Dogs, Nuns, Muppets, and the Hearing Impaired

When I was little, I was a big fan of Beethoven. Most kids are, I think, even if they don’t know it.

What’s not to love about a drooling St. Bernard with a penchant for disaster?

No, no, no. Not THAT Beethoven. I’m talking about the real thing. Ludwig van Beethoven, father of the Romantic era of classical music. Today we are going to talk about one of the most significant pieces in the history of music. Are you excited? Well, you’d better get excited because this is music you will almost certainly recognize. If you were proud that you knew about Figaro from Barber of Seville, you will be ecstatic to learn that you can hum the entire melody to this piece. That’s right- you are a classical music genius, and you didn’t even know it.

I certainly didn’t know it when I was six years old and plunking out this little ditty on my aunt and uncle’s incredibly out of tune piano.

Fun fact: This is a perfect depiction of my piano skill at age 6. It is also a perfect depiction of my piano skill at age 24.

Did you recognize that tune? It’s pretty likely that you’ve heard it at some point in your life, even if you’ve never tuned in to the classical station. This piece has been covered over and over again by performers ranging from Pink all the way to the Muppets.

With each cover, the piece has evolved significantly and occasionally has almost nothing in common with the original source material. (Whether or not I think this is a good thing is up for discussion.) Alas, unfortunately, we are not here to talk about Pink and the Muppets. This is a classical music blog, and we are going to figure out where this all started. We are going back to the year 1824 to find the source of this musical phenomenon.

It all started with a man furiously scribbling away at his piano. This man, aside from his wild hair, looked like most other people at the time, but he was extraordinary. Ludwig van Beethoven was arguably one of the greatest (and some musical historians say THE greatest) composers of all time, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw him working. He would rest his head against his piano, bang on some keys, and angrily scratch out and rewrite music. While Mozart’s scores were famously clean and beautiful, Beethoven’s were symptomatic of his inner turmoil, heavily laden with frustrated ink. He was on the verge of something great: simple, beautiful, revolutionary. He was composing his ninth, and last, symphony.

This task was made all the more difficult by the fact that, at this point in his life, Ludwig van Beethoven was legally deaf. This is why he rested his head on the piano as he composed. Beethoven could not hear the notes, instead feeling for pleasing vibrations from the instrument. In this scene from Immortal Beloved, we can see Beethoven (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman) playing another of his masterpieces, Moonlight Sonata.

By the time Beethoven completed his ninth symphony, he was widely regarded as a has-been. It was common knowledge by then that he was deaf, and a deaf composer was practically worthless. Late in life, Beethoven was known for his bitter disposition and abusive attitude. In fact, his ward and nephew, Karl, attempted suicide under his care. This made it all the more surprising when Beethoven debuted the Ninth Symphony on May 7th, 1824 in Vienna with a tour de force finale featuring an excerpt from the poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller.

Finally we arrive at the music itself, and we will touch on the first two movements and end with a deeper discussion of the fourth choral movement.

First of all… Wow! Those first chords in the opening movement are so powerful! They are indicative of Beethoven’s style, far removed from the lovely melodies of previous classical composers like Haydn and Mozart. I think one of the biggest differences between Mozart and Beethoven is their treatment of melody, or lack thereof. Mozart, like other composers at the time and most since, believed that harmony was intended to accompany the melody (usually the highest voice or instrument). Beethoven wrote harmonically, meaning that all of the notes were of equal importance, not just the high ones. This style makes for more dynamic and emotionally gripping contrasts. This style would pave the way for later composers like Brahms, Strauss, and even Berlioz. In fact, Ligety’s style would not be possible without Beethoven’s macroscopic view of music, in which the sound as a whole is far more important than any one voice or instrument.

Hopefully, you have been listening to the piece this whole time and marveled at how wonderful the whole thing sounds. Everything is just so darn meaty! I am going to draw your attention to 10:30, in which we hear marked contrast between the agitated strings and the soft, lullaby of the woodwinds. This is a style Beethoven often utilizes (most evident in his Fifth Symphony). He loved to write music that got louder and louder, more and more dramatic, and contrast suddenly with a soft folk tune played by a single voice, evidence of his classical heritage. This is a perfect example of his struggle to exist in two different worlds, the Classical and the Romantic, which he was pioneering. This results in a feeling of mixed emotions. Whether or not Beethoven himself was bipolar, his music certainly was. In music and literature, this is often referred to as Sturm und Drang, meaning Storm and Drive, implying a freedom to express inner turmoil in the form of extreme emotional contrast.

At 12:00 minutes, we return to the opening theme (this is called a recapitulation, just like in the Bach piece we talked about before), but it sounds a little bit different this time. Does it sound happier? Yes! Good catch! While the beginning of the piece was stormy and angry, this return has a lighter feeling and a more hopeful attitude. Some of this is caused by a change in instrumentation, with the woodwinds playing a bigger part, weaving in and out of the texture. More importantly, we have switched from major to minor. (In laymen’s terms, we have switched from sad to happy.) Still, we end exactly the way we began, minor and angry, leading us into the next movement.

The second movement begins at 16:05, a perfect continuation of the first movement, with the strings quickly departing to explore a jaunty dance tune. While I won’t discuss this movement in too much detail, it is interesting to note his use of timpani, the big drum. In Classical music, this instrument was used quite sparingly, often relegated to the sound of thunder during an opera. Beethoven uses its forceful timbre to punctuate the light and playful feel of the rest of the instruments, giving the movement more depth.

At 41:00, we begin the fourth and most important movement of this immense classical feat. Notice that the strings echo a bit of that stormy sound we heard in the first movement, but it is just that, an echo, not a full realization. They then echo the second and third movements before moving into a motif we know very well indeed. At 43:30, we catch a glimpse of Ode to Joy, a tantalizing taste of rapture.

The cellos and basses come in at 44:00, and for the first time, we finally hear the melody, which they softly, almost inaudibly, play, forcing us to lean in and listen. It’s like Beethoven is whispering to us, telling us some sweet something, and each time we feel the instruments are finally going to let loose and explode in joy, they pull back, maddeningly. The tension of this quiet happiness just about drives us to the brink until, at 46:00, the self conscious whisper ends, and the orchestra begins to play in earnest. We begin to think, “So this is what joy sounds like…”

At 47:20, the orchestra pulls back again, for just a moment, and shows a little of the sturm und drang we heard in the first two sections, followed by a lone male voice, a soloist, reciting the poetry by Friedrich Schiller. You can read a lovely but slightly inaccurate translation of the words here. Each soloist comes in turn, adding to a rich vocal texture and bringing more meaning to the lyrics.

The orchestra moves in to accompany them, and the tune is jaunty, happy. The male soloists sing of brotherhood and victory and racing toward their goals. At this, the orchestra picks back up and begins to sprint toward the finish. At 54:30, the race ends, and the true magic begins. The poetry changes, reveling in the idea of a loving father looking down from a canopy of stars. I will leave you here for a while and let you listen, for the ending of this work needs no explanation…

Have you finished? Good. Now you can read on. The last ten minutes of this work features dynamic textural contrasts, especially those contrasts between chorus and soloist. It also features rapid key changes, often shifting into minor, which now, instead of stormy and depressed, sounds reverent and calm, and swelling into large and joyous major sections. This piece builds and builds, and halfway through the fourth movement, we finally get our release. God takes on many forms in this last section, loving father, almighty creator, worshiped and adored alike, and we hear all of this.

This piece was the first symphony ever to include chorus. That is why it is often referred to as the “Choral Symphony.” I think most of the world agrees with me when I say that it was a good move on Beethoven’s part. A piece that better depicts true and absolute joy, rapture, may not, in fact, exist. This is it. This is the “Ode to Joy.”

This piece is one of the most influential things ever composed and continues to influence every aspect of music, whether we consciously realize it or not. As the culture has evolved, so too has the music, and sometimes, it is nigh unrecognizable. Now, for a bit of fun contrast, here is what I consider to be complete opposite of Beethoven’s work. Same song, entirely different interpretation…

Does this interpretation do the piece justice? Has it lost its classical roots? Is it respectful to the source material? Would Beethoven have approved? Does it add some new flavor, which enhances the message? I guess that’s up to you.