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Ode to Joy - Schiller, Beethoven and the Celebration of Universal Togetherness

In the summer of 1785, German poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller composed the poem "Ode to Joy" (German: "An die Freude"), in which he enthusiastically celebrates the brotherhood and unity of all mankind. It was destined to become one of his most popular works, and an enduring legacy and testament to the spirit of the renowned intellectual and the movement known as Weimar Classicism (of which he was a main exponent together with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

The poem's lasting popularity is in big part due to its musical setting byLudwig van Beethovenin the final movement of hisNinth Symphony. The text used by Beethoven for the fourth movement of his celebrated symphony is largely taken from Schiller's "Ode to Joy"; however, not the entire poem is set, some sections are reordered, and a few introductory words were added specifically by the composer.

Beethoven's famous choral finale was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony, thus making it a landmark in the history of Western music. Having been characterized as a symphony within a symphony, the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth with its world-famous main theme can be seen as a musical representation of universal brotherhood.

The famous choral melody

Widely considered as one of the greatest works not only within the composer's oeuvre but the entire western musical canon,  Beethoven's Ninth Symphony remains a pinnacle in musical composition and a constant inspiration for musicians and non-musicians alike.

Ever since Beethoven's seminal work was premiered on 7 May 1824 at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, it has remained extremely popular with audiences worldwide. Moreover, through its association with many important political and social events over the course of the last century, Beethoven's music has acquired special significance and extra-musical undertones that further enhance its unique place in Western culture.

More specifically, the prelude to the "Ode to Joy" from the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was adopted as the Anthem of Europe by the Council of Europe in 1972 (and subsequently the European Community and the European Union) in order to celebrate the shared values of the member states and express the ideals of a united Europe: freedom, peace, and solidarity.  

Furthermore, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" has served as a musical backdrop to major socio-political developments both within and outside Europe over the years. It has been used as a protest anthem from demonstrators in Chile who sang a version of the famous tune called El Himno de la Alegria ("A Song of Joy") during protests against the Pinochet dictatorship and Chinese student broadcasts at Tiananmen Square to the more recent Occupy Wall Street–driven gatherings in Madrid and elsewhere. During Christmas 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a version of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. In November 2014, the Berlin State Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim would again perform Beethoven's Ninth in front of the Brandenburg Gate to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Rarely has a musical composition captured the imagination, hopes and aspirations of so many people, from such diverse and different backgrounds. It is exactly this that makes the "Ode to Joy" so special and indeed emblematic of the universal longing for happiness and brotherhood. From the Americas to Europe, Asia (the Ninth Symphony is traditionally performed throughout Japan at the end of each year), and the rest of the world, Beethoven’s music and Schiller’s words have been the carriers of a universal message that manages to transcend the boundaries of time and culture.

Indeed, it seems that such words, so full of optimism and faith in what is best in humanity, could not sound more relevant amidst today's widespread disorder, confusion and extremism:

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,

Daughter from Elysium,

We enter, burning with fervour,

heavenly being, your sanctuary!

Your magic brings together

what fashion has sternly divided.

All men shall become brothers,

wherever your gentle wings hover.

Mimis Chrysomallis


Available on primephonic:  Three different interpretations of Beethoven's majestic 9th Symphony