Beethoven’s father was an alcoholic who made Beethoven play piano standing up at all hours and beat him—even when Beethoven was a small child—if he made an error. As a teen, Beethoven had to support himself because his dad couldn’t hold a job yet Beethoven was continuously shamed by his dad for not being a material success like Mozart. By 26, he was losing his hearing; tried to keep news of the problem secret from those closest to him—avoiding social occasions—fearing for his career. Beethoven would complete his last symphonies by writing using lower notes he could more clearly hear, composing via pencil held in his mouth which touched the surface of the keys allowing him to feel the vibration. By about age 44, he was completely deaf.
A few months ago, I was walking through Costco trying not to weep while listening to his 9th Symphony. As the strings wound their way somberly through the canon of humanity and the winds argued, I’d pause the music when I became too overcome then eventually resume, letting it pierce my grief and our tragedy and any and all sense of Time. Schiller’s poem—Beethoven had a lifelong obsession with it—set inside a symphony that is now the official anthem of Europe, celebrates the mysterious Other that each of us at some point finds has always been inside us. Having been Unable to conceal his deafness from the public anymore, he insisted on being the conductor for the premiere of Ode to Joy. The orchestra hired another conductor to stand next to him and quietly told the players to follow the guest conductor rather than Beethoven. At the end of that premiere, the audience rose and celebrated their love of it with enthusiastic applause which, legend has it, Beethoven couldn’t hear so the contralto approached and turned him around to face them.
In accepting the paradoxes of the Beethovens, we are confronted with the deepest meaning of this life. Things were dark for him; was his dad beating him as a young child sad? Yes. But the paradox is that all is true—we are both stuck AND we are free—because a point in time is merely one drop in an ocean. We believe that one point to be complete and solitary only because we can’t really view the entire ocean. Beethoven’s life was magical, beautiful; Making 53 year old women weep in joy and unity amid deeply emotional epiphanies clarifying why anything and everything has ever happened, both wonderful and tragic.
And that he set this poem to music—was obsessed to do so— to tell us that our life is magical too IS that very poem. He was the unity and the joy, he was the brother obsessed with laying down arms and spreading his kiss to all the world. He was the strings, he was the winds, playing us The good news that we are the anchor point of all alchemy, and we are the witness of the deep whispers inside that hear songs about heaven long before we’ve even written them.
The poem “Ode to Joy” by Claude Schiller (translated into English)
Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, thy sanctuary!
Thy magic binds again
What custom strictly divided;*
All people become brothers,*
Where thy gentle wing abides.
Whoever has succeeded in the great attempt,
To be a friend’s friend
Whoever has won a lovely woman,
Add his to the jubilation!
Yes, and also whoever has just one soul
To call his own in this world!
And he 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.
Ecstasy 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
Finale here starts at 52:14