“Ode to Joy,” Beethoven’s last symphony, is an ode to humanity, to the freedom of all people. He searched through historical musical materials to find ‘fundamental truths of a mass text.’ Beethoven was struck by the music of the Gregorian Monks. His composition unconventionally uses the ancient Gregorian musical mode, called the Dorian mode. He creates a stark contrast, abruptly switching between the ancient Dorian mode—bringing us from the darkness of the past into the enlightenment—the modern D major scale.
His composition was so complex it was virtually impossible for scribes to copy and for choirs to sing. This was the first time that a symphony included voices. The piece pushes all of those involved in its performance to the absolute brink of human ability.
Beethoven was a recluse whose life was met with a series of unrequited loves and periods of emotional instability. He towed a blurred line between insanity and reality. His aim in composing “Ode to Joy,” was to ‘Rise above the sordidness of life’ and to create a symbol of faith in an all-inclusive world. Beethoven anticipated the piece’s unveiling to be, ‘the most glorious day of his life.’ Ironically, when the piece premiered, the only person excluded from this utopian moment was Beethoven himself. He never heard a single note of it, as his hearing was almost completely gone. Beethoven’s exclusion from being able to experience his greatest work stands as a metaphor for his entire existence and place in society.
An important section of Friedrich Schiller’s lyrics in “Ode to Joy,” translated into English, reads as follows:
Whoever has created An abiding friendship, Or has won A true and loving wife, All who can call at least one soul theirs, Join our song of praise; But those who cannot must creep tearfully Away from our circle.
I believe Schiller is intentionally referring to Beethoven here when he writes, ‘Join our song of praise; But those who cannot must creep tearfully Away from our circle.’ During the course of Beethoven’s life he had managed to isolate himself from anyone who had any connection to him. Beethoven intentionally excludes himself from this idealized all-inclusive humanity; perhaps as a sign of remorse, or perhaps he does not believe he deserves—or is even able to be part of it.
“Ode to Joy” has become a symbol of Ideology, as proven by its universal adaptability. Its message of a free humanity speaks to all ideologies. All ideologies offer some semblance of freedom, whether it is through a veil of democracy, state provided financial security or even through some institutional form of moral preservation. In reality these political Ideologies only offer a series of forces choices. If we do not comply our ‘freedom’ is revoked, thus is the paradox of freedom. The paradox of “Ode to Joy” is that it comes out of the point of view of an individual rather than that of a member of society. It is the voice of someone who stood alone, on the outskirts of the ideology of his time, or any for that matter.
Fiennes, S. (Director). (2012). The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology [Motion Picture].
Thomas, D. (Director). (2005). Ludwig van Beethoven BBC Documentary [Motion Picture].