What Beethoven dreamed in his inner ear

The secret behind Beethoven’s Ninth

4 minute read

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s poetic “Ode to Joy” vision, which Beethoven spliced into his lyrics as a choral and symphonic gift of hope for humankind. Beethoven was already deaf when he finished the Ninth in 1824; he was also suffering from other serious problems that would kill him three years later. Yet its “universal message of freedom and brotherhood,” as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin has characterized it, has been embraced throughout the world as a motivator for lifting the human spirit and overcoming crisis and tragedy, regardless of the time and place.

— In 1961, when the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in an airplane crash, Eugene Ormandy conducted the Ninth with the Temple University Choir in a memorial service at the UN that was telecast for the world to mourn and gain inner strength as a community.

— In 1963, when Erich Leinsdorf of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was informed of John F. Kennedy’s assassination just before his Friday afternoon concert, he pulled Beethoven's Third (Eroica) Symphony from the program and substituted the Ninth as a source of comfort and stability to the mournful audience.

— In 1989, students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing played the Ninth over hastily assembled loudspeakers as troops advanced to crush them. “We used the Ninth to create an ambience of solidarity and hope, for ourselves and for the people of China,” said one of the student leaders, Feng Congde.

Bernstein in Berlin

— Five months after Tiananmen, as the Berlin Wall began to come down, Leonard Bernstein — then 72 and dying of cancer — conducted Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin twice, seeking a common humanity across borders through the words Alle Menschen warden Brüder (“All men will be brothers”).

His first concert was timed to end at midnight on December 23, when the border dividing the two Berlins was opened for the first time in 28 years. Then he conducted the Ninth at East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus on Christmas morning of 1989 with an orchestra that included members from the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras, as well as orchestras from the four countries that still technically occupied Berlin: the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, and the Orchestra of Leningrad’s Kirov Theater. Singers came from both Germanys. Thousands gathered in the hall while hundreds more just stood in the square to watch the performance on a giant TV monitor.

“I am experiencing a historical moment, incomparable with others in my long, long life,” Bernstein declared at that concert. Writing to a friend, he said, “I’ll be rewriting Friedrich Schiller’s text of the 'Ode to Joy' and substituting the word freiheit (freedom) for freude (joy), because when the chorus sings Alle Menschen werden Brüder, it will make more sense with freiheit, won’t it?” The broadcast went live to 20 countries and was heard by 100 million people.

— In March 2011, when Japan was struck by its earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese responded with multiple performances of “Ode to Joy” as a means of healing a shattered nation. The great conductor Yutaka Sado alone conducted the work 150 times. “The disaster showed us we need to help one another,” one of his choir members explained. “That’s what this song evokes for me.”

Like daydreaming

Beethoven’s Ninth remains living proof that music can indeed change the world, just as Beethoven hoped it would. Yet the Ninth was born at a time of widespread reaction among Europe’s ruling classes to the terrors of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. How, then, did Beethoven manage to end this most religious and profound composition with his conciliatory message of brotherhood for all humankind?

For a musician, you might think, there can be no more devastating health issue than deafness. But a great composer (like a great musician or conductor) depends on music that’s physically soundless — or the musical perfection of the inner ear, which suffers no physical limitations. Even non-musicians can hear the voice of a relative or friend by doing a little daydreaming. Try it yourself.

As Beethoven became increasingly deaf, he became more and more dependent on his inner ear, from which he generated his most mature and challenging compositions. The chamber music, sonatas, and symphonies that he created during his last years are now considered the greatest compositions in the literature. After his first eight symphonies, Beethoven seems to have concluded that he had gone as far as he could instrumentally. So as his next step, in the Ninth Symphony he created a link between absolute instrumental music with programmatic vocal music. The result was the “Ode to Joy” message in the last movement.

That fourth movement included the military music of a former enemy of Europe, the Ottoman Empire. As a result, European bandsmen came to respect this powerful Turkish march music, with its colorful African rhythm and unique tone color. Through such innovative composing, Beethoven signaled both brotherhood and something even more difficult but critically necessary for global peace: forgiveness.

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