Ode to Joy has its 200th birthday

This week (on Tuesday 7 May 2024) was the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125. It was first performed on 7 May 1824 in Vienna. The Ninth Symphony is a masterpiece of Western classical music and one of the supreme achievements in the history of all music. It is sometimes described as the symphony to end all symphonies. It is one of the most frequently performed symphonies in the world.

I grew up in a house were Beethoven and Bach were constantly playing. To me “classical music” has always been commonplace and everyday and not, as many people seem to think of those who enjoy it, some sort of pretentious affectation. My father loved Bach cantatas and Beethoven’s quartets. My mother’s music taste was classical also but broader with a strong focus on singing. Music is music and I judge it on how it moves me. And no piece of music can move as many people as the ninth.

Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy

The fourth movement is known as the Ode to Joy (An die Freude). The symphony was unique in that it was the first to have singing parts (and was thus known as the Choral Symphony). For the words, Beethoven modified the 1785 Ode to Joy by German poet and writer, Friedrich Schiller. Schiller had died in 1805 long before the music was written.

It is interesting to read about the ninth. The critics and music-writers seem afraid of being too positive—they preface praise with “it is regarded as” or “is it is considered”. Perhaps they fear being exposed as vulgarians. The eminent Conductor Gustav Leonhardt, once said: “That ‘Ode to Joy’, talk about vulgarity! And the text! Completely puerile!”

But what is joy?

I think that some little confusion about the work may even come from what joy really is. Google’s definition—”a feeling of great pleasure and happiness” could describe an emotion associated with writing a nice bit of code.

So with some pleasure and happiness I went to my paper copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. There I looked for a deeper definition of “joy”. The OED used: “pleasurable emotion due to well-being of satisfaction; the feeling or state of being highly pleased; exultation of spirit; gladness of delight” or “a pleasurable state or condition; a state of felicity; hence the place of bliss, paradise.”

It is this spiritual meaning of joy that we should understand. It is not about being “super-happy” but a sense of exultation and bliss—in effect a joy of the spirit rather than a joy of the everyday. “Joy” is a very old world in English from about 1200 where it meant a feeling of pleasure and delight. It comes from Old French “joie” which had the broader sense of pleasure, delight, erotic pleasure, bliss, joyfulness. Originally it came from Latin from “gaudere” for rejoice.

The translation of the first verse of Schiller’s Ode to Joy reads:

Joy, thou shining spark of God,

Daughter of Elysium,

With fiery rapture, goddess,

We approach thy shrine!

Your magic reunites those

Whom stern custom has parted;

All men will become brothers

Under your protective wing.

It is a delightfully poetic way of describing a blissful joy as the “shining spark of God” filled with “fiery rapture”. The symphony is not a religious piece. Although Schiller and Beethoven were Lutheran protestants they were not evangelists (Lutherans didn’t share the English Puritans distrust of music).

So it is worth celebrating this bicentenary of Beethoven’s magnus opus and acknowledging not only his achievement in music but for bringing so much joy to mankind.