Trial, Triumph, and the Art of the Possible: The Remarkable Story Behind Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”
By Maria Popova
“Day by day I am approaching the goal which I apprehend but cannot describe,” Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1770–March 26, 1827) wrote to his boyhood friend, rallying his own resilience as he began losing his hearing. A year later, shortly after completing his Second Symphony, he sent his brothers a stunning letter about the joy of suffering overcome, in which he resolved:
Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?
That year, he began — though he did not yet know it, as we never do — the long gestation of what would become not only his greatest creative and spiritual triumph, not only a turning point in the history of music that revolutionized the symphony and planted the seed of the pop song, but an eternal masterwork of the supreme human art: making meaning out of chaos, beauty out of sorrow.
Across the epochs, “Ode to Joy” rises vast and eternal, transcending all of spacetime and at the same time compacting it into something so intimate, so immediate, that nothing seems to exist outside this singularity of all-pervading possibility. Inside its total drama, a total tranquility; inside its revolt, an oasis of refuge. The story of its making is as vitalizing as the masterpiece itself — or, rather, its story is the very reason for its vitality.
As a teenager, while auditing Kant’s lectures at the University of Bonn, Beethoven had fallen under the spell of transcendental idealism and the ideas of the Enlightenment — ideas permeating the poetry of Friedrich Schiller. A volume of it became the young Beethoven’s most cherished book and so began the dream of setting it to music. (There is singular magic in a timeless poem set to music.)
One particular poem especially entranced him: Written when Beethoven was fifteen and the electric spirit of revolution saturated Europe’s atmosphere, Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” was at heart an ode to freedom — a blazing manifesto for the Enlightenment ethos that if freedom, justice, and human happiness are placed at the center of life and made its primary devotion, politically and personally, then peace and kindness would envelop humankind as an inevitable consequence. A “kiss for the whole world,” Schiller had written, and the teenage Beethoven longed to be lips of the possible.
This Elysian dream ended not even a decade later as the Reign of Terror dropped the blade of the guillotine upon Marie Antoinette, then upon ten thousand other heads and the dreams they carried. Schiller died considering his “Ode to Joy” a failure — an idealist’s fantasy unmoored from reality, a work of art that might have been of service perhaps for him, perhaps for a handful of others, “but not for the world.”
The young Beethoven was among those few it touched, and this was enough, more than enough — he took Schiller’s bright beam of possibility and magnified it through the lens of his own genius to illuminate all of humanity for all of time. Epochs later, in the savage century of the World Wars and the Holocaust, Rebecca West — another uncommon visionary, who understood that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity” — would contemplate how those rare few help the rest of humanity endure, observing that “if during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”
While Schiller’s poem was ripening in Beethoven’s imagination, the decade-long Napoleonic Wars stripped and bludgeoned Europe. When Napoleon’s armies invaded and occupied Vienna — where Beethoven had moved at twenty-one to study with his great musical hero, Haydn — most of the wealthy fled to the country. He took refuge with his brother, sister-in-law, and young nephew in the city. Thirty-nine and almost entirely deaf, Beethoven found himself “suffering misery in a most concentrated form” — misery that “affected both body and soul” so profoundly that he produced “very little coherent work.” From inside the vortex of uncertainty and suffering, he wrote:
The existence I had built up only a short time ago rests on shaky foundations. What a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me: nothing but drums, cannons, and human misery in every form.
That spring, Haydn’s death only deepened his despair at life. The next six years were an unremitting heartache. His love went unreturned. He grew estranged from one of his brothers, who married a woman Beethoven disliked. His other brother died. He entered an endless legal combat over guardianship of his young nephew. He spent a year bedridden with a mysterious illness he called “an inflammatory fever,” riddled with skull-splitting headaches. His hearing almost completely deteriorated. He grew repulsed by the trendy mysticism of new musical developments, which made no room for the raw human emotion that was to him both the truest material and truest product of art.
Somehow, he kept composing, the act itself becoming the fulcrum by which Beethoven lifted himself out of the black hole to perch on the event horizon of a new period of great creative fertility. While Blake — his twin in the tragic genius of outsiderdom — was painting the music of the heavens, Beethoven was grounding a possible heaven onto a disillusioned earth with music.
And then he ended up in jail.
One autumn day in 1822, the fifty-two-year-old composer put on his moth-eaten coat and set out for what he intended as a short morning walk in the city, his mind a tempest of ideas. Walking had always been his primary laboratory for creative problem-solving, so the morning stroll unspooled into a long half-conscious walk along the Danube. In a classic manifestation of the self-forgetting that marks the intense creative state now known as “flow,” Beethoven lost track of time, of distance, of the demands of his own body.
He walked and walked, hatless and absorbed, not realizing how famished and fatigued he was growing, until the afternoon found him wandering disheveled and disoriented in a river basin far into the countryside. There, he was arrested by local police for “behaving in a suspicious manner,” taken to jail as “a tramp” with no identity papers, and mocked for claiming that he was the great Beethoven — by then a national icon, with a corpus of celebrated concertos and sonatas to his name, and eight whole symphonies.
The tramp raged and raged, until eventually, close to midnight, the police dispatched a nervous officer to wake up a local musical director, who Beethoven demanded could identify him. Instant recognition. Righteous rage. Apologies. Immediate release. More rage. More apologies. Beethoven spent the night at his liberator’s house. In the morning, the town’s apologetic mayor collected him and drove him back to Vienna in the mayoral carriage.
What had so distracted Beethoven from space and time and self was that, twenty-seven years after falling under the spell of Schiller’s poem, he was at last ferocious with ideas for bringing it to life in music. He had been thinking about it incessantly for months. “Ode to Joy” would become the crowning achievement of his crowning achievement — the choral finale of his ninth and final symphony. It would distill the transcendent torment of his creative life: how to integrate rage and redemption, the solace of poetry with the drama of music; how to channel his own poetic fury as a force of beauty, of vitality, of meaning; how to turn the human darkness he had witnessed and suffered into something incandescent, something superhuman.
It had to be in a symphony, although he had not composed one in a decade and no composer — not Bach, not Mozart, not his hero Haydn — had ever woven lyric poetry or any words at all into a symphony before; the word “lyrics” was yet to enter the lexicon in its musical sense. It had to be the crowning choral finale of the symphony, although he had not written much choral music before. But the light of the idea beamed bright and irrefutable as spring. This was no time for old laurels, no time for catering to proven populisms — this was the time for creation. A decade earlier, Beethoven had written back to a young girl aspiring to become a great pianist, offering his advice on the central urgency of the creative calling:
The true artist is not proud… Though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.
So often, in advising others, we are advising ourselves — the most innocent, vulnerable, and visionary parts of us, those parts from which the spontaneity and daring central to creative work spring. I wonder whether Beethoven remembered his own advice to Emilie as he faced the blank page that spring in 1822 when the first radiant contours of his “Ode to Joy” filled his mind and his footfall.
By summer, he was actively seeking out commissions to live on as he labored. He managed to procure a meager £50 from London’s Harmony Society, but that was enough subsistence and assurance to get to work. For more than a year, he labored unremittingly, stumbling over creative challenge after creative challenge — the price of making anything unexampled. His greatest puzzle was how to introduce the words into the final movement and how to choose the voices that would best carry them.
Meanwhile, word was spreading in Vienna that its most beloved composer was working on something wildly ambitious — his first symphony in a decade, and no ordinary symphony. But just as theater managers began vying for the premiere, Beethoven stunned everyone with the announcement that it was going to premiere in Berlin. He gave no reason. Viennese musicians took it as an affront — did he think they were too traditional to appreciate something so bold? He had been born in Germany, yes, but he had become himself in Austria. Surely, he owed the seedbed of his creative blossoming some measure of faith.
At the harsh peak of winter, Karoline Unger — the nineteen-year-old contralto Beethoven had already chosen to voice the deepest feeling-tones of his “Ode to Joy” — exhorted him to premiere his masterwork in Vienna. Writing in his Conversation Books — the notebooks through which the deaf composer communicated with the hearing world — she told him he had “too little self-confidence” in the Viennese public’s reception of his masterwork, urged him to go forward with the concert, then exclaimed: “O Obstinacy!”
Within a month, thirty of his most esteemed Austrian admirers — musicians and poets, composers and chamberlains — had co-written and signed an impassioned open letter to Beethoven, laced with patriotism and flattery, telling him that while his “name and creations belong to all contemporaneous humanity and every country which opens a susceptible bosom to art,” it is his artistic duty to complete the Austrian triad of Mozart and Haydn; imploring him not to entrust “the appreciation for the pure and eternally beautiful” to unworthy “foreign power” and to establish instead “a new sovereignty of the True and the Beautiful” in Vienna. The letter was hand-delivered to him by a court secretary who tutored the royal family.
Not even the most stubborn and single-minded artist is impervious to the sway of adulation. “It’s very beautiful, it makes me very happy!” The Viennese concert was on.
But Beethoven bent under the weight of his own expectations in a crippling combination of micro-managing and indecision. Eager to control every littlest detail to perfection, he committed to one theater, then changed his mind and committed to another, then it all became too much to bear — he cancelled the concert altogether.
After a monthlong tailspin, the finitude of time — concert season was almost over — pinned him to the still point of decision. He uncancelled the concert and, once again confounding everyone, signed with one of the underbidding imperial court theaters he had at first rejected.
The date was set for early May. He hand-picked the four soloists who would anchor the choir and assembled an orchestra dwarfing all convention: two dozen violins, two dozen wind instruments, a dozen cellos and basses, ten violas, and all that percussion.
It was to be not only a performance, not only a premiere, but something more — the emblem of a credo, musical and humanistic. The reception of the symphony would make or break the reception of the ideals behind it. Against this backdrop, it is slightly less shocking — but only slightly — that, in an astonishing final bid for total control of his creation, Beethoven demanded that he conduct the symphony himself.
Everyone knew he was deaf. Now they feared he was demented.
The theater, having won the coveted premiere, reluctantly conceded, fearing Beethoven might change his mind again if his demand went unmet, but persuaded him to have the original conductor onstage with him, with every assurance that he would only be there for backup. The conductor, meanwhile, instructed the choir and orchestra to follow only his motions and “pay no attention whatever to Beethoven’s beating of the time.” The best assurance even one of Beethoven’s closest friends — who later became his biographer — could muster was that the theater would be too dim for anyone to notice that Beethoven was conducting in his old green frock and not in the fashionable black coat a conductor was supposed to wear.
After two catastrophic rehearsals — the only two the enormous ensemble could manage in the brief time before the performance — the soloists railed that their parts were simply impossible to sing. Karoline Unger called him a “tyrant over all the vocal organs.” One of the two male soloists quit altogether and had to be replaced by a member of the choir who had memorized the part.
Somehow, the show went on.
On the early evening of May 7, 1824, the Viennese crowded into the concert hall — but they were not the usual patrons. Looking up to the royal box, Beethoven was crushed to see it empty. He had journeyed to the palace to personally invite the Emperor and Empress but, like most of the aristocracy, they had vanished into their country estate as soon as spring broke the harsh Austrian winter. He was going to be playing for the people. But it was the people, after all, that Schiller had yearned to vitalize with his poem.
Beethoven walked onto the grand stage, faced the orchestra, and raised his arms. Despite the natural imperfections of a performance built on such tensions, something shifted as soon as the music — exalted, sublime, total — rose above the individual lives and their individual strife, subsuming every body and every soul in a single harmonious transcendence.
After the final chord of “Ode to Joy” resounded, the gasping silence broke into a scream of applause. People leapt to their feet, waving their handkerchiefs and chanting his name. Beethoven, still facing the orchestra and still waving his arms to the delayed internal time of music only he could hear, noticed none of it, until Karoline Unger stood up, took his arm, and gently turned him around.
With the birth of photography still fifteen years of trial and triumph away, it is only in the mind’s eye that one can picture the cascade of confusion, disbelief, and elation that must have washed over Beethoven’s face in that sublime moment when his guiding sun seemed suddenly so proximate, almost blinding with triumph.
As soon as he faced the audience, the entire human mass erupted with not one, not two, not three, but four volcanic bursts of applause, until the Police Commissioner managed to yell “Silence!” over the fifth. These were still revolutionary times, after all, and art that roused so fierce a response in the human soul — even if that response was exultant joy — was dangerous art. Here, in the unassailable message of “Ode to Joy,” was a clarion call to humanity to discard all the false gods that had fueled a century of unremitting wars and millennia of inequality — the divisions of nation and rank, the oppressions of dogma and tradition — and band together in universal sympathy and solidarity.
The sound of Beethoven’s call resounded long after its creator was gone. Whitman celebrated it as the profoundest expression of nature and human nature. Helen Keller “heard” it with her hand pressed against the radio speaker and suddenly understood the meaning of music. Chilean protesters sang it as they took down the Pinochet dictatorship. Japanese musicians performed it after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Chinese students blasted it in Tiananmen Square. Leonard Bernstein, patron saint of music as an instrument of humanism, conducted a group of musicians who had lived on both sides of the Berlin Wall in a Christmas Day concert after its fall. Ukrainian composer Victoria Poleva reimagined it for an international concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary. A decade later, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine performed her reimagining not long before a twenty-first century tyrant with a Napoleonic complex and a soul deaf to the music of life bludgeoned the small country with his lust for power.
But this, I suspect, was Beethoven’s stubborn, sacred point — the reason he never gave up on Schiller’s dream, even as he lived through nightmares: this unassailable insistence that although the Napoleons and Putins of the world will rise to power again and again over the centuries, they will also fall, because there is something in us more powerful as long as we continue placing freedom, justice, and universal happiness at the center of our commitment to life, even as we live through nightmares. Two centuries after Beethoven, Zadie Smith affirmed this elemental reality in her own life-honed conviction that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
In the winter of my thirteenth year, two centuries after Beethoven’s day and a few fragile years after the fall of Bulgaria’s communist dictatorship, I stood in the holiday-bedazzled National Symphony Hall alongside a dozen classmates from the Sofia Mathematics Gymnasium, our choir about to perform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” recently adopted as the anthem of Europe by the European Union, of which the newly liberated Bulgaria longed to be a part.
We sang the lyrics in Bulgarian, but “joy” has no direct translation. “Felicity” might come the closest, or “mirth” — those wing-clipped cousins of joy, bearing the same bright feeling-tone, but lacking its elation, its all-pervading exhale — a diminishment reflecting the spirit of a people just emerging from five centuries of Ottoman occupation closely followed by a half-century Communist dictatorship.
And yet we stood there in our best clothes, in the spring of life, singing together, our teenage minds abloom with quadratic equations and a lust for life, our teenage bodies reverberating with the redemptive dream of a visionary who had died epochs before any of our lives was but a glimmer in a great-great-grandparent’s eye, our teenage spirits longing to kiss the whole world with possibility.
Today, “Ode to Joy” — a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic from the year I was born — streams into my wireless headphones as I cross the Brooklyn Bridge on my bicycle, riding into a life undreamt in that teenage girl’s wildest dreams, into a world unimaginable to Beethoven, a world where suffering remains our constant companion but life is infinitely more possible for infinitely more people, and more kinds of people, than even the farthest seer of 1822 could have envisioned.
I ride into the spring night, singing. This, in the end, might be the truest translation of “joy” — this ecstatic fusion of presence and possibility.
Published May 17, 2022