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Beethoven and the Cure of Souls

From joy to agony, Beethoven's music encapsulates the gamut of the human experience.
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December, in the Western World, is the season of Advent. It is also the month when Ludwig van Beethoven was born. No one but God knows when, but December 17 is often shortlisted because of the record of his baptism. In a time of transcendental considerations, when Love itself came into the world, listening to Beethoven may well help cure our souls of the muddying sickness that burdens the highest aspirations of the soul.

Joy. Agony. Dignity. Hope. These are just a few of the realities that Beethoven’s music touch upon. There are many more, but I wish to address these relevant realities in the month of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. 

If you’re like me, growing up on old Turner Classic war films, then one of your first experiences of Beethoven was probably the first four bars of the “Fifth Symphony” which served as the leitmotif of the Allies in The Longest Day. How deliciously appropriate and ironic, that the thundering bars of the “Fifth” correspond with the coming of the Allies for the liberation of Western Europe with the beating thunder of an ostentatiously German composer inspiring them to fight the German occupiers of Europe with their own thunderous bombardment. While the first movement of the “Fifth” is undoubtedly a familiar tune to most people, the most famous of Beethoven’s pieces is “Ode to Joy” in the “Ninth Symphony.” 

“Ode to Joy,” as we know, was originally a poem written by Friedrich Schiller. Schiller likely sought to compose the poem as a paean to liberty but changed it last minute. Beethoven, while drawing extensively from Schiller’s philhellenic exhortation, also scribbled revisions which underscored the emphasis on joy. O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen, und freudenvollere. Freude! Freude!

Advent, of course, is the time of joy. It is the occasion of our joyous and joyful celebration of being freed from sin, from the wages of death, and entry into the true brotherhood of humanity—which “Ode to Joy” sings so rapturously about. Dour pessimism, something that has become so widespread of late, is countered by the heavenly melody and rapture of the fourth movement of the “Ninth Symphony.” Anyone listening to “Ode to Joy” cannot help but be joyful.

But Beethoven’s imaginative construction of bringing Schiller’s poem to life moves beyond mere Epicurean pleasure. Joy, as any classicist knows, was alien to the world of the Hellenes. Indeed, joy is a distinctly theological consideration inherited from Christianity. 

Joy is a stumbling block to the Hellenes. Pleasure abounds in Greek philosophy. But joy, joy is that strange idea from an obscure Palestinian religion. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” more than Schiller’s empty words, brings to life the radiance of the soul singing in joyful worship. For that is what “Ode to Joy” most intimately signifies: joyful worship. We are worshipping creatures meant for joy and not pessimism. Pessimism is the ailment of the soul, but joy liberates the soul to its highest reality of flourishing. No one likes a dour pessimist anyway. Joy is the antidote to the dourness of pessimism and, also, the decadence of mere pleasure.

Joy, however, doesn’t gloss over the agonies and sufferings of this world and this life. Agony is very much part of the human life. Robert Browning Hamilton penned one of my favorite poems which captures the profundity of the human life:

I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.

Like all great artists, Beethoven is not without his heart wrenching and transcendental manifestation of human agony and suffering. “Christ on the Mount of Olives” is one of the composer’s ostentatiously religious compositions. In it, Beethoven concentrates on the turbulent agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of His crucifixion. Bach may have composed the most stirring epic of Christ’s Passion, but Beethoven brings to life that most ancient theological orthodoxy: Christ’s Coming includes His suffering in human form, emotions and all, whereby He shares in the agonies, pains, and sufferings of the human condition.

Solidarity in suffering was Christ’s Mission. And finding solidarity in suffering was the order of the day in the early nineteenth century when Beethoven composed his oratio. It is, in fact, a hopeful manifestation of divine love and mercy: that God Himself came in the form of slave to suffer with us and die a humiliating death as St. Paul said. Agony, pain, and sorrow is part of the human condition and experience. It is not to be glossed over. But in agony, pain, and sorrow we find something deeply profound and, perhaps, earth shattering and soul saving. We are not alone in our agony, pain, and sorrow. In fact, agony may very well be the clarion call to solidarity and compassion in a world torn apart and enslaved by the libido dominandi as agony allows for the emergence of empathy.

Dignity seems to be a virtue signaling word nowadays. Everyone wants to talk about dignity. Yet few people seem to understand dignity doesn’t amount to throwing tax dollars at people or pontificating that the market and job opportunities will lift up the human person into a newfound dignity otherwise suppressed by constraints. No. dignity is intimately tied to the solidarity expressed in love which brings ruptured souls together as one.

“Fidelio” is Beethoven’s only proper opera. And in “Fidelio” Beethoven includes his tearful yet beautiful “Prisoners’ Chorus.” The “Prisoners’ Chorus” brings us face to face with the “least of these.” The prisoners exclaim, “Oh what joy, in the open air…We shall with all our faith. Trust in the help of God! Hope whispers softly in my ears!”

The chorus is insightful for several reasons. First, the very movement of the piece brings us into contact with the lowest members of society, those who have been deemed discardable and forgettable. But Beethoven doesn’t want us to fall into the same dark mindset of forgetting about our fellow brothers and sisters we scoff at and celebrate in being locked up.

Second, in bringing us face to face with the prisoners we also share in their aspirations. We share the same aspiration of the soul, the same sentiments that cause the soul to pick itself up and seek rise to the stars and sun above. We root for the least of these to gain their freedom and experience the dignity the soul thirstily craves. We have become one with the prisoners! Talk about music consummating the spirit of solidarity.

Lastly, the prisoners do not allow themselves to be crushed. No, they find joy and hope—“joy, in the open air”—in God who “whispers softly in [their] ears!” Even the lowest in society, at the soul’s lowest point, still find that joy and hope that lifts us to the good things the heavens hold. More importantly, Beethoven’s words show us where real hope is found—not the empty promises of politics but in God alone. The surrounding image of desolation and lowliness is offset by the transcendent exclamations of the soul: “We shall be free, we shall find peace. Oh Heaven! Salvation! Happiness! Oh Freedom! Will you be given us?”

Dignity is found in the prisoners not merely because we come to empathize with them but because we see in them the same soul, the same face, the same aspiration that we have made possible only through God. In that solidarity of hope we also realize the great virtue of hope that moves us to new heights and allows us to weather the maelstrom of degradation that would otherwise obliterate us. Without hope we cannot be set free and without empathy we cannot love.

Beethoven, miraculously, ties the great virtue of hope with the lowest point the soul can find itself ensnared in. In agony we can still find dignity and hope. Let us lift a toast to Beethoven, composer of joy, agony, dignity, and hope—physician of the soul.

Paul Krause is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. He is a humanities teacher, classicist, and literary essayist. He contributed to the book The College Lecture Today, is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView, and is the host of the podcast Literary Tales.

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