The History and Lyrics of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”
Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” was composed in 1824, in the final movement of his last, and arguably most famous, symphony, Symphony No. 9. The premiere took place in Vienna on May 7, 1824, and despite its unpracticed and under-rehearsed presentation, the audience was ecstatic. It was the first time Beethoven had appeared on stage in 12 years.
At the end of the performance (though some sources say it could have been after the 2nd movement), it was said that Beethoven continued conducting even though the music had ended. One of the soloists stopped him and turned him around to accept his applause. The audience was well aware of Beethoven’s health and hearing loss, so in addition to clapping, they threw their hats and scarves in the air so that he could see their overwhelming approval.
The Choral Symphony
This symphony is considered by many leading musicologists to be one of the greatest works in western music. What makes it so special is Beethoven’s use of the human voice; he was the first major composer to include it within a symphony. This is why you’ll often see Symphony No. 9 referred to as the Choral Symphony. Beethoven’s 9th symphony, with an orchestra bigger than any other at the time and a play time of well over an hour (longer than any other symphonic work), was a major turning point for classical music; it was a catapult into the Romantic Period, where composers began breaking the rules of composition and exploring the use of large ensembles, extreme emotion, and unconventional orchestration.
German “Ode to Joy” Lyrics
The “Ode to Joy” text that Beethoven employed, and slightly modified, was written by the German poet, Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, in the summer of 1785. It was a celebratory poem addressing the unity of all mankind.
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein;
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt
Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.
English “Ode to Joy” Translation
O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More songs full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Within thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At natures breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
Like a hero going to victory!
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.
“Ode to Joy”: A Worldwide Significance
In 1972, the Council of Europe made Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” its official anthem. Years later, in 1985, the European Union did the same. Although Schiller’s text isn’t sung in the anthem, the music conveys the same ideas of freedom, peace, and unity.
During World War I, German prisoners held captive by Japan introduced their captors to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Years later, Japanese orchestras began performing it. Then, after the devastating events of World War II, many Japanese orchestras began performing it at the end of the year, hoping to bring in enough audience members to help fund reconstruction efforts. Since then, it has become a Japanese tradition to perform Beethoven’s 9th symphony at the end of the year.
In many English churches, the hymn “Joyful, Joyful we adore thee” written in 1907 by the American author Henry van Dyke, is set and sung to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” melody. Perhaps the most popular modern recording of the hymn can be heard in the 1993 movie, Sister Act 2, sung by Lauren Hill and cast.