Discover Music

Decoding Beethoven's Ode to Joy

Beethoven and the Ode to Joy
Beethoven and the Ode to Joy

Beethoven's famous Ode to Joy is much more than a good tune—it forms a part of a much bigger work, one that pushed the boundaries of music, in the process paving the way for some of the great works of the late-Romantic era.

Why was it written?

'Ode to Joy' forms the main melodic material of the final movement of Beethoven 9th and final symphony, composed between 1822 and 1824. It is a setting for voices and orchestra of a poem of same name by Friedrich Schiller.

Original German:
Tochter aus Elysium,

Wir betreten feuertrunken,

Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

Deine Zauber binden wieder

Was die Mode streng geteilt;

Alle Menschen werden Brüder

Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

English Translation:
Joy, thou shining spark of God,

Daughter of Elysium,

With fiery rapture, goddess,

We approach thy shrine!

Your magic reunites those

Whom stern custom has parted;

All men will become brothers

Under your protective wing.

Why is it special?

Apart from being a cracking piece of music (more of which in a moment), Beethoven’s setting marked the first time that a symphony made use of the human voice—up until this point they had always been written for orchestra alone. The magic occurs in the last movement, the first three being traditionally instrumental. After a dramatic interjection a baritone suddenly sings these words:

Oh friends, not these sounds!
But let us sing more pleasantly,
And more joyful ones.
Joy! Joy!

Leading to the singing of the Ode, then taken up by the whole chorus:

The complete theme, with its characteristic climactic points that appear on the lowest note, marked by Beethoven with a crescendo.

What about the rest of the symphony?

The symphony, with its ‘Ode to Joy’ is special in other ways too. Its scale is vast, presaging the late Romantic works of Mahler, Bruckner and (in a different medium—opera) Wagner. The last movement alone lasts a socking 25 minutes in performance, as long as many four movement classical symphonies. The whole four movements take well over an hour to perform. Beethoven also plays with form, moving the scherzo movement to second place in the plan (it is normally third). The first movement, with its visionary opening, is written in standard sonata form, but has a vast coda that takes up a quarter of the movement. The scherzo uses a standard three part structure, but this is simultaneously overlain with sonata from. The third is a double variation form with deviations into different time signatures. The last movement is vast and original in structure—some, indeed, have called it a ‘symphony within a symphony.’

Mixed reviews

The first performance was in Vienna on 7 May 1824. Beethoven was present on stage and beat time all the way through, though he was not officially conducting. It was a great success, though at one point the composer, who was by this time profoundly deaf, failed to hear the rapturous applause and had to be turned to face the audience in order to acknowledge it.

Outside Vienna and down the years critics have not always been so kind, much of the criticism focusing on the final movement and its “Ode to Joy.”

Composer Louis Spoor, a contemporary of Beethoven, wrote:
"The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in its grasp of Schiller's 'Ode,' so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it. I find in it another proof of what I had already noted in Vienna, that Beethoven was wanting in aesthetic feeling and in a sense of the beautiful."

The influential London Journal, the Harmonicon, wrote in 1825:
"We find Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to be precisely one hour and five minutes long; a fearful period indeed, which puts the muscles and lungs of the band and the patience of the audience to a severe trial…"

And in 1878 Giuseppe Verdi wrote:
“The alpha and omega is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, marvellous in the first three movements, very badly set in the last. No one will ever approach the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as in the last movement. And supported by the authority of Beethoven, they will all shout: ‘That's the way to do it…’”

An enduring classic

These criticisms of the work by no means, however, reflect the overwhelming view that the symphony is a work of great genius that radically expanded the scope of the form. This it achieved not merely by its length and formal innovations but in its successful expression of the both the personal and, in the setting of Schiller’s Ode, the universal. In this, it is the perfect Romantic era work, paving the way for many of the composers that were to follow, including Brahms, Wagner, Mahler and many composers in the twentieth century.

The ‘Ode to Joy’ has also taken on a life of its own outside the concert hall. It has been adapted as a hymn tune, to the words ‘Joyful, Joyful we adore thee’ and used several times as a national anthem, for Rhodesia in the 1970s and unofficially for South Africa in sporting events in the 1990s. It was also adopted as the official anthem of the European Community (now the European Union) in 1985.

© 2000-2024