I have asked some of my colleague and friends to write out their thoughts about Beethoven and the Ninth for this blog. There will be many more, from Isabel Lipthay and others involved with Following The Ninth. This piece is by David Murphy, a friend of over twenty years who I met at Trinity College when we were studying there one summer. We were part of a group of fifteen teachers, from various parts of the country, who had committed four weeks of intensive reading to two books by Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. We fell in love with the texts, and fell into a band of brothers that included Charles Shaw and Lucius Sorrentino, both excellent teachers, lovers of music, and friends of knowledge and wisdom. David’s reflection follows with, I hope, others to follow.
When we think of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, there is so much in the four movements it seems impossible to grasp the whole. From the opening movement’s subtle descending fifths that seem to signify the idea of the creation of all that is, through the stirring rhythms of the brilliant scherzo, through the serene yet sometimes mournfully tender third movement, and finally to the celebration of all of being in the great choral fourth movement, Beethoven has given us more to experience and to be inspired by in this symphony than any of us has the ability to conceive, let alone to express. While the musicologists will examine and discuss the technical aspects of the Ninth as long as people can hear or read music, for those of us who are simply lovers of music, there is something else, too.
The music of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony sweeps us ultimately to heights that had not been reached by composers before—and some would say, since. Mahler may take us to great heights in the end of his cosmic Eighth Symphony. There are those who love Bach and Mozart and so many others, but who find Beethoven less “controlled” than Bach or Mozart. Certainly Bach, Mozart and Mahler are themselves sui generis, each with his own tenderness, liveliness, power, and ability to inspire, but we do not find their music performed around the world is such varied socio-economic settings, in such intimate and public venues, nor in such politically transforming ways as we find the music of Beethoven, and especially as we find performances of the final movement of Beethoven’s great Ninth. This is the music the European Union selected as its anthem. Here is the music that thousands sing as they move their countries from totalitarian regimes towards democracy, comforting political prisoners as they hear the masses sing Schiller’s words of unity in the world’s most perfect melody. This is the music that reminds us that each of us is not completely alone, that, instead, we are one family. Beethoven here reminds us that we should celebrate Being rather than mourn losses; that there is absolute Hope; and above all that exists there is, for Beethoven and Schiller, a loving Father.
Yet there is something else yet again in this experience of the Ninth. There is an individual behind the music, an individual whose personal struggles make this celebration-of-all-of-creation symphony all the more inspiring. Beethoven was a man who walked on the earth, who had relationships, who lived, as most do, a mundane, quotidian existence, but with challenges that were not so mundane, especially during the composition of the Ninth late in life. Here is a man who wrote on his calendar during the composition of the Ninth, “Six days and nothing to eat!” Here is at times a manipulative man, so desperate to be a father that he tried to control his nephew’s life so absolutely that his nephew attempted suicide. Here is a man who was so involved in his music that others would slip into his flat and surreptitiously replace his dirty clothes with clean clothes, without notice or care from the maestro. Here is a man arrested as a “Peeping Tom”. A family living on the edge of Vienna told the story of one winter evening in their home. As they looked up from their family dinner, they were frightened to see a man looking through their window. The man’s visage was surrounded by night, his gray hair whipping about, and tears were streaming down his cheeks. The man was Beethoven, looking in at what he didn’t have, at what he desired, and what he eventually celebrated in Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” used in the Ninth Finale.
Here was a composer who was deaf. His loneliness was almost inexpressible. But while his lonely mind, surrounded by silence, could reach great heights in the music he alone could hear, his feet were very much on the ground. Anyone who has had an idea to create something grand, whether that creative work is delivered in music, business, literature, painting, politics, a poem or film, that individual knows the courageous loneliness that is involved in the actual act of creation, whether the creative act lasted an evening or for two years. Beethoven was additionally alone and courageous in the frustrating silence that surrounded his everyday life, and in his every musical rendering. That silence for this great man, had to be loud. To be sure, deafness does not keep anyone from being fully alive. To be sure, Beethoven heard music clearly, in brilliant hues; but the composer was in a prison of silence, too. And yet, from this silence he burst forth to embrace the world.
This lonely silence the musician knew is impossible to comprehend. His personal difficulties are exhausting to recall—as are our own if we care to remember. Yet, we do not carry Beethoven’s burden; rather, we celebrate what Beethoven was able to accomplish despite his burdens. Beethoven showed us a way through even our deepest sorrows, as he did via a concentrated attention to and love for his art.
And what does the Ninth Symphony tells us about Beethoven’s art? The Ninth contains both the love of his most cherished musical creations, and a love for all of humankind in an absolute realization of agape. This realization is, in-itself, beyond our comprehension. Yet, it is that strength of character that may, at our best moments, be in each of us. It is the power we draw upon that allows us to persevere, to triumph, to overcome, and–with all of mankind and with all that is in the universe–to celebrate just being. Beethoven, celebrating the God he and Schiller knew to be “uber sternen,” “above the stars,” becomes one of those stars himself, guiding us through the darkness but guiding us with hope and transcending Joy.