By the time Beethoven had composed Ode to Joy, his great choral masterpiece, he was most likely completely deaf. The story is told that he was conducting his 9th symphony to a sold out concert hall no doubt with the great passion of conducting he was known for, a violinst perofrming that night writes “Beethoven directed the piece himself; that is, he stood before the lectern and gesticulated furiously. At times he rose, at other times he shrank to the ground, he moved as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus.” The final stanza of the 9th begins ominously, the cellos and bass in octave harmony, interrupted only by the occasional staccato of the brass section and tympani. But the tension of the introduction dissolves as the woodwind section harolds in a new and lighter tone. This lighter tone gives way through the same instruments which formerly played with such tension in a lighthearted chorus. The addition of the choir brings the piece to a majestic and thunderous praise! An die Frued! But something happened that night that many in the orchestra suspected might. When the music came to an end Beethoven kept conducting. He couldn’t hear that the music was over. Caroline Unger, who sang contralto had to stop him to turn him around to see the crowd on their feet tossing their hats into the air instead of clapping because they realized he couldn’t hear their applause.
Five times they gave him a standing ovation that night.
I am struck by the many symbolic elements in this great story.
First, one of the greatest classical composers, now deaf, cannot hear the applause of his audience. The lesson I have personally taken from this is that though many who are good at something perform it for others to see, those who are truly great perform first for the sake of the craft itself and for God alone. People are witnesses only in so far as they can magnify the greatness of God through the perfection of his gifts to a fellow man. Now, I believe he heard the music, not audibly but produced by his brain. How brilliant must the notes have sounded, perfectly sung and performed by each instrument, to a man who had studied music theory his entire life. All in perfect pitch and harmony.
Second, I am struck by the lyrics, they are not ones that you would expect to have included by a man who’s greatest joy in his vocational gift was stripped from him slowly. While he did not write the poem himself he chose it to include in his final complete symphony, “You millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world! Brothers, above the starry canopy There must dwell a loving Father. Do you fall in worship, you millions? World, do you know your creator? Seek him in the heavens Above the stars must he dwell.” Here again, in the words we see Beethoven choosing to point his baton heavenward.
Third, he must be turned by another to see the fruit of his work. This I believe holds the greatest significance for all who endeavor to make great change. Tirelessly working, striving to perfect the gifts we have been given, unable to see the effect of our work on the world only seen once turned by another to see and observe the hats flying in the air, there could be no greater gift.