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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Ode to Joy

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Ludwig van Beethoven is back in the news–-an impressive feat, given the fact that he died almost 200 years ago.

Historians have long wondered why the composer was afflicted by so many chronic illnesses. During the last half of his life he suffered the gradual loss of his hearing – arguably the worst possible thing that could befall a musician – and battled a variety of severe gastro-intestinal disorders. 

Columnist Gina Kolata, writing in last week’s New York Times, reported the stunning results of recent analysis of five locks of the artist’s hair that had been snipped as he lay dying.

Researchers discovered that Beethoven had 380 micrograms of lead per gram of hair. A normal “healthy” reading would be less than 4 micrograms per gram. “These are the highest values in hair I’ve ever seen,” said Paul Jannetto, who directs the lab where the tests were conducted.

The composer’s hair also revealed arsenic levels 13 times what is considered normal, and mercury levels about four times greater than expected. The presence of such heavy metals is consistent with all of Beethoven’s maladies, including his hearing loss. 

Does this mean the 19th century’s greatest composer was poisoned?

Historians believe it’s more likely that Beethoven simply imbibed an astonishing amount of lead. He drank at least one bottle of wine every day, believing it was good for his health, during a period when sweet-tasting lead acetate was often added to low quality vintages to make them go down easier.  

Kolata suggests that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – widely considered the most influential composition in music history – was probably “a way to reconcile his grief with his art.”

Here we should pause and admit that it’s hard to generate enthusiasm for classical music in a culture that embraces such subtle masterpieces as Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby.    

But the Ninth speaks to timeless human longings and hopes. Is there a reason to believe that tomorrow will be better than today?

The first of its four movements, according to Beethoven, represents despair. The second movement begins with loud kettledrums – an attempt to break through life’s tragic sadness. The third reveals a “tender” world where despair is set aside. In the fourth and final movement, as Beethoven puts it, we have a chance to “search for something that calls us to life.”

For him that is represented by Ode an die Freude (“Ode to Joy”), the signature melody of the fourth movement that still has the capacity to move human hearts after two centuries. Churchgoers recognize it as the tune of the classic hymn Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee

The glum, irascible composer – widely known for his emotional tantrums and clashes with authorities – imagined a utopian future in which all of humanity might be united in joy.   

The miracle is that the 53-year-old Beethoven wrote this symphony while almost completely deaf. He decided he would personally direct the premiere of his masterpiece in Vienna on May 7, 1824. 

It was the first time he had been on stage in a dozen years. “He stood before the lectern and gesticulated furiously,” recalled violinist Joseph Brohm. “At times he rose, at other times he shrank to the ground; he moved as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself.”

The musicians simply ignored him.

Not because they were rude. Concertmaster Michael Umlauf had quietly spoken to the singers and instrumentalists beforehand, instructing them to follow his baton instead of Beethoven’s thrashings.

When the symphony was over, it was clear that Beethoven had fallen a few measures behind. The music had stopped, but the composer was still looking for his place in the score.

That’s when a 20-year-old rising star, contralto Caroline Unger, performed what historian Rick Beyer calls “one of the most endearing acts in music history. [She] walked up to the old master and gently turned him around, so he could see what he could not hear: a jubilant audience exploding in applause and cheers over the extraordinary piece that they had just heard, but Beethoven never could.” 

What was all the excitement about? 

It was the first time in musical history that a choir sang as part of a symphony. We can listen to studio recordings of the Ninth Symphony, or watch videos of concert hall presentations. But there’s nothing quite like watching human faces as they react in tender surprise to “Ode to Joy.” Here’s a symphonic flash mob a dozen years ago in Catalonia, Spain. Perhaps you should keep a few tissues nearby.

We must never become deaf to the sorrows of our time. Today our world may seem farther than ever from Beethoven’s utopian vision.

But underneath the noise there is a soundtrack of hope. 

Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind, could “hear” the magnificence of Beethoven’s vision by pressing her hand against a radio:

As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marveled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others — and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.

As one of the Hebrew prophets put it: “And the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). 

 One day “Ode to Joy” will reflect not just a deep yearning, but the reality of the New Heavens and New Earth that God has promised from the beginning.

 And all of us will be invited to join the chorus. 



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