Thursday, May 17, 2012

Appreciations #2: Ludwig van Beethoven, Or Ode to Ode to Joy

Give it a listen, and maybe you'll see what I mean. Start at 41:00:

I think it's safe to say that, at any given time, three or more of my students are working on one or another version of the song, "Ode to Joy." There is the simple, one-hand-at-a-time, two-line melody that kids learn before they've even seen a staff of music. There's the slightly more complicated two-handed one, which involves the right hand moving up high on the piano for the second run through the main theme, then back down for the victorious ending. And there's the most complicated version, the one that imitates the basses and cellos in original orchestral composition, playing the familiar melody in the bass range of the piano, then developing into a more complicated accompaniment with the theme on top. Ode to Joy is probably one of the most recognized classical works ever; kids and parents know it, non-musicians recognize it, most people can hum along with little-to-no help.

So it may be a surprise that Ode to Joy is one of my absolute favorite-ever pieces of classical music. What a common, ordinary song to choose as a favorite. And this, after years of my parents having my siblings and I listen to the diverse selections on NPR Morning Classics, spending four years as a music major in my undergrad and two more in my Masters program, again in music. After seventeen years of piano lessons, as well as two years of clarinet, some harpsichord, voice, guitar and drum lessons, and countless years of choir. After learning to analyze, identify, and pick apart any and every kind of classical music from Bach to Stravinsky to Philip Glass, I still go back to Ode to Joy. Every time, I find myself back there.

Every time...well, that's somewhat of an exaggeration. Every Moody time? Every Emotional time? Every Sad, Thrilled, Confused, Restless, Blissful, Crabby, Exhausted, Calm time, is more what I mean. There is no bad mood that Ode to Joy will not help, there is no height of emotion that Ode to Joy will not exacerbate; it is the perfect soundtrack to any moment or feeling in my life. It grasps at every corner of my brain and soul, catching little bits of conflicting feelings and shoving them all together, so that I all of a sudden catch myself driving through the country at 7:45 on a Thursday morning, singing in German at the top of my lungs, windows wide open, arms and face freezing, big stupid smile on my face as tears roll down my cheeks. Ode to Joy is all of it. Ode to Joy is everything all at once. Hopelessness and hope, resistance and unity, faith and freedom, all rolled into one. All at the same time.

I've been lucky enough to get to dedicate my life to music. As a child and teenager, I was a reluctant performer. As a college student, a slightly-less reluctant performer, as well as a budding and curious music theory nerd. Post-college, I finally embraced my love for teaching and was privileged enough to combine teaching with music and form my current career. The musical opportunities in my life have been numerous, rewarding, hilarious and humbling. I've opened for Dar Williams's opener, I've played for a large crowd at a feminist bookstore's open mic, performed at a fundraiser for my sister's law firm, played in a ridiculously fun punk band with my best college lady friends, followed a piano-cello version of "November Rain" with an encore of "Time After Time" with my BFF, played a hymn at my grandfather's funeral, and shared the stage with my insanely talented and lovely piano students, among many other experiences. But no performance compares to getting to sing in a choir to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the "Ode to Joy" movement.

My friend Katie and I spent a year in choir together, giggling and laughing and making up nicknames for our fellow singers. There was Ursula, who looked like Ursula from The Little Mermaid and had the most perfect German pronunciation. There was Wally, who, well...he looked like a Walrus. And he was the loudest tenor in the group, always overcompensating for the small group by over-singing and making a show of himself. And there was The Lumberjack, who, as Katie reminded me this morning, always came to choir in a flannel shirt and suspenders. It was not much different from the rest of my college years, all the laughing through class and nicknames (shout out to 819!), but when we all came together to sing with the orchestra, everything sort of settled. We calmed down and stood up straight and proud, followed Ursula's tips for proper pronunciation, and sang our hearts out. We must have sang through the entire movement at least fifty times, and I loved it every single time.

I always wonder if I am able to appreciate certain pieces of music more if I've had the chance to play or sing them, or really look at the music. Maybe I can hear the intricacies and details more when I get a chance to see them in the sheet music, to feel them with my fingers as I sight-read for the first time, to discover what is actually happening in the music. To feel why I will later get a chill when that measure is played, and why I will later smile when I hear that particular ascending chord progression. I feel so fortunate to have this. Musically, Ode to Joy is pretty difficult to sing. For an alto who, when harmonizing with her brother, always chooses the lower part (to be fair, he has a truly magnificent falsetto), the higher notes in the Ode to Joy were a giant stretch.

Here, have a listen or watch to another version (incomplete):
Watch the orchestral section beginning at 13:16, and wait for the part at 14:32. Look at the anticipation. Listen to everybody - the orchestra, the choir, the audience - waiting, almost wincing, ready for what is to come. Watch the conductor's face as the music nearly disappears, and then swells into this incredible moment of relief and bliss. I just cried again while watching this video. Chills. Every single time.

There is a section of the song, a fugue (almost like a round), found at 59:25 in the first video posted above, in which all four voice parts are singing repeated lyrics, but different notes, all at the same time, growing and developing into a beautifully monstrous rolling pile of voices. I might never have paid much attention to this part of the movement had I not sung it. And, had our conductor not insisted that we do this section ridiculously fast and precise. Never before this moment had I experienced something "hard to do" in singing. I always just sang, man. But with this fugue, this tiny minute-and-a-half piece of music, I had to focus intently, concentrate on every note, on breathing at the exact right moment, at pronouncing those umlauts like Ursula taught us, at increasing the volume of my voice just right, and then, at the crazy high note, singing as soft as possible while still projecting. I don't think I'd ever really worked that hard to make music before.

And then, in a tiny and beautiful moment, all the hard work turned into pure joy. When I could truly lose myself in the music, be a little less focused and a little more floaty, losing myself a bit among the notes, I realized I was surrounded by about 80 other people singing the same song, the same words and notes, and we were all singing together to create the most beautiful piece of music to exist, at least in that moment.

I have found myself, as of late, saying that I've "just been more emotional" in the last year. I'd love to blame it on, first, the tumultuous political atmosphere of the city in which I live, the personal attacks on teachers - especially my friends and the man I love - the vitriol and hate and polarization to which people in Wisconsin have been driven. Or, I can easily say I've been far more emotional since the sudden death of one of my best friends, followed closely by the loss of my dear grandfather. It could be true, and it most likely is. But really, I've always been an extremely emotional person. And I know that music goes hand-in-hand with all of this emotion. But which came first? Does the music just enhance all the emotion that's already sitting in my body, waiting to arise at just the right moment? Or does my emotional self make me hear the music a little harder, feeling physical reactions to just the right combination of sounds? What exactly is it that causes me to find myself on a Thursday morning on that country drive, crying and smiling and singing as if absolutely nothing else in the world matters or even exists?

Maybe it's just Beethoven. His music has and always will bring out the truth in me, tells me my own emotions when I have no clue how to identify them, and explains what I've been feeling all this time, simply through music. What an amazing individual, to be able to affect complete strangers living in different centuries who'd never even heard of him until years after he died. What a full and beautiful and insightful person. Much gratitude, Beethoven. Thank you.

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere an stimmen,
und freudenvollere.
Freude! (men's chorus: Freude! )
Freude! (chorus again: Freude! )
Oh friends, not these tones!
Rather, let us raise our voices in more pleasing
And more joyful sounds!
Joy! (Joy!)
Joy! (Joy!)
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.
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods*
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, your sanctuary!
Your magic reunites
What custom strictly divided.
All men become brothers,
Where your gentle wing rests.
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!
Whoever has had the great fortune
To be a friend's friend,
Whoever has won a devoted wife,
Join in our jubilation!
Indeed, whoever can call even one soul
His own on this earth!
And whoever was never able to, must creep
Tearfully away from this band!
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.
Vor Gott!
Joy all creatures drink
At the breasts of nature;
All good, all bad
Follow her trail of roses.
Kisses she gave us, and wine,
A friend, proved to the end;
Pleasure was given to the worm,
And the cherub stands before God.
Before God!
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt'gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Glad, as His suns fly
Through the Heaven's glorious design,
Run, brothers, your path,
Joyful, as a hero to victory.
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.
Be embraced, millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Do you bow down, millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek Him beyond the starry canopy!
Beyond the stars must He dwell.
Finale repeats the words:
Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über'm Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Seid umschlungen,
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Finale repeats the words:
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Be embraced,
This kiss for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods
Spark of the gods!

-from Wikipedia