Arts and Culture

Ode to Beethoven: why we must find joy in times of crisis

A rainbow banner is seen in Hertford as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, Hertford, Britain, April 3, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Couldridge - RC21XF9JJ4JZ

A rainbow banner is seen in Hertford, UK, as the spread of COVID-19 continues Image: REUTERS/Andrew Couldridge

Marin Alsop
Chief Conductor, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
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Human Enhancement

  • This year, 2020, marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and is a chance to reflect on an artist who suffered and overcame extraordinary hardship;
  • In his Symphony No. 9, Beethoven conveyed a broad existential philosophy that embraced his belief in unity, tolerance, peace and joy;
  • Culminating in Ode to Joy, it offers a message of joy, hope and optimism much-needed during this time of crisis.
  • This article is part of a series from the World Economic Forum's Cultural Leaders on building resilience in the pandemic.

I had naively thought that 2020, at least from my musician’s perspective, would be a momentous year marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Our opening concert at this year’s 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum was a thrilling start to a year-long Beethoven celebration.

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While 2020 is turning out to be a year we will all remember, Beethoven’s anniversary may not be its most distinctive or defining feature.

As a conductor, losing my instrument, the orchestra, as a result of COVID-19, has been a shock. Human connection is the heart and soul of conducting; it is connecting with large numbers of musicians to create and perform for large groups of listeners in a shared moment in time that is singularly unique.

Marin Alsop conducting at the 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum
Marin Alsop conducting at the 50th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum

That said, it is truly fitting that Beethoven, an artist who suffered and overcame extraordinary hardship, would be so integrally connected to this year of unprecedented human challenge.

Beethoven has long been a hero of mine. Can you imagine what it would have been like to know, in your early twenties, that you would gradually lose your hearing, the one thing you cared so much about and so desperately needed?

Of course, this realization was devastating and he understandably contemplated taking his own life but his unwavering commitment to his artistic purpose kept him not only moving forward but pushing himself creatively like never before. In many ways, I believe that his inability to hear resulted in an inner creativity that defied history and enabled him to transcend all boundaries.

Ludwig van Beethoven, portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820
Ludwig van Beethoven, portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820 Image: Joseph Karl Stieler

Music, for Beethoven, was life – it expressed his innermost truths and served as the vehicle for his personal philosophy.

Symphony No. 9 was composed after a 10-year pause in symphonic composition for Beethoven and by then, following the rules mattered even less to him. This is a symphony composed by an outlier, a rebel, a leader.

By adding the Schiller’s text, a philosopher whom he greatly admired, and incorporating the sound and inflection of the human voice, Beethoven conveyed a broad existential philosophy that embraced his belief in unity, tolerance, peace and joy.

In December, I embarked on a year-long project in partnership with Carnegie Hall called The Global Ode to Joy with performances scheduled on six continents with 12 different orchestras featuring nine newly created texts for our 21st-century listeners.

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My idea was to celebrate the essence of Beethoven, musical genius and citizen of the world, in a way that would reinvigorate him for today’s audiences. In light of our current world situation, this project has become a metaphor for the journey we all find ourselves on: we are all in this together, united, for the moment at least, in fear and uncertainty.

We already see glimpses of the goodness and kindness of humanity: people reaching out to help each other, looking out for the elderly and compromised, turning their attention to producing goods that are desperately needed. This is, I hope, only the beginning glimmers of the goodness in which Beethoven so wholeheartedly believed.

Beethoven’s 9th is a journey that culminates in the Ode to Joy, joy being the most powerful uniting and galvanizing emotion that we share as human beings.

My aspiration – to bring Beethoven’s 9th symphony into focus for our 21st century – has by necessity evolved as our circumstances have dramatically shifted. It is no longer merely aspirational for me; it is a mission. It is crystal clear that we need Beethoven’s 9th with its message of joy, hope, optimism, goodness and unity.

Use this time wisely: take time with your loved ones talking about what brings each of you joy. Together we will endure, overcome and be joyous again.

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