Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: a cultural kaleidoscope

Beethoven in Schönbrunn

Ludwig van Beethoven was born on 16 December 1770 in Bonn, Germany, and died on 26 March 1827 in Vienna, Austria. He was a prolific composer but one of his works has become more memorable than others: The Symphony No. 9. 

This choral work was chosen in 1972 as the official anthem of the European Union, with Beethoven’s autographed sheet music included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2001.

This work can be understood from multiple points of view. So, let’s explore this composition from different perspectives.

History 

Ludwig van Beethoven grew up in a musical family. His musical education started at an early age and he gave his first concert aged 7.

During this time, music lessons were very popular among the upper-classes For this reason during his career, Beethoven, as well as other artists, worked for royal families, upper-class aristocrats and religious men as a pianist, an arranger, a teacher and a composer.

Internationally, the years of Beethoven’s youth were a revolutionary time. In 1789, the French Revolution began, and some decades later, Napoleon Bonaparte took command of the country. 

All these events were charged with values like freedom, equality, fraternity or solidarity. Artists like Beethoven expressed them in his works – moving from well-established harmonies to use new ones based on his feelings. For example, Beethoven composed his 3rd Symphony (called Heroic Symphony), dedicating it to Napoleon.

This is not the only time when he coloured his music with values. The 9th Symphony – a choral work with the text of Friedrich Schiller’s poem ‘An die Freude’ (Ode to Joy) is another extraordinary example of this.

EXPLORE MORE: Gallery about the life and works of Beethoven

Literature

When Beethoven was born, the artistic tendency in Europe was called Classicism. The classic period is identified, among others, by measured forms and topics following the national schools’ guidelines for each country. 

Later on, as the same time the French Revolution exploded, young artists like Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Schiller or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, inspired by new values, started creating his art based only on their own feelings. This is when – in 1786 – Schiller published the poem ‘An die Freude’ (Ode to Joy). It symbolises fraternity and equality among the peoples of the world and, due to its deep meaning, became well-known in literary and artistic circles.

In 1793, when Beethoven read it, he loved it and suddenly the idea of composing a choral work with this text came to his mind. However, it was not until 1822 when Beethoven put this inspiration into practice, starting compose his symphony which he finished in 1824.

EXPLORE MORE: Gallery about Schiller’s Ode to Joy

Science

Music has a close relationship with mathematics and physics.

There are a lot of famous musicians interested in science. Rhythm signs are based on multiples of 2, tempo is measured on double or triple beats mixing soft and hard beats like the human heart beats. Harmony is close to the science of sound and how sound waves flow in the air and they are heard by our ears.

Beethoven’s deafness, which has an unknown origin, started very early in his life. It was not a very serious condition until later in life years. Thanks to Beethoven’s hearing aids and his senses of rhythm and harmony, he could complete the 9th Symphony – an example of an artist continuing their career in the face of a disability.

Psychology

In addition to this disability, Beethoven also suffered a serious depression that accompanied him during all his life. This mental health disorder had a powerful impact on his work. 

In his 9th Symphony’s last movement, Beethoven’s musical rhythms and themes comment on his past lifetime and act as an omen of his future. For example, some parts represent ironic moments connected to the meaning of the text and other parts are most like a funeral march rhythm, as if he waits for his own death.

Apart from that, his work is full of examples of how his imagination is related to his feelings, taking for example characters of Fidelio, his unique opera, who reflects Beethoven’s dualities during his life.

EXPLORE MORE: Resources at Teaching with Europeana blog

By Raul Gomez Hernandez, Europeana Foundation

Feature image: Beethoven in Schönbrunn, Universität Osnabrück, CC BY-NC-SA

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