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To Joy: New Tones Friday on the Esplanade


Friedrich Schiller

Would we still read Schiller’s “An die Freude” if Beethoven had not set it in the finale of his ninth symphony?

Friedrich von Schiller (1759 – 1805) was a German intellectual, remembered as a playwright, a philosopher, and a poet. Interested in theology, he was ordered to study at a military academy; he studied law, then medicine; later he professed history. Throughout it all, he wrote. His writings were not without controversy; he crossed his pen against a duke’s sword and incurred his own father’s wrath. He wrote seemingly to exorcise personal demons. Linked to the German literary movement Sturm und Drang (literally, “storm and desire” although often rendered “storm and stress”), he valued nature, the individual, and strong emotion. This early Romantic trend in literature and thought stood in opposition to classicism and the Enlightenment. The movement is exemplified in Goethe’s epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), first published in 1774. That novel is said to have sparked a rash of young men committing suicide across the European continent. Literature asked that you feel; society preferred one not feel quite so much.

Freedom was a refrain for Schiller. Perhaps his own fraught relationship with his father found expression in his 1781 play, “The Robbers” (“Die Räuber”), where the noble outlaw protagonist rejects his father’s values; then again, the theme continues in “Don Carlos” (1787). Freedom of belief runs throughout “Maria Stuart” (1800) and a more expansive theme of freedom is a hallmark of “Wilhelm Tell” (1804).

The Schiller Institute, which might be said to have a vested interest in the subject, offers this summation of Schiller’s role and influence in the history of German, and indeed world, literature:

“Schiller was the great republican poet of freedom, who could adorn the ideal of a nobler, more beautiful mankind in such powerful language, that he truly found “an infallible key to the most secret recesses of the human soul.”

Their laudatory summation of the author can be found HERE. While I have not seen Schiller called The Poet of the American Revolution elsewhere, we do know he was lauded by the Jacobins of the French Revolution and he was deeply critical of them, finding their love for Antiquity an example of “Grecomania” and in his Aesthetical Letters (1794) criticizing them for their actions. (The Letters Upon the Æsthetic Education of Man can be read in English translation HERE –– or in the German original, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, HERE.)

One of the challenges we face reading Schiller today is his lofty rhetoric and nebulous expression. (In some regards it is like reading and struggling to decipher the writings of Plato.) This quality can make Schiller the poet of many, and contradictory, causes: while Chinese President Xi Jinping embraced Schiller’s ideas of æsthetic education (continuing a century-long Chinese engagement with Schiller), protesters in Tiananmen Square used the finale to Beethoven’s ninth symphony with Schiller’s text as an anthem to their protest. Then there is the influence of Schiller on the work of Lyndon LaRouche. Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows. So, too, does high literature. Reading across his works, and especially his dramas, we get the clearer message of his abiding interest in freedom, his holistic views on beauty and divinity.

„An die Freude” was written in 1785, published by Schiller himself in 1786 in the journal Thalia. In a letter from October 21, 1800 to his friend, the jurist and cultural figure Christian Gottfried Körner, Schiller disparaged the poem even as he acknowledged it was the friendship he felt for Körner that inspired the ode. [The curious can find the full text in German HERE.] We seemingly owe Körner for this ode’s original widespread circulation. For all that readers of this publication may know the text, thanks to Beethoven, parsing the language of the lyrics (which do, admittedly, differ somewhat from the text of the poem) remains a challenge. This one ode illustrates how difficult it can be to pin down Schiller’s thought and is further complicated by Beethoven’s music. Now known as a protest anthem (in addition to Tiananmen Square, mentioned above, it has also been used by Chilean demonstrators opposing the regime of Pinochet), this ode is also the music for the European Union’s anthem, and for five years in the 1970s the national anthem of Rhodesia. Always tricky separating tune from lyrics.

We know the text or the tune; many of us can sing the words. But when we pause our parroting and examine what it all means, signification seems evanescent. Phrases hold true, but deeper sense of the whole ever recedes into the background:

ode “To Joy”

Oh friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More full of joy!

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary!
Thy magic power reunites
All that custom has divided;
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise!
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.

All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,

A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on their courses through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.

You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek Him in the heavens!
Above the stars must He dwell.

 An die Freude

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere
anstimmen und freudenvollere!

Marin Alsop to lead Beethoven’s Ninth

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.

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.

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!

Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.

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.

Schiller’s poem praises the joy of friendship which leads us to find, to see, the spark of divinity in us all. Lofty, noble, heady. It is also a statement of optimism against the turbulent background of the revolts, rebellions, and revolutions marking his lifetime. Readers might be forgiven for not knowing this extra-textual reality; the poem does not dwell upon it.

We live in an age where optimism is more hard-won, if present at all. Tracy K. Smith brings the outside world into her poem, “Ode to Joy.” In direct language mirroring Schiller’s and metrically suited to Beethoven’s music, this is an appeal to those erstwhile better angels of our nature:

“Ode to Joy”
Text by Tracy K. Smith
O friend, my heart has tired
Of such darkness.
Now it vies for joy.

Joy, bright God-spark born of Ever
Daughter of fresh paradise—
Where you walked once now walk rancor,
Greed, suspicion, anger, fright.
Joy, the breeze off all that’s holy,
Pure with terror, wild as flame.
Make us brothers, give us comfort,
Bid us past such fear and hate.

If you’ve loved another’s beauty
If you’ve craved the warmth of flesh,
If your spirit is invested
In another’s sense of worth,
Lift your voice to touch my voice now,
Let our song bring joy to earth.
Lift your voice to touch my voice now,
Let our song bring joy to earth.

Joy like water, milk of mothers.
Kind and wicked all deserve
Joy’s compassion freely given,

Joy which can’t be sold or earned.
In the depths of blackest soil
In the lightless atmosphere
In the atom and the ether,
Animating all that is.

Let us feel it, let us heed it,
Let us seek its deepest kiss.
Let us live our brief lives mining
That which joy alone can give.

Battered planet, home of billions,
Our long shadow stalks your face.
All we’ve fractured, all we’ve stolen,
All we’ve sought blind to your grace.

Earth, forgive us, claim us, let us
Live in humble thanks and joy.
Let our hearts wake from our stupor,
Let us praise you in one voice.

This is not an ode praising the powers of joy, as in Schiller. Here it is a prayer. This joy is hard-fought if won, with darkness vying to conquer through fear and hate. The struggle becomes the poem, the prayer. Through a world fractured, stolen, blinded there is a cry, almost one in the wilderness, for the love and divinity which joy can bring.

Let us feel it, let us heed it,
Let us seek its deepest kiss.
Let us live our brief lives mining
That which joy alone can give.

We provide HERE a three-column parallel version.

Here joy comes with an appeal for forgiveness and a paean towards humility. High-flown, obfuscatory rhetoric has no place in this sincere text; in plainer language Smith speaks to the heart of our age in all its complexity. Soaring heights come from the passion of belief and from the music.

Can Beethoven’s music support an updated text? What is gained and what lost? These are questions conductor Marin Alsop and H+H pose in their performance tomorrow night in the Hatch Shell. See BMInt’s interview on the subject HERE.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra

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