You’ve all heard the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It has been used in countless films, TV shows, sporting events, and even popular songs. It rings in the Japanese New Year and serves as the official anthem of the European Union as an expression of their shared ideals.
Of course, Beethoven wrote a lot of familiar tunes. “Da-da-da-dum” from his Fifth Symphony is equally famous, as is the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, not to mention his Für Elise, which every piano student must learn to butcher at some point. Conductors, in fact, seem to love his Third Symphony at least as much. Yet, none of these other works holds quite the same symbolic appeal as the Ninth. So, what makes it so special?
For starters, there is the back story, which some of you may already know: it’s the last symphony ever written by perhaps the greatest of all symphonists, lending it a valedictory air. Beethoven wrote it while deaf, meaning he must have imagined the whole thing in his head without ever hearing a note of it. He also stuck solo singers and a chorus into the piece, which is odd because symphonies at the time were usually written only for orchestras.
But what really sets the Ninth apart and gives it such broad appeal is the “Ode” section from its final movement. Set to a poem about the joy and brotherhood of mankind, this divine melody has the power to awaken something in even the most casual listener. Every man, woman, and child who hears this music knows it is trying to tell us something important about our shared human experience.
You may be wondering why this is the case – what makes it so? That is where words begin to fail. As with Shakespeare’s greatest plays, Da Vinci’s greatest paintings, or Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, its allure is ultimately a testament to the genius of its creator.
Here is a touching arrangement of the “Ode” theme from an event in Catalonia. Notice how the melody begins in the bass and gradually rises to the cello, viola, and violin parts before being joined by the chorus, as if ascending to the heavens …
Performers: Ad hoc ensemble with members of Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès, L’Associació d’Amics de l’Òpera de Sabadell, La Coral Belles Arts de Sabadel, and Cor Lieder Càmera
Composition: Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony #9 in D minor, Op. 125 (fourth movement, “Ode to Joy” theme, with Catalan version of lyrics, “Cant de Joia,” by Joan Maragall)
Within the fourth movement, the basses introduce the “Ode” theme here and the voices enter here. The superimposed text is a translation of the poem “An die Freude” by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, to which Beethoven set his famous theme.
Performers: Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Chicago Symphony Chorus; Riccardo Muti, conductor; Duain Wolfe, chorus director; Camilla Nylund, soprano; Ekaterina Gubanova, mezzo-soprano; Matthew Polenzani, tenor; Eric Owens, bass-baritone
Further background on the symphony can be found here. See a listing of upcoming performances around the world. U.S. dates include the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, (both in April 2019, along with the Glens Falls Symphony Orchestra in May 2019.