Ode to Joy


Since the election, my mood has trended downward, unable to lift higher than “okay”, just enough to get out of bed in the morning. A pall was cast on the world that night, and I can’t find a way to poke through to let light in.

Tim coming home at Thanksgiving helped, and having him here now for an extended stay has raised my baseline, but life feels like a trudge now, the effort of optimism a burden.

But for a few hours on New Years Eve, I experienced joy again. We went to Oregon Symphony’s year-end performance, which featured a first half of perfectly acceptable music (a tribute to a dedicated former conductor and his lifetime’s work of arrangements) and finished with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Last year on New Year’s Eve, I drove out to dark-sky country and listened to the top 10 classical hits of all time, which ended, of course, with Symphony No. 9. I never gave that symphony a second thought before, because I wasn’t much for “choral symphonies”; I want choirs and symphonies to stay separate. But listening to No. 9, sitting in the car on the edge of a field on a frigid, starry night, I heard it totally differently. No. 9 is a remarkable piece of work, abundant in its instrumentation and voicings, as if inviting everyone who’s ever sung or played a note to participate in lifting up this single thought: joy.

Symphony no. 9 begins with chaos of tuning, then  strikes a bold two-note stance; here I am. Here we go. To me, Symphony no. 9 is about the individual attempt to create one’s life, and it starts with the very first phrase. Here, says Beethoven, is where we will plant our foundation. The second movement, with its racing sixteenths in overlapping voices, trots past onlookers, all action and movement, its goal the momentum building to the crescendo, punctuated by tectonic bass drum blasts, until the rapid finish devolves again into chaos. The third movement is a placid interlude, its opening bars a balm after the burning purpose of movement two. The fourth movement, however, is unmistakably given to chaos and darkness from the first notes. Some interplay occurs between the sweetness of the melody of creation and the brash destruction of the bass drum, and they fight upward into a chaotic swirl. Like taxiing on a runway, the momentum starts and stops, waiting for something to happen.

Beethoven is such a tease: the terraced dynamics bring you to the brink of fulfillment, and then he lays off the gas, and you’re left reaching.

Enters the voice of the baritone, with the statement of the opening lines of the poem from which the symphony gets its title. “Enough dallying!” he says, “enough quarreling! Let’s go!” and sings one of the most beautiful words in German: Götterfunken. It means “lovely divine spark” or (my favorite) “thou beauteous Godly lightning”.

And with that lightning, the music lifts off. In that moment, this ponderous chaos of a symphony rises, an ecstatic shooting skyward of human endeavor. This is fireworks in music.

What makes Beethoven so powerful is his embrace of the messiness of life, his willingness to descend into chaos in harmony and instrumentation, all while celebrating the exuberance of creation and connection. Through the vivid and striking violin melody, the bass drum crashes, a reminder that light does not exist without dark, that chaos precedes order, and order is fleeting.

Beethoven’s insistent dancing through bedlam, the hallmark of his marriage of classical and romantic periods, is what makes his music so intoxicating to me. There is order, he says, at the loss of beauty. We give ourselves over to apathy and death when we allow orderliness to be the guiding thought; here, he says, is joy. HERE is unfettered creation and life. I feel him straining at the bonds of classicism throughout No. 9, particularly in the cascading melodic lines that simulate destruction.

In its outrageous size, No. 9 has space for all of that messiness of life, and gave me hope in our ability to get through this unbearably dark time together. From the allegretto, the sound of the fear gripping us, now that the worst has happened, how do we face what comes next? But we can face it, but only with all of our voices pushing and straining against the conformity required of order.

Beethoven famously renamed his Symphony No. 3 from “Buonaparte”, for Napoleon Bonaparte, who he initially supported, to “Eroica” after finding out Napoleon named himself “Emperor of the French”. Beethoven refused to honor a tyrant with his music.

I like to think we could use music–Beethoven’s and others’–to express our collective will to fight the darkness, to refuse to give in to our own tyrant; we have been mourning the destruction of our society, however fragile our peace, and while we carry with us that frustration, together we will move forward, our collective, intentional joy shutting out the darkness of this new tyranny.

Looking at the stars on a dark, cold night, it isn’t the black sky that causes us to marvel; it’s the millions of pinpricks of light piercing the darkness that keep us enthralled. The infinite void is broken by the light of thousands of suns and planets. In holding high our lights for justice, equality, goodness and kindness, we are the stars in this darkness.




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