And Beethoven was almost completely deaf when he wrote it.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in the Rhine River city of Bonn in 1770. In his early twenties, he moved to Vienna where, with Joseph Haydn as his teacher, he established himself as an exceptional performer and began to hone his skills as a composer. Before his thirtieth birthday, however, Beethoven had begun to lose his hearing.
With his hearing deteriorating, conversations and social settings became increasingly difficult for Beethoven to navigate. The composer’s collection of hearing aides, now on display in Bonn, testifies to the lengths to which he went to battle his cruel condition.
In his forties, a variety of misfortunes exacerbated the musician’s sadness. Personal illness, his brother’s death, and an intense legal fight for custody of his nephew took their toll on Beethoven’s health, fortune, and work. In the midst of this fraught season, though, Beethoven received the commission that ultimately yielded his Ninth Symphony.
Five years passed before Beethoven got serious about the project, but when he did take up the work, he produced something on a monumental scale.
The symphony required the largest orchestra the composer ever assembled. The need was so great that Vienna’s deep ranks of professional musicians had to be supplemented with talented amateurs.
As the first major choral symphony, the Ninth also required an unprecedented choir. It took ninety singing voices to balance the sound produced by the large number of instruments.
Beethoven, then, gave the choir a musical setting for a poem that had been on his mind for over twenty years.
O friends, no more of these sounds!Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered on May 7, 1824 to a wild ovation. In one of the most memorable moments in his career, Beethoven only became aware of the thundering reception when one of the singers from the choir turned the master around on the rostrum to face (and to see) the jubilant crowd.
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. (By Friedrich Schiller)
And we wonder how this could be.
How could someone who could not hear compose such beautiful music?
How did this incredible sound emerge from Beethoven’s silent world?
The answer is clear. Though deaf, powerful music filled Beethoven’s heart and soul.
The catalytic reaction in the crucible of his passion between years of training and profound giftedness produced within Beethoven a wellspring of beauty, power, and truth.
Wilhelm Furtwangler said of the Ninth,
There is hardly another example in music history that documents the possibilities of pure absolute music more clearly, which shows more clearly that here, the musician and no-one but the musician is at work. Not in the "idea" as such, but in his ability of how to realize this idea to such a degree in music, therein lies Beethoven's strength.“Beethoven's masterpiece,” wrote Benjamin Carlson a few years ago in The Atlantic, “authentically can and perhaps should mean something personal and different to everyone who approaches it, standing for whatever we view as the best, strongest, and most exalted about humanity.”
Beethoven could do what he did because the music came from within the man, and I think that raises some fascinating questions for us.
What’s in you?
If you became deaf, what would you still hear?
If you became blind, what would you still see?
If you became poor, where would your treasure be?
If you lost everything, what would you still possess?
These are deeply personal questions that invite us to consider our greatest loves and passions and the talents we’ve refined with time and discipline.
It’s also true that as Christians, questions like these help us to approach the story of Pentecost in a useful way—a way that pushes beyond the mere remembrance of a long-ago event in a far away land and into the beauty, mystery, and intimacy of life with an ever-present God whose love knows no end and who empowers us to be creative agents of peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
You see, before Pentecost, before the Spirit’s outpouring, there was a promise.
On the night of his arrest, just hours before his crucifixion, Jesus made a promise to his disciples.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.Within hours, the disciples (and Jesus, too) would be tempted to think that the promise was for naught and that everything they’d ever worked for and dreamed of and prayed about was lost.
But the promise was stronger than the temptation.
“God abides with you. God will be in you.”
Nothing can take that away.
Nothing can rob you of this Holy Presence.
Nothing can diminish your sacred worth or render you less desirable to the One who “sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?Nothing will! No one can!
Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”
And after the Cross, after the Resurrection, after the Ascension—on Pentecost, the Church received this gift, the Holy Spirit, the hidden source of calm repose.
[So] friends, no more of these sounds—
—the inner voices that overwhelm our confidence, complaints about what we lack, gripes of how someone else got a better deal than they deserved and how we ended up with less.
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—
—where we give God thanks, where we hear the call to humble service, and where God blesses us with the strength to do holy work.
This is the place and now is the time to give thanks for the love that will not let us go, thanks for the Spirit that burns within us, thanks for this fellowship, and thanks for the forgiveness and joy that we share.
Jesus said, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
“O come and dwell in me, Spirit of power within,” sings the Church, “and bring the glorious liberty from sorrow, fear, and sin.”
Let it be so with us today. Let God’s joy reign over us and let us give thanks for this Good News. Amen.