Today in Catholic History – World Premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

On 7 May 1824, Ludwig van Beethoven premiered his Ninth Symphony or “Ode to Joy” at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna to a large audience who came to see his first on-stage appearance in twelve years. The premiere was a great success “the public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them.” There were five standing ovations.

The audience reception was even more impressive considering that there were only two rehearsals of the entire program. Moreover Beethoven was almost completely deaf and yet insisted on conducting the performance. So both Beethoven and Michael Umlauf, the official conductor, stood on the stage at the same time. Since Beethoven could not hear the performance, he often gave instructions and directions contrary to what was in the score of the symphony – calling for loudness at a moment of quiet and vice versa. Umlauf had to instruct the musicians to essentially ignore Beethoven’s direction during the performance. At the end of the performance, one of the singers had to tug at Beethoven’s sleeve to turn him around to face the audience as Beethoven was unaware that the symphony was finished. The singer later said, “his turning about, and the sudden understanding thereby forced on all present that he had not done so before because he could not hear what was going on, acted like an electric shock on the audience, and a volcanic explosion of compassion and admiration followed, which was repeated over and over, and seemed as if it would never end.”

The words of the commonly sung hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” were written in in 1907 by Henry van Dyke to intentionally be accompanied by the music of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Be embraced,
This kiss for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity
– Beethoven from his Ninth Symphonyh

God — sometimes through periods of interior emptiness and isolation — wishes to make us attentive and capable of ‘feeling’ his silent presence, not only ‘over the canopy of stars’ but also in the most intimate recesses of our soul. There burns the spark of divine love that can free us to be what we truly are.Benedict XVI on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony


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