My kids have laminated me in the Ode to Joy. I hear it pretty much every waking hour, on the piano, guitar, cello, hammered dulcimer, whatever is at hand. Our daughter Audrey played it beautifully in her first, Zoom-enabled piano recital. Soon after I find that our son Henry has searched it on YouTube and has pulled up a video with a community orchestra and choir from Sacramento. No matter, the performance is still really good and the piece shines through. You can’t kill it. Then I find several more and we compare and contrast (my favorite is the Proms performance with Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the London Youth Choir). We’ll listen to it fifteen times a day, even in the car (Berlin with Harnoncourt), doesn’t matter. We never get tired of it, and they insist on hearing it again, and if they can’t listen to it they’ll just get back to playing it. The fact that they never get past the tune itself doesn’t matter either: those first few phrases act as a kind of homeopathic marker of the entire symphony, carrying as much emotional charge as if we were hearing the whole thing from start to finish. It’s better if you do that, of course, but if time is short the Ode has magic.
So of course, we’ve talked a lot about it, this benevolent meme that seems to carry all of heaven and earth in its scant sixteen measures, about the melody, the symphony as a whole, the chorus, the soloists, and of course the words. I realized the more we got into it how much I, like perhaps many of us, have taken it for granted all these years. As is the case for most of us, Beethoven is more than a bust on a piano for me, he’s a spiritual father; more than that, he’s among the contemporary composers I value most. I’m not being flippant, and I don’t mean this just in reference to the late works, the ones composers like me generally cherish as giving some kind of prophetic intimation of modernism; I mean it in terms of the whole enchilada, everything from the early string trio to the Hammerklavier. Everything sounds fresh, unexpected, revelatory, formally unshackled, cathartic and transformative. And yet the 9th seems to get shoved aside in favor of Op. 109, or 110 for that matter, or the Op. 59’s, Op. 129, 135, the Eroica, or, or, or, or, or, or…. It’s like the 9th has been cast in marble, an icon of greatness, shorthand for immortal utterance, so much so that when my kids started harassing me with the Ode I was, at first, just a tad dismissive. Stupid, really stupid, and I even knew better. I’d done a pre-concert presentation on the piece for a Syracuse Symphony concert years ago (when there was, alas, still a very special, first-rate Syracuse Symphony) and I’d emerged blown away by what I’d found in a piece I’d assumed I already knew a good deal about. So the process of meeting, coming to understand and then neglecting this signal achievement in human history was clearly cyclical. And here I was again.
But then we started focusing on the words, Schiller’s great cry of shared humanity, and the lines Thy magic binds again, what custom strictly divided. All people become brothers where thy gentle wing abides. I’d told my son that this was Schiller and, perhaps even more importantly, Beethoven saying “So long kings! So long class and so long racism! You’re through here!”, and we had fun making various only-slightly obscene gestures as we sang the tune and kicked the bastards out. When we came to that line a few days later while listening in the car, I lost it, blubbered like a baby, I just couldn’t take it. Allowing for the Parent Effect, which ensures that you will cry at the drop of a hat, often for reasons that remain opaque and to stimuli that are objectively not worth the trouble, it was still a signal moment. For it struck me then, like a laser to the frontal lobe, what Beethoven accomplished just in the setting of those few words, their context in the symphony as a whole, and how as a syntactical process the music has already encoded the meaning of the line before we’ve even heard it sung. More than that, thanks to the power of that process I felt not just a kinship with humanity writ large but with Beethoven himself, this poor, ungainly misfit who couldn’t abide individual people but was overwhelmed by a love for the whole human race so powerful that it all but annihilated him. That love is the power animating the 9th as a symbolic construction, and it just blew up in my face while listening with my kids; I wanted, as we all want when we hear the piece, for it to be, to be real, this embrace of the millions, this kiss to all the world.
In the weeks since, and in this past week in particular, I’ve wanted it even more, wanted so badly to see it realized, embodied, acted out, and almost everywhere have seen the opposite. The vision remains elusive if it has not, in this nightmarish, catastrophic, violent time, utterly vanished.
But at home we keep listening, singing, thumping it out; it is now a constant of our compressed, anxious but still lovely and privileged life in lockdown. And I just grow more and more in awe of it, more open to its fearful power, the fury of its evocation of joy as the birthright of all people everywhere, regardless of how custom has divided them. One needn’t look far into the Ode movement to find that message being graven into our consciousness, as if we ourselves were the tablets atop Mt. Sinai. After the long-breathed melodic arc of the third movement (what is this music? is it grieving? is it serene? is it even possible to choose?), in which the shape described by the melody keeps broadening its repeating circle, a strange attractor tracing a loop of terrifying emotional potential, the 4th movement opens in chaos and panic, with a dissonant form of the tonic d minor made excruciating by the addition of Bb in the flutes, oboes and clarinets (to geek out a bit, it’s a tonic 6/4 with Bb laid over the top, a dissonance that not only screams for resolution down to the eventual A of the following measure, but screams against the A already being hammered out in the timpani). After this, or more to the point, as a result of this we hear the improbable yet inevitable-seeming instrumental recitativo, coming from the ground up, through the most lowly, workaday voice in the orchestral division of labor, the double basses. So, taking stock of what makes just the first 9 and a half measures in the movement radical, we have the opening chord and its syncopated placement on the pickup quarter-note; the aforementioned complex of dissonances; and the operatic treatment of the double basses as the principal dramatic voice in a long, fragmented recitativo. And this is all just at the surface of the music.
No sooner has this bass recitativo started then it is cut off by a series of dream-reminiscences of the symphony’s previous three movements. This does more than stir echoic memory, creating a conscious linkage between movements over the course of what for the time, for any time, really, is a very long piece of music. It establishes reminiscence as a structural principle in the movement’s discourse, and it ensures that when we hear, after the first three movements have surfaced only to be interrupted by the basses, the first strains of the Ode to Joy it is as memory, as a reference to something already heard and awaiting development. The phrase even moves (to geek out again) to a V7 of IV in A Major, in other words another unstable tonic, suggesting motion away from A and back to D in a developmental process already under way but just coming into hearing. This is an extraordinary thing to pull off, for it means that when the basses finally sing the tune in full in measure 92 it is as the flowering of something we feel we already know. This effect is just as powerful the hundredth time you hear the piece as it is the first. The placement of the first, partial statement of the melody in the context of cross-cut fragments from the previous movements establishes its tangible reality as something we already know.
This amounts to more than just a re-wiring of our form-and-meaning-making capacities in real time, though it is also that, and that is remarkable in itself. It has implications also for how we receive the text, for when we are told that joy is a divine spark that breaks down barriers of convention to make all people one, we receive the message, along with the melody, as something we’ve always known, something we recognize as being basic to natural law, to the divine order of the universe. Rather than a storming of the Bastille, an act of rebellion, it’s the claiming of one’s natural place in the cosmic social architecture; not something to be demanded, but something that was there all along, to be rightfully taken. If it upends the long-sanctioned prerogatives of kings, popes, and all who would keep the world’s riches for themselves then so be it. Resistance is futile.
This squares perfectly, of course, with the enlightenment ideals at the heart of both the American and French revolutions but, unlike those world-changing yet ultimately murderous exercises in the acquisition and maintenance of power, Schiller and Beethoven’s vision is of a revolution that was accomplished eons ago, in the creation of the universe, by a (decidedly Deist) god who willed it so. That Beethoven does more than just set the text in an effective or even beautiful manner but actually causes us to experience its meaning as a musical/discursive process is central to our understanding here. In musical terms it amounts to the rejection of polemic in favor of an experiential proof of the poem’s truth. Rather than just declaim the words, or even to text-paint around them, Beethoven allows us to live them through a direct, unfolding cognitive relationship to the work’s always-evolving structure, itself an embodiment on every level of the text’s ferocious intention, its sense of agency, as if the words themselves were composing their own incarnation as music.
Everything to come in the movement advances our quickening relationship to the text: the “Turkish” march, with its stereotyped bass drum and triangle, there not to invoke the exotic but rather to welcome Austria-Hungary’s ancient enemies into the joyful fold of humanity with the words Go on brothers, your way, Joyful, like a hero to victory; the transfigured, trippy setting of Be embraced , Millions! This kiss to all the world!, with its eventual summoning of the creator above the starry canopy amid echoes of Palestrina and possibly Schütz; the recapitulation, in which the Ode melody appears in an entirely new variation, becoming the basis for a massive double fugue joining the conceits of joy as an independent force with the god who lives beyond the stars; and finally, a formal process that embodies two common archetypes, sonata and variation forms, without fully realizing either, the resulting fusion providing both a sense of inevitability to the whole while allowing each section maximum freedom from what custom has strictly divided. This approach to large-scale form is typical of Beethoven, of course, and is not unique to the 9th; it’s a matter of degree here, the degree to which his determination to engender in us an organic, vivified sense of the text inspires maximum formal flexibility.
All these things are and aren’t important, or maybe it’s simpler to say, they aren’t until they are. In other words, the galvanic experience we associate with the piece, like the one I had in the car, is sufficient, until we’re curious about why it poleaxes us so. Then, in an effort at understanding we find that the piece is messing not just with the rhetoric of revolution, but with things as basic and inviolate as our sense of the arrow of time. Once our thinking on that score is rewired then pretty much anything can happen, and it does. But that’s only possible if we listen through, not just to the Ode but to the whole symphony, that we consecrate 70+ minutes of our time to a dense, challenging, thrilling, mind-altering experience of pure, expressive thought. It takes time, effort, and a willingness to be baffled on the way to being transformed. It is the diametric opposite, the sworn, enemy-to-the-death, of the Tweet. This is why it is essential, to all time, to our time.
There is a popular notion out there at the moment, an explicit understanding among progressives (and, strangely, many populist conservatives, but for different reasons) that this music has nothing to say to us, that it is the product of an archaic, elitist, hegemonic system that is rightly discredited and should not be perpetuated. This is true as far as it goes; it is also nonsense, little more than an ideological smear. What it misses is that the old system, in producing art that privileged individual expression in the context of an exacting creative technique, sowed the seeds of its own destruction and eventual transformation. Without it we don’t get Voltaire, Zola, George Eliot, Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Goya, Turner, Francis Bacon, Debussy, Henze, Rzewski, Mingus (yes, Mingus) or Beethoven. This is why, again and again, at moments of extreme social upheaval, whether in Berlin in 1990, or in Chile in protest of Pinochet, or in Beijing at Tiananmen Square, the 9th has been raised as the standard of tolerance, defiance of tyranny, and the unity of the human family. And it is one of THE indispensable anthems of the fragile, now-deeply-threatened American project. I’m not saying it’s the only music that will do. There’s so much that speaks to the moment we find ourselves in: John Coltrane’s Alabama; PE and Fight the Power; Berio’s O, King; Anthony Davis’s X; Mingus with Fables of Faubus and Remember Rockefellor at Attica; Nas and Cops Shot the Kid; Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On; John Harbison’s Abu Grhaib; Jimi Hendrix and Machine Gun. The list goes on and on. What gives the 9th its unique power are its scope, its formal brilliance in the service of emotional revelation, and, maybe surprisingly, its familiarity: when something old is understood to speak directly to a current crisis, when something deeply beloved turns out to contain the seeds of a timeless radicalism, the effect, the expressive power, is exponentially magnified.
My kids gave the 9th back to me, put it right in my face in this time of Covid, and now in these days of the brutal tearing away of the bandages that have hidden the foul cancer of American racism and racial violence. Listen to the 9th! Sing ALL PEOPLE BECOME BROTHERS, correcting for pronouns, of course, cry your eyes out, then say GO TO HELL! to all who would murder and keep down our brothers and sisters. Then say the names, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. That will just about get you through the last three weeks. Then keep going: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan Mcdonald, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Walter Scott; keep going, back to Eleanor Bumpurs and James Byrd Jr. and Michael Donald (and, as of January ’21: Rodney Applewhite; Jacob Blake; Rayshard Brooks; Damian Daniels; Joshua Feast; Andre Hill; Deon Kay; Dijon Kizzee; David McAtee; Daniel Prude; Marcellis Stinnette) keep on going, it never stops, for the past is never dead, it’s not even past, as Faulkner wrote and Beethoven proved a full one hundred twenty-seven years earlier. Then teach your children, your students, your colleagues, speak up, march, make music, demand more, more, more. Do it again and again.
Say the names, sing the 9th, weep for this nation, repeat.