The great musical genius, Ludwig van Beethoven, was born 250 years ago this month.
Beethoven’s compositions consist of 722 works written over 45 years, from his earliest work in 1782, when he was only 12 years old, until his last work just before his death in Vienna in 1827.
Beginning with Symphony No. 1, which was first performed in 1800, Beethoven composed nine symphonies. He composed No. 9, also called the “Choral” Symphony, between 1822 and 1824.
Many critics and musicologists regard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as his greatest work and one of the supreme achievements in the history of music.
One amazing aspect of Beethoven’s composing the Ninth Symphony is that he was completely deaf during that time. He began to lose his hearing when he was still in his early 30s, and by 1815, he was totally deaf.
How one of the world’s greatest composers could write his greatest work, a complete four-part symphony, while being totally deaf is almost beyond comprehension.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was first performed in Vienna in 1824, and since then it has been one of the most performed symphonies in the world.
At that initial performance, it seems that Beethoven was not the main conductor, but he was on the stage facing the orchestra. When the performance concluded, the contralto went over to Beethoven and turned him toward the loudly cheering audience whom he could not hear.
The Ninth is still being performed by premier orchestras around the world – and a number of those performances are, happily, available on YouTube.
In preparation for writing this article, I listened to the performances of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), available here, which has been viewed over 25.6 million times since 2015, and the (audio only) London Symphony Orchestra (here), accessed an inexplicable 106 million times since 2010.
There is a long tradition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony being performed in Japan since it was first introduced there by German prisoners during World War I. The CSO’s website reports that in 2016 the Ninth was performed 175 times in Japan.
In Osaka, there is now a 20-year-old tradition of performing Beethoven’s Ninth with 10,000 musicians! (Here is the link to the fourth movement of their 2012 performance.)
It is the fourth movement of Symphony No. 9 that makes it so enjoyable to so many people. In that movement, Beethoven used Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem “Ode to Joy,” in which he enthusiastically celebrated the kinship and unity of all humankind.
That fourth movement later morphed into one of my very favorite hymns, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” the hymn text written by Henry van Dyke in 1907.
A year ago, there were plans for many performances of the Ninth in this 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, including a performance of “All Together: A Global Ode to Joy” in Carnegie Hall this month. But, alas, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused cancellations of most performances.
Nevertheless, thanks to the internet, we can enjoy the Ninth in the comfort (and safety) of our own homes this month – and there are lessons we can learn from Beethoven along with enjoying his exquisite music.
A year ago, before the beginning of the pandemic, Arthur C. Brooks wrote about a lesson we can all learn from Beethoven: “Deafness freed Beethoven as a composer because he no longer had society’s soundtrack in his ears. Perhaps therein lies a lesson for each of us.”
Further, an article in the Nov. 21 issue of The Economist points out that like the pandemic-hit celebrations of his 250th birthday this year, Beethoven’s career was a struggle against adversity. Yet, “Fate has amplified Beethoven’s voice not as a struggler, but as a healer.”
So, this month (and later), let’s listen expectantly (and repeatedly) to Beethoven’s stirring Ninth Symphony and enjoy deeply the encouragement found there, finding joy and hope in spite of the solemn times in which we now live.
A missionary to Japan from 1966-2004, he is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church.