How happy I am to live in the world of music, theatre and art. This week I found myself surrounded by brilliant music and theatre which I appreciated more than usual. I am incredibly grateful for that. It can be really difficult whilst watching world events to keep a positive spin on the world and our surroundings.
This week saw the finale of ABC Classic FM’s Top 100 Classical Voice pieces. With a list voted by the listeners it was interesting to see what and who made it. There was of course Mozart, Bizet, and Handel… But where they sat in the rankings would surprise many! As the music continued throughout the week, I found myself occasionally stuck in the car, unable to get out till the piece finished… Sometimes it took 30 seconds, other times 40 minutes… But there’s no chance I was leaving until I had heard that final chord! The top 25 saw an interesting selection, with less than 50% of this music from famous operas. It featured Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria, Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, Strauss’ Four Last Songs. Every music nerd waited in anticipation to hear what would come in at number one. Which opera aria would soar to the top of the charts? Which Lied had hit the high notes? But interestingly, number one wasn’t opera, lieder, oratorio or choral piece.
It was Beethoven’s 9th Symphony featuring the famous 4th movement: Ode to Joy. In a week of trauma for the world, it seems so fitting that this piece be number one. I highly recommend that you begin playing this track now whilst reading the rest of the blog:
(Watch out for 15:28 when it zooms in on Leonard Bernstein, who is no longer conducting but just singing along!)
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Your magic brings together
what fashion has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover.
Though some may know it from A Clockwork Orange or as the theme song for Everybody Loves Raymond, for many it has become a song of freedom and a protest anthem. It was conducted by Leonard Bernstein at the fall of the Berlin Wall, sung during the demonstration in Chile against the Pinochet dictatorship and was performed in Japan after the 2011 Tsunami. Ode to Joy has lent its voice to many people who believed to have none during difficult times. But why do we still sing this piece nearly 200 years after it’s premiere?
Many will know of the story of Beethoven and his composition of the 9th symphony. Losing his hearing, it took Beethoven ten years to compose the piece and by the time it was completed he was profoundly deaf. Against all odds the piece was a roaring success and has stood the test of time. At it’s premiere the crowd applauded thunderously but Beethoven could hear nothing. It wasn’t until he was turned around by one of the singers that he saw the overwhelming response to his final symphony. The audience, apparently completely aware of his deafness, threw their hats and scarves in the air to show their approval to this piece.
There is something so simple in Ode to Joy that makes it brilliant. There are few things as beautiful as listening to a full orchestra play those moving phrases, slowly getting louder and adding instruments until eventually it erupts with a large chorale of voices. I love that this piece also feels like something you could easily sing raucously in a pub with your mates. It has all the strength and power of classical music without the snobbery that classical music gets criticised for.
As much as it seems strange that a symphony would come out number one in a list of Top 100 Classical Voice – I can think of no better piece than Ode to Joy. Composed from 1817-1825, it seems strange that this piece would be so relative two hundred years later. For what other piece has aptly represented the voices of so many people in their fights and protests for a better life? The lyrics beg for peace, for the world to join as one and to stop fighting. In Ode to Joy we are presented music by a deaf man who against all odds and against all struggles, despite all the obstacles put in front of him, triumphs and comes out victorious.
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
O friends, no more of these sounds!
Written by Katherine Goyder