Ode to Joy

Last night I sang in my third and final performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, along with the Santa Rosa Symphony. I have been wanting to sing this ever since I missed singing it with the San Francisco Symphony as a sophomore at Stanford. (I was in France at the time.) It was worth the 39 year wait. Part of the joy was sitting through the first three movements, right in the middle of the first three movements, on three consecutive nights, practically swallowed up by the horns and the timpani. (For the Ninth, singers don’t get any action until the fourth and last movement. But then they get a lot of action.)

Our director, Robert Worth, read a brief passage from a Slate.com essay by Jan Swafford that captures something of the glory:

Famously, the Ninth first emerges from a whispering mist to towering, fateful proclamations. The finale’s Joy theme is almost constructed before our ears, hummed through, then composed and recomposed and decomposed. The Ninth is music about music, about its own emerging, about its composer composing. And for what? “This kiss for all the world!” runs the telling line in the finale, in which Beethoven erected a movement of epic scope on a humble little tune that anybody can sing.

The Ninth, forming and dissolving before our ears in its beauty and terror and simplicity and complexity, ending with a cry of jubilation, is itself his kiss for all the world, from east to west, high to low, naive to sophisticated. When the bass speaks the first words in the finale, an invitation to sing for joy, the words come from Beethoven, not Schiller. It’s the composer talking to everybody, to history. That’s what’s so moving about those words. There Beethoven greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.

That says it pretty well, but what it says is that we don’t know what we are talking about. We only know that we are exhilarated and moved as we share Beethoven’s obsessive brilliance. “A kiss for all the world” doesn’t do much for me. It’s the music that enthralls.

How is this? How can sound waves communicate such emotion? For all that science has uncovered about the way our brains work, the power of music suggests that we have barely touched the tip of understanding.

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