Ludwig van Beethoven – Symphony No. 9 “Ode to Joy” (1824)
Audio of first movement: Here
The rise of nation states following the fall of holy roman rule led to immense monarchies. While abiding by separate cultural or geographic roots, these kingdoms still maintained massive power over their subjects. Centralized power had only trickled down to a handful or large nations from one empire. Primed with the momentum of a successful reformation and the rise of reason via the enlightenment, the notion that citizens could rule themselves was a popular one. The divide between the commoners and the aristocracy was sharp and some of the most outspoken critics were artists. The music of the classical era became increasing popular within the middle class. This was due in part to the actual physical needs of larger works requiring larger orchestras. The symphony had been born and had outgrown the palace chamber. With these larger productions came the need for greater patronage. The public concert was the answer and now a middle class as well as aristocrats could enjoy music by great composers of the time.
While it may be that popular themes beget public performances, it is also true that composers weren’t simply playing to their audience to pay the bills. Beethoven was one of the great composers of the era and sympathetic to the revolutionary movements spawning across Europe. He was born with middle class roots as both his father and grandfather were musicians. The French Revolution (1789-99) was also happening in the prime of Beethoven’s touring career. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony exemplifies a tie to the middle class in two significant ways. The first speaks to the growing physical size of the orchestra. The final movement of the ninth includes a choral part which was very new to the symphony form. This chorus, in addition to the large number of instruments, was likely bigger in magnitude than even previous orchestras. Only a public space could house such a performance. The second is the actual words contained in the chorus. Beethoven takes his choral inspiration from the poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller, an icon of revolutionary Europe. This poem was heavily censored as it was essentially a declaration of independence piece which translates as happiness rather than joy and taken from the notion of “Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Beethoven’s’ inspired words such as “All men become brothers” and “A friend proven in death” become a signal not only of equality but of revolutionary struggle. This sentiment was close to the hearts of the common folk, the middle class, and those who sought to change ruling power structures in Europe.