It’s one of THOSE topics. One of those things that literally anyone will talk about whenever you mention you’ve got an affinity for classical. “Oh, I love Beethoven!” Well, yeah. We all do. We all also love breathing. There’s a Peanuts strip about this (though I think there’s a Peanuts strip about everything), where Lucy asks Schroeder what the meaning of life is. He screams “BEETHOVEN” and then launches into a piano piece.
It’s funny, because it’s such a simple answer. Normally, the answer to that question is extremely convoluted. You hear things like “Helping others – but not to the point where you hurt yourself – unless—” or “making your own corner of the world a little better,” or “do no harm.” But those are usually given with lengthy, almost religious sermons about exactly what that means. Can the answer be as simple as “BEETHOVEN?” I think so. I also think the answer is simple because there is no “answer,” as we usually think about it. But that doesn’t really work, because there has to be a lengthy, weird discussion about just what I mean by that.
Back to Beethoven.
There’s a bit in The Salmon of Doubt where Douglas Adams introduces a recording of Bach’s “Brandenberg Concertos.” Among other things, he takes a minor swipe at Beethoven – and this is about the only thing I can ever say negative about Adams. He says that Beethoven shows us what it means to be Beethoven, but Bach shows us what it means to be human. I’m not so sure about that. Bach shows us what it means to be struggling with creativity, when you’re so confined by your circumstances that you have to work in a certain way for fear of some pretty severe repercussions. And yeah, that’s human. Who hasn’t felt that way? But that’s pretty solidly experiential human. That’s just what we see in our day-to-day lives. Is there anything deeper? Can someone like me, someone who’s pretty solidly materialistic, dare to say that?
Yep. Yep I can.
There lives in each of us a thread of commonality with each other and everything around us. It’s the universe, and not in the New Age way – not in the Neil DeGrasse Tyson, we’re-all-stardust way. We are the universe, and the universe loves to be us. Everything we experience is tied into the universe and, with each passing moment, the universe grows in a way that was impossible before. And that takes into account the good and the bad. Every moment of anxiety you have, every time I think about what it is I’m going to do in the future, that is just as important, just as significant, as the best of times – say, when you’re in the living room of your house puttin’ the moves on a lady. That is just as important, just as necessary, just as bloody vital as anything else in your life, or anything else that’s happening at that time. And I’m not sure Bach gets there.
I’m not saying Beethoven gets there all the time. The man’s work was extensive and staggering in breadth and subject matter, and everyone knows Beethoven, even if they don’t know they do. In that regard, he’s like Shakespeare, who’s just as relevant to being human – living in the universe – as Beethoven was. (And continues to be.) But what I am saying is that the Ninth symphony – the magnificent piece of work that looks out through the ages and, almost scoffing, says, “Go ahead. Try and dethrone me.” – gets there. In this piece, Beethoven gets it. He not only gets it, but he wants to make us get it. In the Ninth, Beethoven is a bodhisattva.
From the opening bars, those airy notes that tell you something is coming, something very strong and powerful, and you’d better be ready for it, the symphony knows exactly what it’s doing. Bach and Mozart revel in their intellectuality – and they should. Watch Bernstein talking about Mozart’s 40th and try to not be impressed. But the intellect is only part of the experience of life – it’s a fraction. The emotionality of life makes up a huge swath that a lot of people – myself included – are fairly reticent to talk about. Beethoven, in the Ninth, explores it. He expresses it through a form of communication I cannot fathom using. Putting the depth of this stuff into notes – translating it from one dude’s mind to making sure that everyone in the orchestra can express it, that’s something. And it’s all there, the warning of the first movement. The airyness gives way to mass. You start to feel the thrill of the piece, the joy of creation as expressed by a human being who has been there, done that, returned to tell the tale, and, though he can’t hear what you’re going to say to him, knows exactly what’s going to be said.
And then the second act. Gone is the airiness. The spiritual is put to the side, and we explore the material. Here, Beethoven understands the importance of the flesh and blood, and tells you that. He says, “Don’t be concerned about the spiritual for now. Let the percussion fill the fibers of your muscles. The counterpoints, the peaks and valleys, this is all something you know, isn’t it?” You’re taken on the waves of the experience of the universe, and, though if you’re just reading this, you might think I’m very, very high right now – I’m not. Sit in a room. A quiet room, one with minimal lighting and very high quality speakers. Put this on. Pay attention to the first movement, then think – think – about what the second movement is adding to it. For the spiritual is incomprehensible to the mind, but the material is right there in front of you if you pay attention to it.
And then the sudden shift to the third movement. What can we get from this? What the hell is going on here? Just as we’re riding the high of the material, we go back to this? This is like a slow version of the first movement! In fact, isn’t that what Alex called it in A Clockwork Orange? The slow bit from Ludwig Van? Well, it is. But it’s also something more than that. It’s what happens when you start fusing the spiritual and the material. It’s a prelude. It’s that plateau right before nirvana, where you look out at where you’ve come from – the valley below – and you think, “So it’s come to this.” It’s serene in its own rite, but it’s also a bit unnerving. The suddenness is something like when you first hit the Rockies after driving through Kansas. You want to shout out in glee, but you can’t, because you know that doing so would ruin the pristine view. (Well, moreso than it’s been ruined by that guy from Wisconsin doing 30 in a 55.) So you may be thinking this is when Beethoven wanted his listeners to chill out – maybe take a nap. You’re wrong. It’s vital. It’s just as vital as experiencing your anxiety and your fears.
Then, as the third movement winds down with an even – somehow – more low-key section, it begins to pick up. The combination of material and spiritual is complete. The sun has risen over the Rockies and – silly you – you were totally, utterly wrong in thinking that you’ve seen the best of what there is to see.
The entire orchestra picks it up. We hear the percussion rumbling as if a heavy thunder on the Plains, the strings providing the sonic pillow and comfort, the brass providing the rain. The airs of the first movement return – there’s yet more to come. You’re not ready for it – you’re never ready for something like this – but, by God, they’re on their way. The orchestra takes on a more playful note. Threads from previous movements reappear. You start to recognize certain things, and something’s nagging you. Something’s biting at the back of your head and, like forgotten song lyrics, you can’t quite put your finger on what it is.
And then – voila! – hallelujah! – the famous refrain. That bit that everyone and their mother knows. Yes. It’s that bit from Die Hard. It’s that thing that makes this symphony so popular: The start of the choral section. It is triumphant. It transcends mere humanity, and it shows us exactly what we can be, if only we would dare to be it.
This, by the way, is the part that was based on what I’ve heard is a fairly mediocre poem celebrating the ideals of the Enlightenment. You probably know that term because it was driven through your head in AP European History. It’s that period of intellectual growth that brought us, in many ways, to where we are today. It was, in many ways, a second Renaissance – though while the first one recaptured some of the glory of the Roman Empire, this second one made it new. It made it fresh. On the threshold of the Napoleonic Wars, after the ideals of the French Revolution soured, and way before the dark, demonic clouds of the World Wars gave birth to a breed of cynicism that looked down upon early cynics as being too cheerful, we had idealism. That philosophy that, yeah, we can know everything. We can do everything. We can unite everyone by raising them up. You know what else? We can make everything knowable to everyone, and we’re gonna put it all in dictionaries and encyclopedias. And it’s gonna be the best thing ever.
It is that idea, that premise, that is the common ground of the Ode to Joy. “All men become brothers” is a phrase in it. Yeah, it’s dated. It sounds something like what a hippie would say. But, you listen to the chorus, and, if you’re not thinking about Die Hard, then you get it. You understand that it is a possibility. You, by listening to this symphony, by letting it into your soul and into your mind, have become not just a passive listener, but a participant.
When I saw this performed in Nashville, there was a woman in front of me who looked at her husband – and I figured this out – about three times a minute. Once every twenty seconds, on average. The frequency increased during the chorus, and especially the finale, when everything coalesces into a glorious, sublime noise unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. It doesn’t matter if you can’t speak a word of German. Beethoven does the work for you. He puts everything in the music, forces the talented vocalist to do the work so that you may have even an inkling of what he’s talking about.
This isn’t a piece for the harpsichord, to be performed in a small setting and enjoyed with a fine wine. This is something that you should take with you every day of your life, every moment of your life. You are alive, and, whether you attribute that to religion or a series of stuff, that is pretty damned amazing. And Beethoven gets that. He wants you to understand it. In his scowling, bodhisattva regard, he looks out from history and says, “Even when I’m deaf, I hear these notes. I hear these notes because I look out in front of me, at the world, and I consider what has led me to this moment, and I am stricken with wonderment at it all. Aren’t you?”
As Germany unified, there was a special performance in Berlin. Bernstein conducted it. For this one time, the words of the chorus were rewritten to be “freedom” instead of “joy.” “Freiheit” instead of “freude.” It was an immediate way to put salve on a wound that was over thirty years old, and it would take many, many years – and some would say that it’s still in the process – before that wound was fully healed. But, while I wasn’t there, I’d imagine that, for the 17 minutes that this portion of the symphony was being performed and broadcasted, there was some sense that everything was going to be all right. That a wrong was going to be righted.
There’s a story about a Zen priest. This priest lived near a village, and people knew him. He begged, and he did his Zen thing. One day, a boy who lived on a farm near the village was given a horse for his birthday. The villagers all said how great this was, but the priest said, “We’ll see.” The next year, the boy fell from the horse and broke his leg so badly that it never healed. The villagers all said how awful this was, but the priest said “We’ll see.” When the boy was older, and the precinct’s men were being recruited for war, the boy was exempt because of his bad leg. Everyone said how great this was, but the priest said, “We’ll see.”
The priest understood the universe, you see. He knew that good, bad, they’re all the same. They are the universe, and to separate them is to try and do something pretty silly. Beethoven, though I don’t think he ever sat zazen, understood this as well. The joy – the chorus, the marriage of Enlightenment to music – that comes after the fusion of spiritual and musical ends. After that’s complete, then we get to experience what it all means.
That is what the Ninth means. And that is what Schroeder meant when he shouted “BEETHOVEN.”
My suggested recording: The super long, sublimely-paced, Gunter Wand arrangement. Trust me.