The legend of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony goes as follows: The composer, already stone deaf, was commissioned by The Philharmonic Society of London, and, after six years of composing, produced the symphony, which premiered in 1824 at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna. According to witnesses, at the symphony’s conclusion, Beethoven received five standing ovations. The king only got three, and so the police were forced to break up the proceedings.
As an artist I take a certain glee in this story, whether it is true or not. How delightful that the composer, who was unable to marry the woman he loved because she was of noble birth and he was not, in the end produced something so beautiful it broke the laws of class divide. How delicious that the audience was compelled to reward accomplishment over blood.
But how much more beautiful this other anecdote, that the conductor left his podium to turn Beethoven, who sat in a chair to the side of musicians, so that he could see the applause he could not hear. Beethoven had said of the Ninth Symphony and its climactic Ode to Joy that he wished to give something great to humanity. Yet he was forced to do so while condemned to silence, kept not only from the applause it inspired but music itself.
And so there was the Ninth Symphony heard by the audience that day in Vienna, and the Ninth Symphony heard by Beethoven alone, the one played in the concert hall of his imagination. Looking out into that sea of silent applause, it must have seemed an odd and fitting end to a musical career. Let the same silence needed to compose the Ode reply to its debut. He gave love in silence and received it so.
We put kings in castles, clothe them and feed, arm their guards, and put a pointed crown on their heads so that they might be closer to God, from whom they are now expected to receive instruction for the greater good, unburdened as they are by earthly concerns. But the needs of the flesh can be sated or, in Beethoven’s case, abandoned by necessity – no matter, you return to the soul by either route, and a little wooden chair on the edge of a stage could stand as high as a throne.
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