Between 1822 and 1824 Ludwig van Beethoven worked on what would become his final complete symphony, “Symphony No. 9,” also known as “Beethoven’s 9th.” It is one of his greatest works, one of the greatest musical achievements in western music and one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the world. It was inspired, at least in part, by a poem by the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, “Ode To Joy,” written in 1785.
The final stanza of the poem reads, “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.”
Beethoven incorporated much of the poem into the fourth movement of the symphony. It was one of the first times a major composer had used voices in a symphony. What makes the 9th so much more incredible is that Beethoven was completely deaf by the time he composed it. It was first performed shortly after he had finished it, in Vienna on May 7, 1824.
Jump ahead 83 years, to Williams College in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Preacher and professor Henry van Dyke was staying at the home of the president of the college as a guest speaker. He awoke one morning and looked out at the mountains and, in awe of God’s majestic creation, he wrote the words to “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee.” Legend holds that he presented the poem to the president of the college and told him, “Here is a hymn for you. Your mountains were my inspiration. It must be sung to the music of Beethoven’s ‘Hymn to Joy.’”
I’m not sure why, but through the years this hymn has often been sung at Christmastime, though there is nothing about the Nativity in the lyrics. Except, that is, for the overriding theme of joy that is so associated with the birth of Jesus.
Here’s a contemporary version of the song, with slight alterations to the original lyrics, from Casting Crowns, “Joyful, Joyful.”
To get a glimpse of the power of this music, here’s a video shot at the Odessa Fish Market in Ukraine. A flash mob of sorts made up of members of the Odessa philharmonic Orchestra and Odessa Opera Chorus assemble in the market with their instruments and begin playing the “Ode to Joy” section of the 9th. The crowd continues about their business until more instruments join in, eventually bringing the shoppers to awed silence.
The 1994 movie “Immortal Beloved” detailed much of Beethoven’s life, climaxing with the first performance of his 9th Symphony. Here’s a clip from that movie’s trailer, opening with his nephew’s confused explanation of Beethoven’s work on the masterpiece.
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