I am very fond of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, (from the Ninth Symphony) both instrumental and choral versions. My father played it often on Deutsche Grammaphon Gesellschaft cassette tapes. I played some appalling adaptations that were probably a travesty of the original, arranged for solo beginner flutists (flautists?) too.
I finally read a translation of the German chorus on YouTube a few years ago, and was stunned by the catholic, ecumenical words. (There was no mention of Jesus, which tends to put me off of a lot of traditional religious music. When Jesus is mentioned, it just reminds me how the music isn’t intended for me, if you know what I mean). As a result, I have grown even fonder of Ode to Joy, and often sing along. That is probably an even worse travesty…
A few days ago, there was a new question on Musical Practice & Performance StackExchange, about stage position of choral soloists, particularly for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (a lengthy work written for Roman Catholic Mass) which made me think of Ode to Joy last night. I don’t know the answer to the Music StackExchange question. Yet I found a pleasant entry on the subject from National Public Radio online, from nearly six years ago. The following is a summary of the key points, along with my own asides, of course. At the end there is an NPR recording of 50 seconds of Ode to Joy.
* Verbatim excerpts are quoted in green font with grey shaded background, the rest is mine.
Transcript ‘Missa Solemnis: A Divine Bit of Beethoven’, NPR (12 February 2006)
Beethoven was nominally Catholic but did not attend church regularly.
God, however, interested Beethoven a lot. Beethoven read books about Eastern religions and revelations of the divine and of nature. He was particularly fond of, and often quoted to friends, this phrase of Emanuel Kant:The starry skies above and the moral law beneath. Beethoven also evoked the divine with three aphorisms which he said were from ancient Egypt.
I was thinking that the first sounded somewhat like something Donald Rumsfield said. These were the sayings:
I am that which is.
I am all that is, that was and that will be.
No mortal man has lifted my veil. He is solely found, himself, in all things owe their being to him alone.
I can’t figure out the meaning of the third. It has lost something in transcription or translation, probably.
The most surprising thing in Beethoven's
is the last movement... That culminating section of the Roman Catholic Mass is a prayer for peace. The last words are
aredona nobis pacem ... (give us peace)
The God that Beethoven intimates in the Missa Solemnis is not strictly Roman Catholic nor even Christian. Rather, He is pantheistic and all-encompassing, yet not tangibly present in our physical world.
Divinity is beyond, in the stars. Humanity is here on Earth.
NPR offers a brief recording from Missa Solemnis, ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ from Agnus Dei, which I found rather nerve wracking and over-wrought. But the link is there, for those who may be interested.
Beethoven's mighty Missa Solemnis comes down to an unanswered prayer. Whether God has heard us, we don't know, but we do know that in the distance the drums of war are still beating. Did Beethoven ever provide an answer to this unprecedented open ending? I believe he did. His answer is the Ninth Symphony. The famous choral finale of the Ninth Symphony is based on Schiller's Ode to Joy, written at a time of revolution.
Those words and Beethoven’s music, call for humankind to bow to the Creator regarding the heavenly, the celestial.
For answers, turn to one another.
In the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven proclaims that as comrades, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, we can unite to celebrate Joy, the beautiful daughter of Elysium. And that the path to peace is bestowed not from above but from within us and among us in universal brotherhood here on Earth. Man, help yourself.
That was Beethoven’s reply to the unanswered prayer of the Missa Solemnis.