Although there may be other contenders—for the classical music tune that the most school children are familiar with even though they don’t know where it comes from—I am guessing that the “Ode to Joy” melody would win such a contest. It is the central theme around which everything else revolves in the fourth and final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Its simplicity—it moves up and down by scale degrees, making it easy to sing and easy to remember—has endeared it to many millions of music lovers, both serious and casual, for nearly two hundred years.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the prospect of writing anything about the Ninth Symphony. It is one of those cases where the more you know about it and the more you know about Beethoven, the less competent you feel in taking on the subject matter—there is just so much there. Beethoven finished composing the symphony in 1824, just three years—as it turned out—before he died, at the age of 57. It is such a towering masterpiece that its mere existence has intimidated all composers ever since.

I have always liked a good analogy. So–if one were to make an analogy, Beethoven’s Ninth would be the planet Jupiter. The works by the next two great symphonists (chronologically) after him—Brahms and Mahler—would be Saturn and Uranus. Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Schumann would be Neptune-sized; Dvorak and Sibelius Earth-sized; Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff Venus-sized; everyone else, Mercury. Or put another way, if it were a tree, Beethoven’s Ninth would be a giant redwood, and all the rest would be your regular forest pines and neighborhood oak trees. You get the idea. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was of such scope, and such depth—Beethoven’s compositional output, period, was of such breadth—that everyone coming after him did whatever they could to avoid the inevitable comparison.

Brahms postponed and postponed his own first symphony for fear of it being compared with Beethoven’s last symphony. Mahler, the great Austrian composer whose life overlapped the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—had deep and unshakable superstitions regarding the composition of his own ninth symphony which were related to his feelings about Beethoven’s Ninth. Upon finishing his Eighth Symphony—the Symphony of a Thousand (because of the large number of performers required for it)—he absolutely felt he would die at the conclusion of his next symphony—number 9. He felt that no self-respecting composer should attempt that magical number, it belonged to Beethoven. To do so would be, he felt, sacrilege, and would surely bring bad luck—it would bring death. He actually disguised his ninth symphony by naming it Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Having felt he had thus cheated death, he went about composing his great own great ninth symphony. Halfway through the composition of #10, however, he did indeed die.

All of this is just to point out the stature of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and to give an idea of the esteem it was held in by composers who had to follow in his footsteps.

The symphony is written in four movements, and requires about 75 minutes to perform. With the composition of his Third Symphony, which requires about 50 minutes, Beethoven had already broken the bonds of symphonic length and form. In the Ninth, he adds a chorus to the final movement, the first major composer to do so in a symphony, thus creating what was, in its time, the longest symphony ever written.

I cannot recall the first time I heard the “Ode to Joy” melody—it probably appeared in one of my earliest piano books when I was seven years old. It is a melody that I could hear forever and not tire of. I first heard the melody in its appropriate context—as part of a symphonic recording—in the Toscanini/NBC Symphony Beethoven set while I was in high school. Like all of my Toscanini LP’s, I played it until it was unplayable.

Here, I’d just like to cover some salient points about the Ode to Joy movement.

• At the time of the Ninth Symphony’s premiere performance, Beethoven had not appeared in public—because of his hearing situation—for twelve years. As with all of his major works, the premiere took place in Vienna. But Beethoven had to be persuaded to allow the premiere to occur there. By this time—the 1820’s—quite a bit of the music heard, in this most musical of all cities, was Italian—Rossini operas, in particular. Beethoven had preferred, and planned on, the work being premiered in Berlin to an audience that he felt would have a deeper understanding of Schiller’s text. In the end, he was petitioned—by popular acclaim of the notables of the city as well as the general populace—to go ahead with the premiere in Vienna, and that is what occurred.

• The premiere at the Theater am Kärntnertor involved the largest number of performers ever assembled for a symphonic performance. I think it is important to imagine this first performance: Michael Umlauf, the Theater director, knew how disastrous it would be for the deaf Beethoven to attempt to conduct at all—which is what both he and the public wanted—let alone such a colossal work. So, a kind of dual-conducting arrangement was fashioned in which the orchestra was advised (by Umlauf) to ignore Beethoven’s conducting and follow Louis Duport—the actual conductor of the Philharmonic—with Duport occupying the conductor’s podium and Beethoven standing in front of it. Beethoven, of course, was hearing his composition in his mind, and would set the tempos before each movement by beating a silent measure for the players and singers to see.

But, he could not help himself from becoming physically involved in the performance. A description has come down to us: “Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.”

It was widely reported—enough times and from enough sources to appear credible—that, since he could not hear, Beethoven continued to conduct after the final notes were played. At that point, one of the female vocal soloists turned him around to acknowledge a staggering ovation from a packed house. The audience did not hold their applause to the symphony’s conclusion, though. They were stunned by every part of the symphony, and acknowledged Beethoven with standing ovations after every movement.

• Beethoven had hand-picked the four vocal soloists. It is interesting that the two female singers were very young women—ages 18 and 20—who would have only been known to Beethoven by the operatic reputations, not from his hearing them first-hand—Henriette Sontag and Caroline Unger.

• You may know the words to the melody as being “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” These English words were added to the melody in 1907 by an American, Henry van Dyke. This is the version found in countless hymnals around the English-speaking world.

• There have been far too many performances of the Ninth Symphony to celebrate this event or that circumstance to list here. Perhaps one performance in our recent collective memory is that of Leonard Bernstein conducting a multi-national orchestra, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

• One interesting music trivia fact is that the length of compact discs—CD’s—was originally formulated to be 74 minutes long based on the length of time it takes to perform the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. The recording engineers at Philips and Sony felt that if a single CD could contain the Beethoven Ninth Symphony, that would suit everyone in the listening world. As a guide, they utilized the legendary 1951 recording of the Ninth by Wilhelm Furtwangler, which takes 74 minutes.


• The Ode to Joy poem was written by the poet Friedrich Schiller in 1785. Beethoven added some of his own text additions to the poem. Clearly, to the deaf, lonely, and big-hearted Beethoven, the words of this poem, which would form the nucleus of the final movement of his final symphony, were important. The poem is addresses the unity of all mankind:

O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.

Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
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.
All creatures drink of joy
At natures breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory!
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.

• A formal analysis of the fourth movement has proven to be a subject of disagreement among music theorists and writers—and probably not of extreme interest to readers of these posts. I just want to give my own quick synopsis of the “Ode” movement as a possible listening aid.

0:00 setting the groundwork, reworking ideas from previous movements
3:16 first appearance of the Ode to Joy theme, low strings, unison melody only
4:00 first decorations of the OTJ theme, strings and bassoon
4:45 string orchestra – extremely lovely interweaving around the OTJ theme
5:26 full orchestra OTJ
7:55 melody sung by bass OTJ melody
8:40 soloists sing OTJ melody in ensemble, joined in by chorus
10:24 Turkish March – a different key, a laid-back version of the OTJ theme started by winds, then joined by tenor
12:00 orchestral fantasy involving music from previous movements
13:49 wonderful full chorus/orchestra treatment of OTJ
14:40 slower-paced choral/orchestra re-treatment of theme from first movement

From 19:00 to the end – Beethoven throws everything into the soup, snippets of the Ode to Joy theme continually interspersed in what can only be described as controlled frenzy.

Such brief remarks as these do not do justice to this remarkable movement, let alone the entire symphony. If you already know the Ode To Joy melody, this performance by the Vienna Philharmonic—some 187 years after they premiered it—should be a treat. If by chance you’re hearing it for the first time, it may be a revelation.