From Ode to Hymn from Schiller to Beethoven
From Ode to Hymn
From Schiller to Beethoven
Schiller and Beethoven are kindred souls and spirits. They live in the same world, and converse across time as equals. Schiller wrote the Ode to Joy at 26, in 1785. It is most likely that Beethoven first came across it at 22, in 1792. At that time, the city of Bonn, where the composer was born, was one of the epicentres of the Enlightenment movement. Many books, which elsewhere were deemed “dangerous” by obscurantist regimes, were circulating around freely. In such a cultural environment, Beethoven had had the opportunity to read Voltaire and Rousseau, as well as Goethe, Schiller, Kant and the Greek philosophers.
Another significant fact is that the symbiotic convergence of symbols and allegories of the Age of Enlightenment at that time - the waning 18th century - is rooted in the Masonic movement. The lodges which had been in turmoil after the 1789 French Revolution were now simmering with excitement at the dawn of the new century.
In this particular context, the pronounced use of masonic elements in the Ode comes as no surprise. It is also probably a result of Schiller’s visits to Dresden or Loschwitz, where he moved in a circle of friends who belonged to the local lodges. Quite naturally, the Ode would then have been worked on and sung at masonic meetings. But even out of this specific context, we must bear in mind that the message conveyed by the Ode echoed and reflected its whole historical environment. Around 1810, in the streets of Bonn, vitalized by revolutionary echoes from across the Rhine, students sang the Ode to the music of the Marseillaise.
Let us emphasize in passing that in spite of their obvious connivance with the founding principles of freemasonry, neither Schiller nor Beethoven ever were Freemasons themselves. This was confirmed by one of the leading authorities on the subject, our late friend Philippe A. Autexier, shortly before his demise. The very principles of freemasonry are undoubtedly at the roots of several works of both artists, but even if they gave masonic theories their support, they never joined the movement.
At the outset, Schiller’s poem was conceived as an Ode to Freedom. The switch from freedom to joy must be understood as widening the scope of the Ode. Freedom may represent the basic foundations of our human condition, but Joy is the very blooming of this condition. Schiller revised the Ode around 1803. It is this revised version which Beethoven used to erect the impressive musical-textual monument of the fourth movement of his last symphony. He also modified Schiller’s text quite drastically in places, adding, by way of an introduction, a whole strophe of his own.
The coherence and ingenuity underlying Beethoven’s work on Schiller’s text are impressive. Deleting whole passages, changing the order of the strophes and selecting what was to be repeated, he never lost the clear objective he had in mind : to concentrate on essentials and develop this “working drawing” as an element of the formal structure of his score.
Thus Beethoven does away with the heavy epic allegory dearly loved by the freemasons of the time, and uses timeless universal symbols instead. Of the very few allegories he kept in their pristine sense, one : the “Daughter of Elysium” must be singled out. In Schiller’s text, it is the poet’s explicit affirmation of his belief in the human aspiration to fraternity which will lead political states to merge into a world of Harmony and Reason. The composer used the three following phrases for prosodic purposes :
“Joy, beautiful spark of the gods, Daughter of Elysium” - („Freude, schoner Gotterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium“)
Beethoven’s mastery should be no surprise : after all, he carried Schiller’s text with him for 29 or 30 years. From a strictly textual point of view, it is clear that the composer followed the principle of binary couplets in his adaptation, but did not take the choir’s answers into account. This drastic formal change is the result of a deliberate choice : the fourth movement will by no means follow a dialogue structure between choir and vocal soloists. The progression choir/soloists builds a non-stop line of song, both groups blending without ever falling into bipartite dialogue.
Beethoven’s oratory skills were too great for him to be satisfied with using Schiller’s text without taking preparatory steps. While working on the vocal-instrumental variations of the fourth movement, he felt it necessary to write an introduction to Schiller’s poem himself, something that would usher in word and song. After jotting down a few ideas in his sketchbooks, he finally wrote a text that fitted in with his selected extracts from the Ode. Its easy, natural tone adds even more feeling and sincerity to the content of both introduction and following text.
In Beethoven’s eyes, adding a few lines of his own did not mean interfering with the text but establishing a transition between worldly desire - leading to chaos, as expressed in the introductory bars of the fourth movement - and the will of Man to free himself, as evoked by the poet.
Yet even today, surprisingly enough, the fourth movement is still regarded as a separate entity, and the introduction of the voice in purely instrumental music still arouses much controversy. Upon closer examination, it is obvious that the last movement of the Ninth Symphony is the result of the previous three, as far as form and sound are concerned. Moreover, the very evolution of music bears testimony that this symphony broke fresh musical ground into the 19th century.
For a better understanding of Beethoven’s attitude towards Schiller’s poem and of the prosodic requirements he had to meet, both Schiller’s unabridged text and Beethoven’s revised version are provided hereafter.
Appendix: Ode analysis [ Link ]