Sunday, November 27, 2016

Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" to my #AtheistEar

One of the first pieces of music I remember falling in love with also happened to appear in our Baptist Hymnal. And it happens to be a very appropriate Thanksgiving holiday sort of song.

The "Ode to Joy," or the Chorale from the Fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony. My mom had a record with excerpts of great classical works that featured a 4 or 5-minute selection of just the chorus singing that main theme, but one of the first pieces of music I remember buying for myself was a cassette of the full symphony. Today, it is the anthem of the European Union.*

If you have not had the pleasure, here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Staatsoper, Vienna, in 1979:


 If you prefer to skip to the singin' here's where it starts!

 (Lyrics are available here - that's the original German and a quality translation from the Schiller Institute; it's a PDF, though. Lyrics by Henry Van Dyke - which appeared in my Hymnal - are available here.)

 Not being a German speaker when I was a boy, all I knew about this song at first was that it was a hymn of praise to God. You may have heard this verse at some point:

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee,
Opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day! 

 That's very pretty, and I know I sang those words with gusto on the rare occasions our music director picked this song. For all I knew, when I listened to the passionate, loud, and joyful German version on my mom's record, they were singing the same thing.

As you'll see in a moment, they weren't. Where the Van Dyke verse sings flowery couplets to a God being praised, the words by Friedrich Schiller take a subtly different approach - one with a decidedly Deist flavor:

Joy, thou beauteous godly lightning,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire drunken we are ent’ring
Heavenly, thy holy home!
Thy enchantments bind together,
What did custom stern divide,
Every man becomes a brother,
Where thy gentle wings abide. 


Joy is drunk by every being
From kind nature’s flowing breasts,
Every evil, every good thing
For her rosy footprint quests.
Gave she us both vines and kisses,
In the face of death a friend,
To the worm were given blisses
And the Cherubs God attend. 

 Notice that instead of singing specifically to the Christian God, these verses are directed to the embodiment of Joy. Where God is mentioned, He is certainly being praised, but throughout, the Creator is referred to in a less Christian way:

 Be embrac’d, ye millions yonder!
Take this kiss throughout the world!
Brothers—o’er the stars unfurl’d
Must reside a loving Father 


He who in the great ring dwelleth,
Homage pays to sympathy!
To the stars above leads she,
Where on high the Unknown reigneth 

This way of speaking about the "Unknown" reigning "on high" is not unheard of in the Christian tradition, but it is central to the thinking of Age of Enlightenment figures who thought of themselves as "natural philosophers," and who we now recognize as the early scientists. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and before them, John Locke and Voltaire, were all prominent Deist writers, who looked at science - or natural philosophy - as the way to discovering this Creator.

Today, atheists try to claim many of these thinkers, but while those people certainly were no great fans of churches, they still saw room in the vast mysteries of the unknown for a Creator. Some of them were more skeptical of His Divine Existence, but most of them took the approach that humans couldn't possibly understand a being that could set all of nature in motion, and determined that the only divinity lay in divining and defining the laws of the universe. By unveiling the mysteries wherever they could, their experiments and their scientific methods slowly pushed that veil back; and wherever they found materialistic explanations for previously mysterious phenomena, supernatural or Divine explanations were no longer satisfactory or necessary.

This is why today we call him the God of the Gaps.

Personally, knowing the original poem that Beethoven set to music makes me feel closer to him than the flowery and conflicted words that were passed off in our hymnal. I have no reason to believe that Beethoven himself was a Deist, but he certainly belonged to the Age of Enlightenment, and the story of how he composed this piece despite losing his hearing and battling mental illness is a testament to a mind that remained relentlessly rational.

 In contrast, the last verse of the Van Dyke version seems to run counter to the original, and to itself: 

Mortals join the mighty chorus,
Which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning ov'er us,
Brother love binds man to man.
Ever signing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife;
Joyful music leads us sunward
In the triumph song of life. 

 That is stirring, but it seems to send a conflicted message. In one breath, we sing about brother love binding man to man, and in the next, we sing about Victors in joyful triumph. The implication is that even in harmony, there is inherent conflict - and the "good" is defined by the victor.

I much prefer the ending of the Schilling verses:

 Rescue from the tyrant’s fetters,
Mercy to the villain e’en,
Hope within the dying hours,
Pardon at the guillotine!
E’en the dead shall live in heaven!
Brothers, drink and all agree,
Every sin shall be forgiven,
Hell forever cease to be.
 A serene departing hour!
Pleasant sleep beneath the pall!
Brothers—gentle words for all
Doth the Judge of mortals utter!
There is still talk there of an afterlife, but instead of sorting souls into good and evil, and torturing one group forever, that afterlife is built out of pardons and making peace. As a humanist, that's a goal I can get behind, even if I don't literally believe in a soul or a supernatural afterlife. As people of faith, I would hope we could agree on that as some common ground.

I don't believe there is a Judge of mortals, but if there is, I hope he will take into account the fact that we materialists have done the best we can with the scant clues available to us. Either way, I expect to rest easily in my own afterlife - either singing Ode to Joy, or no longer existing at all.

*Beethoven's tune[1] (but not Schiller's words) was adopted as the Anthem of Europe by the Council of Europe in 1972, and subsequently the European Union.

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