The Ninth Symphony is Beethoven at his volcanic best— it is his passionate struggle to find new forms and themes in music. Thwarted by deafness, he had remarked: “I will take Fate by the throat”.
“Black is the colour and nine is the number…” sang Bob Dylan in his poignant and powerful composition, “Hard Rain”.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is the culmination of his musical prowess— from the majesty of the Third, through the buoyancy of the Fifth, the Dionysian impact of the Seventh, and finally to reach the eternal glory of the Ninth. We are transported to an experience of divine joy amidst tempests of the mundane, of freedom away from the madding crowd, heralding a voyage to transcendence in an embrace of love for humanity.
A child learns the language of expression through the medium of grammar. Grammar has a significant role to play in any creative initiative. But the real quantum breakthrough happens beyond the umbrage of grammar and its conventional structures and systems. Beethoven’s Ninth is ever a reminder of this radical departure from the known to the unknown and the ineffable, never heard before.
A struggle was evident during the making of this masterpiece, “Ode to Joy”. The first movement takes us through a turbulent and oceanic odyssey. As Beaudelaire had said, his music invites us to a journey into the tumultuous sea only to keep us afloat in the ocean of Joy! Our lungs get filled with fresh air, our hearts expand, and we reach the pinnacle of ecstasy in all our emotional colours and flavour.
The second and the third movements bring us the harmony of new rhythms and vibrations, though variant in their forms pining for the final effulgence. And then we are greeted with the grand finale— the fourth and the final movement. Here we find the maestro in a mood of creative destruction. Near deaf as he was, Beethoven then breaks the themes and citadels of his first three movements and dissolves into a spell of silence.
Then, from the depth of that eternal silence arose a new world of music—in notes, themes and vibrations, first captured in musical instruments and then followed with vocal renditions to reach the crescendo, first time ever in the history of western classical music.
It all began with a genius challenging himself time and again in spite of severe impairment of his faculty of audition. Are we bold enough to challenge ourselves in hours of turbulence and crisis? If so, may our disenchantment with the dominance of “successful mediocrity” today in any sphere of human endeavour lead us to a fiery ignition of our creative inferno!
One cannot isolate the creator from the act of creation. Beethoven’s own life was a saga of turmoil and challenges but ever charged with a passion for life and his musical efflorescence. In the words of the Nobel laureate literary master Romain Rolland: “Joy appeared to Beethoven only as a gleam of blue through the chaos of conflicting clouds.”
But, be it amidst joy or sorrow, Beethoven was ever the solitary voyager in life. Fran Von Breuning has this to say: “When he travelled afar, the sounds of the mundane and the rancour of the populace never touched his thoughts. And it was then and there that Beethoven found his true self, his real nature. Beware! Don’t bring him back to our world of ‘sound and fury’. He will be on fire exploding like a dormant volcano. The call of the wild, the dark nocturnal abyss has invited him. He will forgive none who will pull him back.” (My trans-creation from the original in German)
The Ninth Symphony is Beethoven at his volcanic best—it is his passionate struggle to find new forms and themes in music. Thwarted by deafness, he had remarked: “I will take Fate by the throat”.
And the Ninth remains a testimony to his struggle against the vagaries of life to unveil the descent of Divine Grace and offer the message of universal brotherhood to humanity at large.
But what was his inspiration?
It was the poetry of Schiller and the benediction from Mother Nature. In the woods of Vienna, he would go out on long walks. When his creative forces were at their lowest ebb, he would grope in the darkness of nature to find a glimmer of light. The trees of Vienna woods are still alive with his passionate kisses and endearing embraces. When shall we live and love to learn a few cardinal lessons from Mother Nature? A song from Uriah Heep comes to mind:
“And we all make our choices,
Like a blind man feels his way:
And the choice I have made is simple,
Passion over pain.”
Beethoven’s Ninth is a celebration of this passion from the dust of the earth to the stars in the heaven. Here, he offers himself as a grand synthesis of the Apollonian, the razor of reason and the Dionysian, the flame of emotion, in all of us. No wonder Romain Rolland wrote his tribute to this great maestro who remained ever an enigma in history and in the world of music (my trans-creation from the original in French):
“Like a whirlwind, strong and fierce,
Reaching the depth of the ocean, His music touched the earth,
And kissed the mighty heaven,
Like the dance of Fire amidst destruction,
Steers along the lonely boatman – The one and only Beethoven.”
The hills of Shillong offered me the space and silence to delve into the depth of Beethoven and his Ninth Symphony. It was a stormy night in Vienna when I was alone sitting till midnight in front of his statue and just beside his house (in fact one of his houses). He had changed several houses in Vienna, the city famed for being the haven of western classical music. There was no one around me but his presence in spirit kept me aflame. I have no claims on mastery of western classical music. This is the unfolding of a personal journey that I began three decades back with Beethoven holding my hands amidst travails and tribulations.
A feeling of turbulence and tranquility captivate my senses and rhythms of life as I meditate on this powerful and poignant composer. I offer this piece of writing with humility to a genius who taught me how to live and love even while beaming with joy or bursting into tears. I haven’t been able to fathom thy greatness, O Great Master! For any avid learner in any discipline of knowledge, Beethoven is ever an inspiration not only in the domain of knowledge but also in life. And just imagine how he made a glorious and startling invasion into my life!
I was travelling by bus up the Vienna Hills. Midway, the bus stopped for a while. We came down to feel and see the ambience. Many great masters from science and arts had built their summer houses up in the Vienna Hills from where one can have a view of the city and the gracious Danube. Just where our bus stopped, I found a house where Einstein used to live in his times of leisure. And, believe it or not, the house next was one where Beethoven lived, musing in the Vienna woods. I was speechless in that moment of ecstasy. Then the golden words of Tagore came to mind (my trans-creation from the original Bengali):
There you stand far beyond the reach of my song,
My tears flow to bathe thy feet, but where are you gone?