Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Spark of the Gods

WQXR, New York City’s classical-music station, holds an annual New Year’s Eve countdown. Starting a few days after Christmas, the station plays a list of the hundred most popular pieces of music as voted by its listeners. The list includes the obvious ones—Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Vivaldi’s Gloria, and the overture to the Marriage of Figaro.

But every year without fail, by far the most obvious piece comes out on top, bursting into full bloom
as the fireworks crackle over Central Park:



Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is the rare work of art whose greatness is only amplified by the fact that literally everybody knows the tune. It’s also a setting of one of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, one of the finest German poems ever written, and worth quoting in full:

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.
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, burning with fervour,
heavenly being, thy sanctuary!
Thy magic brings together
what fashion has sternly divided.
All men will be brothers,
wherever thy gentle wings hover.
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!
Whoever has been lucky enough
to be a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!
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.
Every creature drinks in joy
at nature’s breast;
Good and Bad alike
follow her trail of roses.
She gives us kisses and wine,
a true friend, even in death;
Even the worm was given desire,
and the cherub stands before God.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Gladly, just as His suns hurtle
through the glorious universe,
So you, brothers, should run your course,
joyfully, like a conquering hero.
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.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the canopy of stars
must dwell a loving father.
Do you bow down before Him, ye millions?
Do you sense your Creator, O world?
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.
Sadness, in other words, is a false strain, and clangs dissonantly against the music of the spheres. The universe really dances to a joyful waltz. Melancholy is extremely good at convincing himself that he’s less deluded than Joy; that he’s more morally justified, but Joy knows herself to be a god; knows that she is eternally exalted over her malformed, disfigured older brother.

I’m a pessimist, who thinks that the pain in the world in general far overpowers what little pleasure there is to be had. That doesn’t stop me, though, from being infected in December by the spirit that filled Schiller and Beethoven; and raised up to a height from which I can say, with Emerson:
There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. ... In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, — no more.
Of course, this kind of joy relies on illusion; on a systematic forgetting of pain. But what an illusion! All the sorrow in the world burns up like stubble, and grief sinks like lead in the mighty waters. And at the end, once all humanity is swept up in glee, the author of all this delight reveals himself: all human beings bow to their Creator. Our God is a god of happiness, and despises the mourners.

Note something about the way the Ode celebrates joy: it angrily, disgustedly casts the bearers of misery away. Whoever has found a beloved wife, let him join our songs of praise! Yes, and anyone who can call one soul his own on this earth! Any who cannot, let them slink away from this gathering in tears! This is hideously—though in Schiller’s dialect, gloriously—inegalitarian. It’s the happiness of the high-born elves, who can say to the world: “you dwell in damp and smelly caverns, vainly trying to convince yourselves that the rotting fish you choke down and the cold you shiver in makes you somehow morally vindicated. But we, far away from you, dine in vast manors; our slaves bring us steak and stack our fire with wood; we sing the songs of our ancestors, and our laughing children crawl over our laps.”

The Ode to Joy is an attempt to include the entire community in this happy race, and instead of the low-born, it casts the lonely in the role of the cave-dwellers. (Not evil people, though: “Good and Bad alike follow joy’s trail of roses.”) The future, it insists, belongs to massed humanity, finally triumphant over the fetid morality and superstition of the past. Beethoven’s genius, meanwhile, in setting it to music was to envelop even the most cynical human beings in its message, so that they could see the world through the lens of gladness for a few minutes. No one, that is, who listens to WQXR at midnight is excluded from this gleeful throng.

So our New Year’s festival is thus our collective exaltation of Joy over misery, of the seemingly bright future over the painful past. It is, of course, a fiction: January will be here in just a moment, and sadness and loneliness will have their day. Not tonight. Happy New Year!

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