December, in the Western World, is the season of Advent. It is also the month when Ludwig van Beethoven was born. No one but God knows when, but December 17 is often shortlisted because of the record of his baptism. In a time of transcendental considerations, when Love itself came into the world, listening to Beethoven may well help cure our souls of the muddying sickness that burdens the highest aspirations of the soul.
Joy. Agony. Dignity. Hope. These are just a few of the realities that Beethoven’s music touch upon. There are many more, but I wish to address these relevant realities in the month of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.
If you’re like me, growing up on old Turner Classic war films, then one of your first experiences of Beethoven was probably the first four bars of the “Fifth Symphony” which served as the leitmotif of the Allies in The Longest Day. How deliciously appropriate and ironic, that the thundering bars of the “Fifth” correspond with the coming of the Allies for the liberation of Western Europe with the beating thunder of an ostentatiously German composer inspiring them to fight the German occupiers of Europe with their own thunderous bombardment. While the first movement of the “Fifth” is undoubtedly a familiar tune to most people, the most famous of Beethoven’s pieces is “Ode to Joy” in the “Ninth Symphony.”
“Ode to Joy,” as we know, was originally a poem written by Friedrich Schiller. Schiller likely sought to compose the poem as a paean to liberty but changed it last minute. Beethoven, while drawing extensively from Schiller’s philhellenic exhortation, also scribbled revisions which underscored the emphasis on joy. O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,und freudenvollere. Freude! Freude!
Advent, of course, is the time of joy. It is the occasion of our joyous and joyful celebration of being freed from sin, from the wages of death, and entry into the true brotherhood of humanity—which “Ode to Joy” sings so rapturously about. Dour pessimism, something that has become so widespread of late, is countered by the heavenly melody and rapture of the fourth movement of the “Ninth Symphony.” Anyone listening to “Ode to Joy” cannot help but be joyful…
December 2020 marked the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven. I wrote several pieces commemorating the great genius of Beethoven and the meaning of some of his works. You can read the rest of this essay here: Beethoven and the Cure of Souls (25 December, The American Conservative)