Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! Deine Zauber binden wieder Was die Mode streng geteilt*; Alle Menschen werden Brüder* Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen Eines Freundes Freund zu sein; Wer ein holdes Weib errungen Mische seinen Jubel ein! Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund! Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Freude trinken alle Wesen An den Brüsten der Natur; Alle Guten, alle Bösen Folgen ihrer Rosenspur. Küsse gab sie uns und Reben, Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod; Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn, Freudig, wie ein Held zum siegen.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt! Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen. Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt! Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity [or: of gods], Daughter of Elysium, We enter, drunk with fire, Heavenly One, thy sanctuary! Your magic binds again What custom strictly divided;* All people become brothers,* Where your gentle wing abides.
Who has succeeded in the great attempt, To be a friend’s friend, Whoever has won a lovely woman, Add his to the jubilation! Indeed, who even just has one soul To call his own in this world! And who never managed it should slink Weeping from this union!
All creatures drink of joy At nature’s breasts. All the Just, all the Evil Follow her trail of roses. Kisses she gave us and grapevines, A friend, proven in death. Salaciousness was given to the worm And the cherub stands before God.
Gladly, as His suns fly through the heavens’ grand plan Go on, brothers, your way, Joyful, like a hero to victory.
Be embraced, Millions! This kiss to all the world! Brothers, above the starry canopy There must dwell a loving Father. Are you collapsing, millions? Do you sense the creator, world? Seek him above the starry canopy! Above stars must He dwell.
Its most famous setting:
This video shows some of the text and translation, along with the vocal passages to which each textual phrase is set.
The great African-American bass-baritone Paul Robeson (1898-1976) sings it in English translation in the 1930s (it’s worth noting that Robeson was an outspoken supporter of communism and the Soviet Union).
If you look on Youtube, you will find numerous versions of Beethoven’s setting, including many updating it to contemporary genres. Here’s a performance on Coke bottles:
Schubert’s setting of “Ode to Joy,” from 1815 (nine years before Beethoven’s):
The earliest known setting is by the dedicatee of Schiller’s poem, Christian Gottfried Körner, from 1786. You can hear Körner’s complete list on the playlist “An die Freude” on NAXOS.
An 1800 collection of fourteen settings of Schiller’s ode by the important Austrian and German composers of the day. The volume was published by Jacob Böhme of Hamburg, who would become one of the most important music publishers of the nineteenth century. Most of these are as yet unrecorded.
The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” was adopted as the anthem of the European Union in 1985, no doubt as much for the utopian vision of universal brotherhood presented in the text of the poem by Friedrich Schiller as for its rousing tune:
Joy, beautiful spark of God, Daughter of Elysium, We enter, fire-drunk, Heavenly, your holy sanctuary. Your magics bind again What custom has strictly parted. All men become brothers Where your tender wing lingers.
Nevertheless, at the opening of the EU Parliament in July 2019, the Brexit contingent from Great Britain turned their backs when it was played:
Brexiteer Nigel Farage defended the actions of his bloc against charges of “un-English” behavior. Do you think his justification is convincing? Why or why not?
Perhaps when he hears “Ode to Joy,” Farage is really hearing this version, sung by English comedian Rowan Atkinson.
This was hardly the first time Beethoven’s music has been harnessed in the cause of politics. In 1989, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a massive performance of the Ninth with musicians from both East and West Germany; the chorus changed the word “Freude” — Joy — to “Freiheit” — Freedom.
Hitler was a great fan of the Ninth Symphony; here is the great and controversial German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler leading the end of the Ninth Symphony in a stunning performance celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 1942 (starting at 1:59, following remarks by Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of the Third Reich):
What in this music would have appealed, do you think, to Nazi ideology?
It was also adapted by the brutal British colonial governor, Ian Smith, as the national anthem of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe):
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has also been invested with meaning in other, less-political realms. Alex, the sociopathic antihero of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, has a particular fondness for Beethoven, whom he calls “the lovely Ludwig van.” In his 1971 film adaptation of the novel, Stanley Kubrick uses the Ninth Symphony as a soundtrack for the “ultraviolence” committed by Alex and his crew (WARNING: disturbing imagery):
The piece is also associated with the on-screen appearances of bad guy Hans Gruber (played by the late, lamented Alan Rickman) in Die Hard:
In 2000, the Ninth Symphony was performed at the site of Mathausen, an Austrian concentration camp where more than 100,000 Jews, gays, and Communists were put to death during World War II. The concert caused some controversy, because it was performed by the great Vienna Philharmonic, which had dismissed all its Jewish musicians in 1938; by the end of the war, half of the orchestra’s players were members of the Nazi party. The organizers, however, believed that the Ninth paid tribute to the musicians who had been victims of the Nazi regime. As one of them explained:
We wished to think of those members of the [Vienna] Philharmonic who were victims of the Nazis . . . They were our predecessors, royal and imperial court musicians, highly decorated professors and teachers at the academy, highly respected artists who were humiliated, driven to death or murdered. We want to pay our respects to them by performing a work that they often performed under the leading conductors of their times.
What is it about Beethoven’s work that makes it so appealing to proponents of such diverse viewpoints?
Put another way: What does Beethoven’s music mean?
Do you think that this meaning is intrinsic to the piece itself, or is it extrinsic, something with which various individuals and movements have chosen to invest it? What use would you use this music for?
The String Quartet no. 14 begins with a fugue, which Richard Wagner later called “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes,” and which twentieth-century musicologist Joseph Kerman called the “most moving of all fugues.” Schubert said of the quartet, in despair, “After this, what is left for us to write?” And Schumann wrote that the quartet had a “grandeur . . .which no words can express. [It seems] to me to stand . . .on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.”
Why does Beethoven start with a fugue, breaking with the longstanding convention of writing a first movement in sonata form? Does a fugue contain the same spirit of conflict as sonata form, with its struggles between themes and keys? If not, what does it symbolize/suggest?
And the quartet has seven movements, not four — and they are unusual movements. What is going on here? How do the movements differ from each other? How do they carry forward a single unified idea?
Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
About 7 minutes
Allegro molto vivace
About 3 minutes
Allegro moderato – Adagio
About 45 seconds
Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto
About 14 minutes
about 51⁄2 minutes
Adagio quasi un poco andante
About 2 minutes
About 61⁄2 minutes
Is Beethoven perhaps playing with time and space again as he moves, in his last years and in failing health, to embrace the infinite?
In his long poem Four Quartets, completed in 1943, American-British poet T.S. Eliot consciously attempted to imitate the late quartets of Beethoven. He writes in the first of his poetic “quartets,” Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction Remaining a perpetual possibility Only in a world of speculation. What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present. Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden. . . .
Time past and time future What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present.
Is this what Beethoven is getting at?
Christopher Walken, as a master cellist and master teacher, quotes Eliot as he introduces the op. 131 Quartet to his students:
Beethoven as a cultural icon crops up in some unexpected places.
But perhaps the Buddhists are on to something.
In this scene from the 1994 film Immortal Beloved, the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony becomes the soundtrack for the mystical experience of the traumatized composer finding healing in nature and truly becoming one with creation.
The South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) published a short story collection in 2007 entitled Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. The title story is about a multiracial university professor in Johannesburg, thinking back over his life and his identity:
Speculations that Beethoven was of “Moorish” (i.e. African) ancestry date back to the composer’s own lifetime. Nineteenth-century biographers have described his dark complexion, “flat, thick nose,” and “thick, bristly [and] coal-black” hair. J.A. Rogers and others later suggested that Beethoven’s mother had transmitted African ancestry to her son by way of her Flemish forebears; the Low Countries had been under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, and Spain had been ruled by Muslims (or Moors), originally from North Africa, off and on from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.
My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no.” It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.
This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.”
In the past few months, classical music institutions have begun to recognize their need to reconceive the widespread impression of classical music as a strictly white and European art form. The #TakeTwoKnees hashtag in the wake of the murder of George Floyd was an effort by Black classical musicians to address this.
The Beethoven-was-black trope raises other questions as well:
Arguments for Beethoven’s “Blackness” are based on hearsay, speculation, and the reading of visual images. Are these reliable sources of evidence? If not, what sources of information would be more reliable?
Is race something essential? Is it something defined by visible markers? Or is it something defined by affinity, that is, by what one loves, desires, or wishes to be?
Who gets to decide the racial identity of another?
Does the fact that Beethoven’s music expresses an ethos of struggle, and of triumph over struggle, make it Black?
Which leads to even thornier philosophical questions:
What is Blackness? What is race?
The piece often used as a marker of Beethoven’s blackness is his last piano sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is in theme-and-variations form, and the variations become more abstract as the piece continues. Two of the variations are highly syncopated, which has led some to retrospectively credit Beethoven, in this sonata, with “inventing” ragtime, and even jazz.
Babatunde Olatunji demonstrates west African polyrhythms.
Daniel Barenboim demonstrates Beethovenian polyrhythms.
Incidentally, Beethoven had a Black friend and colleague, George Polgreen Bridgetower, who was a famous Afro-European violinist and for whom Beethoven wrote a fiendishly difficult violin sonata. The original dedication to his friend reads, with fond humor:
Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico
(Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer, great madman and mulatto composer)
However, the two fell out while drinking together one evening, after Bridgetower suggested that the woman Beethoven was in love with had loose morals. As was his habit when his friends and idols displeased him, Beethoven scratched out the dedication to Bridgetower on the Violin Sonata no. 9 in A Major and replaced it with a dedication to another violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer, after which it became commonly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.”
In the BBC film about the first rehearsal of Beethoven’s Third Symphony which you are going to watch later this week, the second movement — the funeral march — causes general consternation among the listeners. The Princess Lobkowitz talks breathlessly about picturing the funeral cortège, with black horses; the Prince’s nay-saying cousin, the Count von Dietrichstein, who has earlier dismissed Beethoven, is truly moved, even disturbed, by the music; and the Princess’s maid weeps openly.
But . . . who has died?
On November 22, 1963, Erich Leinsdorf, the Vienna-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had come to the United States in the 1930s as a refugee from the Nazis, was preparing to lead his orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov, when he got word of President Kennedy’s assassination. The orchestra’s music librarian, William Shisler, quickly pulled the parts for the second movement of the Eroica instead. Listen to Leinsdorf’s announcement from the podium of the assassination, the shock of the audience, and the way that the orchestra plays. Does this performance of the second movement sound different to you? How?
In 1944, when it was abundantly clear that Germany was losing World War II, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led the Vienna Philharmonic in a recorded performance of the Eroica. How is this orchestra’s performance of the second movement different? Do you have the sense that it is informed by the knowledge of what is going on outside the concert hall?
In fact, Wilhelm Furtwängler is a controversial figure in the light of history. Unlike many of his peers among the German artistic and intellectual classes, he did not go into exile during the Third Reich.
Nevertheless, it is hard not to see Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for Hitler’s birthday in 1942 as, at best, a misunderstanding of “the message that Beethoven gave mankind in his works.”
Beethoven cannot choose his listeners, and so both the Allies and Axis in WWII thought he was on their side. For the Allies, the four-note motif that opens Symphony No. 5 meant V for Victory. But what did the Nazi party functionaries think when they heard Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic play the anti-tyrant Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven was a subversive, spied on by the secret police, and with public disdain for the aristocrats who had earned their privilege due to the merit of being born to the right parents), or when they heard the chorus in Symphony No. 9 sing about brotherhood? And why are the wartime broadcast recordings of those performances so full of poetry, so beautiful and emotionally intense? Those recordings are among the greatest Beethoven one will hear: does this mean fascists deserve Beethoven?
Beethoven scholar Maynard Solomon suggested that Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament is the literary corollary to the second and third movements of the Eroica Symphony: in the Testament, Solomon suggests, Beethoven “metaphorically enacted his own death in order that he might live again.”
Do you agree?
A contemporary critic wrote in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (The Comprehensive Music Journal) in 1814:
[In]the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony . . . Certainly, a magnificent person is here being led to the grave; these tones tell us so in the clearest possible way.
And Beethoven wrote other “death of the hero” pieces in the early 1800s, including his Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, known as the “Funeral March” sonata (the sonata takes its name from the second movement, which Beethoven titled “Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe” — funeral march on the death of a hero). Movement 2 starts here at 9:10.
As Beethoven wrote to the Countess Anna Marie Erdödy in 1815:
We finite beings, who are the embodiment of an infinite spirit, are born to suffer both pain and joy; and one might almost say that the best of us obtain joy through suffering.