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Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' Still a Joy to Hear!

May 31, 2008
Between 1817 and 1823, Ludwig van Beethoven composed Symphony No.9 in D Minor, Opus 125 "Choral." Nestled in the fourth movement of this classical masterpiece is 'Ode to Joy.' It's a composition of exquisite beauty, which to this day continues to give pleasure to listeners of fine music.

Beethoven finalized this masterwork of symphonic construction in 1824. The Ninth Symphony was the last complete symphony he composed.

The Ode to Joy section of the music originates from a work by Friedrich von Schiller. This German poet, playwright, and historian wrote a poem entitled 'Ode to Happiness' in 1785. Beethoven, inspired by this poem, used it as the basis for Ode to Joy as the finale of his great symphony.

Beethoven's attraction to Schiller's poem began in his more youthful days. When he was twenty-two, he had a desire to put music to the poem. In fact, by 1811, some of the text of Ode to Happiness found its way into the sketches for Beethoven's seventh and eighth symphonies.

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. He was the second-oldest child of Johann van Beethoven, a man of musical background himself. Johann was a court musician and tenor in Bonn's Electoral court. Ludwig followed into music and gave his first piano performance in public at the tender age of eight.

For a short period, Franz Joseph Haydn taught Beethoven. The young Beethoven even had the opportunity to play for Mozart. By 1795 Beethoven's reputation as an excellent pianist was solid. His talents as an improviser were impressive, and he had the gift of composing 'off-the-cuff' with flair.

Beethoven began to notice signs of hearing loss around 1798. In 1801, he wrote a letter to his friend Karl Ameda that stated:

"My greatest faculty, my hearing, is greatly deteriorated."

When his Ninth Symphony premiered on May 7, 1824, he could not hear its performance. This first public performance took place in Vienna's Karntnertorm Theater. Of necessity, Beethoven's deafness required another conductor to direct the symphony orchestra. Beethoven did stand next to this conductor during the performance in order to give tempo directions.

When the performance ended, and the audience erupted with emotion and applause, Beethoven didn't notice. He stood with his back to the audience, facing the orchestra, still regulating tempo. Not until Fraulein Unger, a contralto, had him turn around did Beethoven witness the reception to his masterpiece.

The symphony as a whole is the work of a musical genius who labored over every facet of it. The famous Ode to Joy choral melody involved nose-to-the-grindstone work by Beethoven. It developed over many years draft by draft until he deemed it right. Although written for solo voice and chorus, Beethoven did consider an instrumental only version of the melody.

Through the years, the Ode to Joy has been a source of inspiration to peoples and cultures around the world. During China's Cultural Revolution, it received some distinction as a work that speaks of progressive class struggle.

It was the Ode to Joy that provided musical inspiration in Europe in 1989. That year, after the Berlin Wall came crumbling down, Leonard Bernstein performed the piece in Berlin. It was renamed Ode to Freedom, the word 'freedom' replacing the word 'joy' in the text. This beautiful melody filled the air to celebrate the end of the dividing wall between East and West Germany.

Today the music of Ode to Joy is the official anthem of the European Union. Its German lyrics, however, are not, out of deference to the many languages that make up the Union.

Ode to Joy remains a piece of pure art. It continues to give hope, inspiration, and plain old musical joy to peoples all over the world.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular DVD home study course on playing piano titled
"The 52 Week Crash Course In Exciting Piano Playing!"
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