Beethoven’s genius overcame his handicap, and he created most of his compendium of magnificent compositions within a silent world.
The word “ineffable” means incapable of being described in words. It’s a useful term. Writers, like myself, when unable to say what we mean, fall back from time to time on the crutch: “That experience was ineffable.” It’s an attempt to get ourselves off the hook of our inadequacy.
I’m using it again today. I had an experience last Sunday afternoon that was ineffable. But I’ll try anyway.
At Christmas this past December, I gave Kathy (and me) a pair of tickets to the Des Moines Symphony’s concert performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The concert we saw took place last Sunday at the Des Moines Civic Center, and it was ineffable.
Beethoven composed nine symphonies, finishing the string with the one we heard in Des Moines. Although it was his last, he had birthed the idea of it about 35 years before he finally polished it off in 1824.
By then he was totally deaf, an affliction that had started to plague him in the late 1790s when he was not yet 30 years old. He conducted the symphony’s maiden performance in Vienna, unable to hear a note. The alto soloist had to gently turn him around when it was over so he could see the audience’s wild applause. He died just three years later.
It’s hard to imagine a more debilitating hardship for a master musician than deafness. But Beethoven’s genius overcame the handicap, and he created most of his compendium of magnificent compositions within a silent world.
The Ninth Symphony involves more than instrumentation. Its fourth and final movement, dubbed “Ode to Joy,” develops the melody that millions of Americans recognize in the hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” In that movement the orchestra partners with a chorus and four soloists — soprano, alto, tenor and bass/baritone — who sing the “Ode to Joy” theme, basing the lyrics on the poem “An die Freude” by German poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller.
I love Beethoven’s Ninth above all other compositions. It’s not only the magical creativity that inspired a deaf man to bring it forth. It’s not solely the way it builds through various complex themes to its triumphant major key statement of finality.
It’s all of those. But the goosebumps it gives me come from its creative use of the message line of the Schiller poem: “alle Menschen werden Bruder” — all men become brothers.
Thirty years ago, Leonard Bernstein conducted a televised Ninth Symphony in Berlin with an orchestra and chorus from newly united East and West Germany, just after the Berlin Wall had fallen. The message “alle Menschen werden Bruder” came through crystal clear from the reunited German musicians. And to see it performed under the baton of a great Jewish conductor where the Holocaust had reigned 40 years earlier deeply enhanced its significance.
I happened to watch that concert, and it brought a lump to my throat that returns whenever I recall it, like now as I write about it.
The lump rose again last Sunday at the Des Moines Civic Center. I knew it would. The performance itself, by the Des Moines Symphony and the combined 125-voice chorus of the Iowa State Singers and Des Moines Choral Society, brought the audience to its feet for two lengthy standing ovations after the finale.
Then symphony conductor Joseph Giunta returned to the stage. He said, “In the history of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, there has never been an encore performed afterward.” The audience chuckled, understanding what he meant. How do you follow something like that?
Then he said, “But we’re going to do one.” Out came a Des Moines area medical doctor, a Ukrainian. She has been translating instructions and other documents into Ukrainian at St. Jude Hospital for Ukrainian refugee children who are being treated there.
The concert was being broadcast online around the world, including into Ukraine and nations where that country’s refugees have fled from the war. A Ukrainian flag flanked the American flag at the left edge of the stage. Maestro Giunta read a message of hope and support for the Ukrainian people in English, and the doctor read it in Ukrainian.
Then the orchestra and chorus performed the Ukrainian National Anthem, with the audience spontaneously rising to their feet, many of them in tears. The lead violinist read the stirring words of the anthem prior to its presentation.
That was our afternoon last Sunday. This column can’t properly describe it — so it was ineffable.
But boy, it was really something. ♦