Music Inspired by Poetry - "Ode to Joy"

Apr 26, 2016

As National Poetry Month continues, a poem Beethoven used as inspiration for one of the greatest works of classical music.

“Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,Daughter from Elysium,We enter, drunk with fire,Heavenly, thy sanctuary!Your magics join againWhat custom strictly divided;All people become brothers,Where your gentle wing abides.” April is National Poetry Month and we’ve been exploring some poems that inspired great works of classical music.  “Ode to Joy” was written by German poet/playwright Friedrich Schiller in the summer of 1785. The ideal he described, of hope and brotherhood triumphing, was exactly what Beethoven wanted to convey in his Ninth Symphony.  Although Beethoven had hoped originally that his music alone would describe the same sentiments, he ended up taking a risk and used some of the poem as the libretto for the final movement of his Ninth.  The Ninth, also referred to commonly as the “Choral Symphony,” is believed to be the first example of a major composer using singers in a symphonic piece. Even today Beethoven’s tune with Schiller’s words enthralls everyone who hears it, from symphony audiences to fans of the 1988 movie, “Die Hard,” which used the piece in its score. Here’s the part that struck me as I studied the history of the “Ode:” Schiller wasn’t happy with the original version.  In 1800, Schiller wrote to the man whose friendship inspired the original ode and in the letter described the poem as something  “detached from reality... of value maybe for us two, but not for the world.” He revised it in 1803 (this was the version Beethoven used), and then again in 1808. And still, it didn't please him. I feel so sad for Schiller that he could never come to peace with his work of art. It’s too bad he didn’t see in his own creation what first caught the eye and excited the soul of Beethoven - and audiences - over 230 years later.  Here's Beethoven's take on Schiller's "Ode to Joy" with the Philharmonia Chorus.