Rich Lowry writes: In a season of joy, it is worth dwelling on and marveling at the world’s anthem of joy, arguably the best piece of music ever written, which hasn’t lost its power to astound after nearly 200 years and, as long as there is such a thing as civilization, never will.
It is, of course, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Everyone knows the unforgettable melody of its “Ode to Joy,” the fourth movement that sets a poem by Friedrich Schiller. Performances of the symphony always feel like an event. When the Berlin Wall fell, it was natural that Leonard Bernstein turned to the Ninth at the celebration.
The man who gave us this hymn of affirmation and possibility could be nasty and arrogant. But he was a towering musical genius who left to posterity incalculable gifts. Music historian Paul Lang says of Beethoven that “there is still no department of music that does not owe him its very soul.” The great composer would have expected as much.
In all of his letters, Mozart never referred to himself as an artist. Beethoven considered himself an artist with a capital “A.” He evangelized for the importance of music in general and himself in particular.
Listening to his work, it is hard not to conclude that he got his place in the firmament exactly right. Beethoven began composing the Ninth in 1818, when he was already deaf, but had thought about setting Schiller’s poem to music as far back as the early 1790s. The symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824. The story goes that Beethoven was on stage beating the time and, with his back to the audience, couldn’t hear the applause. A singer turned him around so he could see the rapturous reaction.