I woke up this morning with a most elaborate earworm wiggling around my head: the “Ode to Joy,” the final, choral movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, his last complete symphony. It’s a segmented worm, for sure, a work that twists and squirms through some seriously rich musical loam over the course of its 10- to 15-minute life.
It’s a great piece of music to wake up to and I think it might be a subconscious answer to a question posed to me last night: “What is your favorite kind of music?” I couldn’t really answer that. With a few key exceptions, I like music. On further thought, I said, “Music that is thoughtfully composed and performed by musicians who know what they’re doing and why.”
Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is brilliantly composed.* Excerpting from Schiller’s poem “An die Freude,” Beethoven masterfully used radical variation in tempo and volume, as well as the extremities of the human voice, to take the listener to the heights and depths of our experience of joy. I especially love the way he plays with anticipation, in some places the voices and instruments trembling so precariously on the edge of a musical cliff, I can almost feel the musicians’ toes gripping the rock.
For what it’s worth, Schiller eventually came to hate the poem Beethoven based the music on. Although he wrote it for a beloved friend, he ultimately concluded that it was stupid. I think the words are a lovely celebration of human connection and of the divine, but even if you don’t understand German, Beethoven’s rendition of the many manifestations of this emotion is clear: perfect-sync-with-another-human-being joy, rollicking-puppy-on-the-lawn joy, shaky-trembly-breathless-lover joy, got-a-glimpse-of-the-magnitude-of-Creation joy, can’t-find-the-words-so-please-just-listen joy.
The whole thing is transcendent and makes me shiver, whether I’m in the audience or singing it. (OK, the timpani-driven, boom-boom marching band bit that pops up here and there gets a little goofy, but if joy can’t be goofy, is it truly joy?) My favorite parts are when Beethoven opens up the heavens by bringing in the voices quietly and slowly, like stars emerging out of twilight (best example is around 6:10 here, but he reprises them for about four tantalizing seconds at the very end).
And this: I love it when the male voices belt out (around 4:20 here), “Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!” What a way to start the day:
Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world!
Seid umschlungen, people. Happy Monday.
*Time signatures attach to this version, from the Berliner Philharmoniker, which is way too martial and methodical for my tastes. It’s marchy-marchy but I forgive it on account of the technical prowess of the musicians, especially the soloists around 12:15, plus it’s the only one I could find on Youtube that gets us back to those twinkling stars at the end, around 13:48: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0pNOLcXt5Q. You could do worse.