was walking, and the early morning walk turned into an extended half-conscious stroll along the Danube. In a classic manifestation of the self-forgetting that marks the intense creative state now known as “flow,” Beethoven lost track of time, of distance, of the demands of his own body.

Beethoven by Julius Schmid

Walking and walking, his eyes were absorbed and empty, he didn’t realize how fatigued and hungry he was becoming. He ended up wandering in the river basin, disoriented, and lost for words. There, he was arrested by local police for “behaving in a suspicious manner,” taken to jail as “a tramp” with no identity papers, and mocked for claiming that he was the great Beethoven — by then a national icon, with a corpus of celebrated concertos and sonatas to his name, and eight whole symphonies.

After the tramp went on and on, it came to a halt at close to midnight when police sent a nervous officer to awaken a local musical director. Beethoven requested that he be identified. Instant recognition. You are righteous. Apologies. You will be released immediately. Increased rage. Plus apologies. Beethoven spent the night at his liberator’s house. In the morning, the town’s apologetic mayor collected him and drove him back to Vienna in the mayoral carriage.

What had so distracted Beethoven from space and time and self was that, twenty-seven years after falling under the spell of Schiller’s poem, he was at last ferocious with ideas for bringing it to life in music. For months, he had thought about the subject incessantly. “Ode to Joy” would become the crowning achievement of his crowning achievement — the choral finale of his ninth and final symphony. The choral finale of his ninth and final symphony would capture the transcendent pain of his creative experience.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. This illustration is also available as a printed copy.

It had to be in a symphony, although he had not composed one in a decade and no composer — not Bach, not Mozart, not his hero Haydn — had ever woven words into a symphony before. It was to be the finale choral of the Symphony. He hadn’t written much choral work before. However, the inspiration was bright as a spring and it seemed irrefutable. This was no time for old laurels, no time for catering to proven populisms — this was the time for creation. Beethoven wrote a decade before to an aspiring young pianist to offer his guidance on how to fulfill the great creative calling.

The true artist is not proud… Though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.

So often, in advising others, we are advising ourselves — the most innocent, vulnerable, and visionary parts of us, those parts from which the spontaneity and daring central to creative work spring. I wonder whether Beethoven remembered his own advice to Emilie as he faced the blank page that spring in 1822 when the first radiant contours of his “Ode to Joy” filled his mind and his footfall.

In the summer, he began actively searching for commissions that would allow him to continue working. He managed to procure a meager £50 from London’s Harmony Society, but that was enough subsistence and assurance to get to work. For more than a year, he labored unremittingly, stumbling over creative challenge after creative challenge — the price of making anything unexampled. He was most puzzled by how to insert the words in the final movement, and which voices would be the best to carry those words.

Meanwhile, word was spreading in Vienna that its most beloved composer was working on something wildly ambitious — his first symphony in a decade, and no ordinary symphony. Just as theatre managers were vying to be the first, Beethoven announced that the symphony would premiere in Berlin. He did not give any reasons. Viennese musicians took it as an affront — did he think they were too traditional to appreciate something so bold? While he was born and raised in Germany, his identity had grown up in Austria. He was certain that he owed some part of the seeds of his creative blooming to faith.

At the harsh peak of winter, Karoline Unger — the nineteen-year-old contralto Beethoven had already chosen to voice the deepest feeling-tones of his “Ode to Joy” — exhorted him to premiere his masterwork in Vienna. Writing in his Conversation Books — the notebooks through which the deaf composer communicated with the hearing world — she told him he had “too little self-confidence” in the Viennese public’s reception of his masterwork, urged him to go forward with the concert, then exclaimed: “O Obstinacy!”

Karolin Unger

Within a month, thirty of his most esteemed Austrian admirers — musicians and poets, composers and chamberlains — had co-written and signed an impassioned open letter to Beethoven, laced with patriotism and flattery, telling him that while his “name and creations belong to all contemporaneous humanity and every country which opens a susceptible bosom to art,” it is his artistic duty to complete the Austrian triad of Mozart and Haydn; imploring him not to entrust “the appreciation for the pure and eternally beautiful” to unworthy “foreign power” and to establish instead “a new sovereignty of the True and the Beautiful” in Vienna. He was handed the letter by his court secretary who taught the royal family.

Even the most determined and focused artist can be influenced by adulation. “It’s very beautiful, it makes me very happy!” The Viennese concert was on.

Beethoven gave in to the pressure of his own expectations and became a victim of a crippling mix of micro-management and indecision. Eager to control every littlest detail to perfection, he committed to one theater, then changed his mind and committed to another, then it all became too much to bear — he cancelled the concert altogether.

After a monthlong tailspin, the finitude of time — concert season was almost over — pinned him to the still point of decision. He cancelled the concert, and once more confused everyone signed with the imperial court theaters that were underbidding.

This date was chosen for the beginning of May. The four soloists he selected for the choir were hand-picked by him. He also assembled an orchestra that was far beyond any convention. There are two dozen violins, two hundred wind instruments, ten cellos and basses as well as ten violas.

It was to be not only a performance, not only a premiere, but something more — the emblem of a credo, musical and humanistic. It would determine how the ideals of the symphony were received. Against this backdrop, it is slightly less shocking — but only slightly — that, in an astonishing final bid for total control of his creation, Beethoven demanded that he conduct the symphony himself.

He was clearly deaf. They feared that he might be demented.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

After having been awarded the premiere, the theater reluctantly accepted. He was afraid that Beethoven would change his mind and demand another. However, he persuaded the original conductor to be on stage with him with all assurances that he would not interfere with the performance. The conductor, meanwhile, instructed the choir and orchestra to follow only his motions and “pay no attention whatever to Beethoven’s beating of the time.” The best assurance even one of Beethoven’s closest friends — who later became his biographer — could muster was that the theater would be too dim for anyone to notice that Beethoven was conducting in his old green frock and not in the fashionable black coat a conductor was supposed to wear.

After two catastrophic rehearsals — the only two the enormous ensemble could manage in the brief time before the performance — the soloists railed that their parts were simply impossible to sing. Karoline Unger called him a “tyrant over all the vocal organs.” One of the two male soloists quit altogether and had to be replaced by a member of the choir who had memorized the part.

The show continued somehow.

On the early evening of May 7, 1824, the Viennese crowded into the concert hall — but they were not the usual patrons. Beethoven felt crushed when he looked up at the empty royal box. Beethoven had traveled to the palace in order to invite Empress and Emperor but they, as with most of the Austrian aristocracy had disappeared into their country estates as soon as the winter was over. He would be performing for the people. He was going to be playing for the people. Schiller was a poet who wanted to give life and vitality to them.

Beethoven stood on the stage and raised his arms in front of the orchestra. Despite the natural imperfections of a performance built on such tensions, something shifted as soon as the music — exalted, sublime, total — rose above the individual lives and their individual strife, subsuming every body and every soul in a single harmonious transcendence.

After the final chord of “Ode to Joy” resounded, the gasping silence broke into a scream of applause. Many people jumped to their feet and waved their handkerchiefs, chanting his name. Beethoven, who was still looking at the orchestra but still waved his arms towards the delayed inner time music only that he could understand, did not notice anything until Karoline unger rose up and took his arm.

With the birth of photography still fifteen years of trial and triumph away, it is only in the mind’s eye that one can picture the cascade of confusion, disbelief, and elation that must have washed over Beethoven’s face in that sublime moment when his guiding sun seemed suddenly so proximate, almost blinding with triumph.

As soon as he faced the audience, the entire human mass erupted with not one, not two, not three, but four volcanic bursts of applause, until the Police Commissioner managed to yell “Silence!” over the fifth. These were still revolutionary times, after all, and art that roused so fierce a response in the human soul — even if that response was exultant joy — was dangerous art. Here, in the unassailable message of “Ode to Joy,” was a clarion call to humanity to discard all the false gods that had fueled a century of unremitting wars and millennia of inequality — the divisions of nation and rank, the oppressions of dogma and tradition — and band together in universal sympathy and solidarity.

Woodcut by Vanessa Bell from “A String Quartet” by Virginia Woolf, 1921. This image is also available as a printed version.

The sound of Beethoven’s call resounded long after its creator was gone. Whitman described it as “the profoundest expressions of both nature and humanity.” Helen Keller “heard” it with her hand pressed against the radio speaker and suddenly understood the meaning of music. It was sung by Chilean protesters as they overthrew the Pinochet regime. Japanese musicians performed it after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. It was slammed by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square. Leonard Bernstein was the patron saint for music as an instrument humanism and led the group of musicians that had been on either side of the Berlin Wall during a Christmas Day concert. This event commemorated the twenty-year anniversary of its fall. The song was reimagined by Victoria Poleva, a Ukrainian composer. Ten years later, Ukraine’s National Symphony Orchestra performed Victoria Poleva’s reimagining. It was not long before a Napoleonic-trained dictator and someone who is deafened to the sounds of life inflicted the country with his thirst for power.

But this, I suspect, was Beethoven’s stubborn, sacred point — the reason he never gave up on Schiller’s dream, even as he lived through nightmares: this unassailable insistence that although the Napoleons and Putins of the world will rise to power again and again over the centuries, they will also fall, because there is something in us more powerful as long as we continue placing freedom, justice, and universal happiness at the center of our commitment to life, even as we live through nightmares. Two centuries after Beethoven, Zadie Smith affirmed this elemental reality in her own life-honed conviction that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

In the winter of my thirteenth year, two centuries after Beethoven’s day and a few fragile years after the fall of Bulgaria’s communist dictatorship, I stood in the holiday-bedazzled National Symphony Hall alongside a dozen classmates from the Sofia Mathematics Gymnasium, our choir about to perform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” recently adopted as the anthem of Europe by the European Union, of which the newly liberated Bulgaria longed to be a part.

We sang the lyrics in Bulgarian, but “joy” has no direct translation. “Felicity” might come the closest, or “mirth” — those wing-clipped cousins of joy, bearing the same bright feeling-tone, but lacking its elation, its all-pervading exhale — a diminishment reflecting the spirit of a people just emerging from five centuries of Ottoman occupation closely followed by a half-century Communist dictatorship.

And yet we stood there in our best clothes, in the spring of life, singing together, our teenage minds abloom with quadratic equations and a lust for life, our teenage bodies reverberating with the redemptive dream of a visionary who had died epochs before any of our lives was but a glimmer in a great-great-grandparent’s eye, our teenage spirits longing to kiss the whole world with possibility.

Today, “Ode to Joy” — a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic from the year I was born — streams into my wireless headphones as I cross the Brooklyn Bridge on my bicycle, riding into a life undreamt in that teenage girl’s wildest dreams, into a world unimaginable to Beethoven, a world where suffering remains our constant companion but life is infinitely more possible for infinitely more people, and more kinds of people, than even the farthest seer of 1822 could have envisioned.

As I sing, I ride out into the dawn night. This, in the end, might be the truest translation of “joy” — this ecstatic fusion of presence and possibility.

Giving = Being Loving

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