The Reading Room
Schiller’s Ode to Joy, and Beethoven’s
On December 24 and 25, 1989, Leonard Bernstein led concerts celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. They included Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in which solo singers and a chorus present part of Friedrich Schiller’s “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy). For this occasion, Bernstein made a slight but important change in the words, replacing “Freude” with “Freiheit” (freedom).
There was ample justification for this one-time alteration. Schiller’s poem has long been associated with freedom, and the author is often called the “Poet of Freedom.” There is even an unsubstantiated legend that he originally drafted the poem as “An die Freiheit.”
In the same year, Chinese students protesting at Tiananmen Square played Beethoven’s Ninth on a hastily assembled sound system to counter the government’s speaker system. Feng Congde, one of the protest’s leaders, said, “I put on the cassette of Beethoven’s Ninth to cover the voice of the government system. So there was a real battle for voice. Hundreds of thousands of students shouting, as we broadcast the music on the square louder than the government system. I just had a feeling of winning, of triumph.” The triumph, sadly, was short-lived.
The poem that Schiller wrote in 1785 speaks of courage in suffering and help for the innocent. The last verse, omitted from the posthumous 1808 revision, promises “rescue from tyranny’s chains.” The original version also has a line declaring “beggars will become the brothers of princes.” Beethoven, though, used the milder revised text, “all people will become brothers.”
Schiller’s other works present similar themes. In “Die unüberwindliche Flotte” (The Invincible Armada) he refers to the Magna Carta, which “makes kings citizens and citizens princes.” “Die Bürgschaft” (The Pledge) reworks the story of Damon and Pythias. A man, sentenced to death for trying to assassinate the tyrannical king, asks for three days to give his sister away in marriage while his friend remains as a pledge of his life. The king is cynically sure he’ll never return, but he overcomes huge obstacles to meet the deadline and save his friend. When he arrives in the nick of time, the king is moved, recognizing that faithfulness is no empty fantasy, and asks to be the third in their friendship. The key ideas here, as in the Ode to Joy, include a struggle for freedom, the power of friendship, and its ability to win even a villain over.
The Ninth Symphony, the longest one anyone had written to that date, uses less than half of the Ode. Schiller’s full text treats joy not just as an emotion but as a force of nature. It is the mainspring of the world clock. It brings forth flowers and suns. All beings experience it, from worms to angels.
To go with this, it presents a radical theology. We can’t repay gods, it says, but we can be like them. This means forgiving enemies and giving up vengeance. The 1785 version proclaims that “all sinners shall be forgiven, and Hell shall be no more.”
Beethoven’s construction stresses the cosmic nature of the Ode’s concept. The first movement presents a gigantic struggle. The second is lively and cheerful — we’d even say joyful, in the usual sense of the word. The third presents tender feelings with beautiful melodies. In the last movement, though, the orchestra rejects all of these as insufficient and bursts out in frustration. The music reaches a resolution only when the bass sings the first words ever heard in a symphony: “O friends, not these sounds! Let’s give voice to something more pleasant, more joyful.”
Beethoven had been fascinated with the poem since his youth. An earlier work of his, the 1808 Choral Fantasy, is in many ways a draft for the Ninth. It begins with a piano solo, the orchestra enters, and finally the chorus and soloists sing the words of a poem. The spirit of the poem is similar to Schiller’s, though it’s a work of uncertain authorship and not as well crafted. The tune Beethoven gives it could be considered an early version of the one in the symphony.
It took both Schiller and Beethoven a lifetime to bring their work to its final form. The result is a piece that has fulfilled its own words, embracing millions with a kiss for the whole world. For two centuries, it has brought people together and given them hope.