Ode To Joy

The true story…


Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?” – Beethoven wrote to his brother

How do we make “beauty out of sorrow,” for sorrow and loss is the constant in human beings.

How did Beethoven create one of the most moving, spiritual pieces of music any of us has ever heard?

He had already begun to lose his hearing. Imagine. A composer, using all the individual instruments of an orchestra without being able to hear any of them.

After the final chord of “Ode to Joy” resounded, the gasping silence broke into a scream of applause. People leapt to their feet, waving their handkerchiefs and chanting his name. Beethoven, still facing the orchestra and still waving his arms to the delayed internal time of music only he could hear, noticed none of it, until Karoline Unger stood up, took his arm, and gently turned him around.

“Here, in the unassailable message of “Ode to Joy,” was a clarion call to humanity to discard all the false gods that had fueled a century of unremitting wars and millennia of inequality — the divisions of nation and rank, the oppressions of dogma and tradition — and band together in universal sympathy and solidarity.”

“But this, I suspect, was Beethoven’s stubborn, sacred point — the reason he never gave up on Schiller’s dream, even as he lived through nightmares: this unassailable insistence that although the Napoleons and Putins of the world will rise to power again and again over the centuries, they will also fall, because there is something in us more powerful as long as we continue placing freedom, justice, and universal happiness at the center of our commitment to life, even as we live through nightmares.”

“Today, “Ode to Joy” — a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic from the year I was born — streams into my wireless headphones as I cross the Brooklyn Bridge on my bicycle, riding into a life undreamt in that teenage girl’s wildest dreams, into a world unimaginable to Beethoven, a world where suffering remains our constant companion but life is infinitely more possible for infinitely more people, and more kinds of people, than even the farthest seer of 1822 could have envisioned.”

(All quotes from Maria Popova.)

What would life be without music?

How could we feel hope in the face of constant war and poverty and death without the beauty of Ode to Joy, created by a genius who could no longer even hear the music he had written?

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