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Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Ode to Joy

Ludwig van Beethoven's last complete symphony was the Symphony No. 9 in D minor. The German composer was increasingly aware of his declining health and spent seven years working on this symphony, starting the work in 1818 and finishing early in 1824.

Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

The symphony incorporates part of German writer Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" in its fourth movement. The words for "Ode To Joy", which are sung by four vocal soloists and a chorus, emanate a strong belief in mankind.

At the time it was a novel idea to use a chorus and solo voices in a symphony, which is why it's also called the "Choral" symphony. Beethoven, in fact, had serious misgivings about portraying the music's message with actual words. Even after the premiere, he apparently came very close to replacing all the vocal lines with instrumental ones.


The Ninth Symphony was premiered on May 7, 1824 in the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. There had been only two full rehearsals and the performance was rather scrappy. Despite this, the premiere was deemed a great success.

Beethoven was completely deaf when he embarked on this masterpiece and it’s a tragedy that he never heard a single note of it except inside his head. At the end of the symphony’s first performance the German composer, who had been directing the piece and was consequently facing the orchestra, had to be turned around by the contralto Caroline Unger so that he could see the audience’s ecstatic reaction. Beethoven had been unaware of the tumultuous roars of applause behind him.

A page from Beethoven's manuscript of the 9th Symphony

This is the most requested piece of music on the BBC Radio show, Desert Island Discs, which has been broadcast since 1942. Over 60 guests have chosen this tune as one of the eight recordings they would like to have on the island.

The Council of Europe and subsequently the European Union chose “Ode to Joy” as National Anthem of Europe.

Originally written for Songfacts

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