An Ode to the Joy of Beethoven’s 9th

| January 7, 2012 | 0 Comments


by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA
Dr. Meymandi is in private practice as a psychiatrist and neurologist and serves as an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a noted physician, editor, and philanthropist who frequently speaks and writes on diverse topics that relate to his interests in medicine, the arts, religion, and philanthropy. He lives in Raleigh with his wife Emily.

Innov Clin Neurosci. 2012;9(1):42–43

This column is devoted to bridging the gap between basic sciences, medicine, the arts, and humanities.

The next time you go to Musee D’orsay in Paris—that magnificent museum the former Minister of Culture of France, the late Andres Malraux, transformed from an unpleasant piece of railroad station—go all the way down the hall to the last gallery on the left. There you will see, among several paintings, one that stands by the 18th century French painter, Josef Danhauser (the painting is pictured above). It depicts a Parisian salon in the 1830s and shows Franz Liszt at the piano, and at his knee with her face covered is Countess Marie D’agoult, a socially prominent Catholic lady who left her husband and children to be one of many Liszt’s mistresses—scandal galore. Next to Marie is Alexander Dumas, next Chopin and his inseparable girlfriend Aurore Dudevant (George Sand) smoking her fat cigar; next to her, the violinist magician contortionist Nicholas Paganini; next, Rossini, the bell canto opera composer (he composed Barber of Seville in 1816), and Victor Hugo. They are all gathered to hear Liszt play Beethoven, and way on top above everybody’s head is a bust of Beethoven in the background of clouds roiling into infinity. Yes, the painting shows Beethoven high above with the gods…This is how Beethoven was worshipped after his death.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born December 16, 1770, 14 years younger than Mozart. His childhood was dreadful. Almost every night, he and his brothers, Kasper (Karl) and Nickkolaus, had to go into the streets of Bonn, Germany, and cajole their drunken father to come home. The father was a severe alcoholic and on a church pension. The family was one step ahead of welfare.

Beethoven fought suicidality most of his life, and at one point after becoming deaf he actually planned suicide. He wrote a long letter, now known as the Heiligenstadt Testment, complaining bitterly about his miserable life and giving his reasons for ending it. But thankfully, he did not go through with his plans. It was after 1799 that Beethoven began composing his famous symphonies, which culminated into the final and incomparable Ninth.

Almost anywhere in the world, reference to “the 9th” is without doubt or question Beethoven’s 9th—not Schubert’s, not Bruckner’s, not Mahler’s; always it is Beethoven’s. No matter where on earth—from Ethiopia to sub-Saharan Africa to countries of Eastern and Western Europe to the countries of South America and down under in Australia—in the circles where there is the slightest familiarity with classical music, the listeners always know Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. They might not know his full name or even how to spell it, they might not know anything about his birth date, his birth place, or the miserable childhood he had with a drunken father, a long suffering, violated, and abused mother, and several younger brothers, but they know it is Beethoven!

Beethoven’s nine symphonies are eponymous with might, excellence, and inimitability of Beethoven style. Even the dean of music critics, Joseph T. Kerman—ordinarily parsimonious in praise and use of adjectives—refers to Beethoven “as belonging to the same salon with gods, and merging with gods.”

In the annals of human history, the power of Beethoven’s music, especially his symphonies, most of them curiously composed in minor key, is unparalleled. Beethoven’s 9th is indeed the apotheosis of vigor, vitality, hope, redemption, and possibility, yet it is imbued in sublimity, transcendence, and beauty. Reviewing other notables’ remarks about Beethoven’s 9th is equally interesting. Hector Berlioz, a failed medical student, yet brilliant composer and writer, admitted that in some ways the 9th “remained unfathomable to me…In composing the 9th, Beethoven broke some musical laws, and frankly it is so much worse for the law!” Stuart Isocoff, a contemporary New York music critic suggests that “Beethoven’s new forms, new visions, explored new ways in what music could do and what music could say. Beethoven had begun early in his career to construct his compositions out of small cells, which are organically, as if governed by a kind of musical DNA, matured. The 9th unfolds a psychological drama in which themes are declared only to become subsumed in the flame of heavenly bliss.”

The North Carolina Symphony recently performed the 9th under the baton of its talented and energetic music director, Maestro Grant Llewellyn. With the 9th final movement for chorus, four vocal soloists and orchestra were set to Fredrick’s Shiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which left the audience ecstatic with extended spontaneous ovations. The Research Triangle Park audience was blessed by hundreds of voices of the North Carolina Master Chorale, directed by Dr. Alfred Sturgis, and the Choral Society of Durham Chamber Choir, directed by Rodney Wynkoop, as well as four soloists—soprano Jane Jennings, mezzo-soprano Stacey Rishoi, tenor Richard Clement, and bass Raymond Aceto. When the celestial voices of the Chorales were singing “Freude, Tochter of Elyzium, deine Zauber binden weider was die Mode stren geteilt; alle mencchen werden Bruder who dein sanfter weilt.” “Joy, daughter of Elysium, your magic again units all that custom harshly torn apart, all men become brothers beneath your gentle hovering wing.” I felt like I was floating among myriads of angels of hope, comfort, promise and beauty. The magic of the 9th approaches Biblical mystery of how miracles occur.

The extensive literature compiled by theologians of repute, among them Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the German theologian imprisoned and executed by Hitler in Flessenburg Concentration Camp at age 39) and the late Paul Tillich of Harvard University, refer to Beethoven’s music as an essential intellectual tool to understand how “magic” turns into “miracle.” In 1824 at age 53, Beethoven, cantankerous, increasingly world weary, and clinically depressed, who in spite of his deafness and living in an apartment with leaky roof and minimal toilet facilities, “… bared his soul in a work so stunning in originality, scale, and emotional power that virtually every great composer who followed has lived under its shadow.” And in my view, the miracle continues because the shadow cast by the 9th is protective and not destructive; it is nurturing and not condescending; it is life giving and not burdensome. That is the miracle of Beethoven’s music.

Beethoven’s immortal 9th Symphony is a summation of his life, a summation of all he had learned and for what he had lived. Beethoven’s music is not classic, nor is it romantic; it is just Beethoven: expressive, full of power, full of life, and full of promise and possibilities, something like the writings of Paul and Pauline theology. In fact, some theologians compare Beethoven’s personal life to the life of Job, the violated, abused, and tortured soul in the old Testament. Yes, Beethoven’s music, especially his 9th, is a miracle.

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Category: Meymandi at Large, Past Articles, Psychiatry, Suicidality

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