Thunder of Joy

This week we sat as if before a heavenly host thundering joyful music from another world.

We were witnessing the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, performed by a symphony orchestra and a large chorus.

As we listened, my wife, Belva, touched me on the elbow and whispered, “Look at those two young men on the end of that row high in the choir section. They are singing without copies of the music. Look at them!”

My eyes found them. On the end was a young man of about twenty. His profile was robustly handsome. His hair was dark and abundant, but well trimmed. He stood like a happy orator, pouring out the words with all the vigor of his soul. Next to him was a shorter, blond youth. He too was singing from memory, with the fervor of an evangelist. Both wore black dress suits, with dark bow ties. The ruffles on their shirts were tinged with blue.

The sight of those two young men lingers with me, and so does the lofty power and majesty of the music they sang.

That night the vast audience gave the conductor, soloists, orchestra, and chorus a resounding standing ovation. The applause continued. When the conductor returned to the podium, he did not bow. Instead, he lifted before his face the score. The hand clapping swelled. I noticed Belva handkerchiefing her eyes—tears of joy.

For some seven generations now, hearts of millions of men have been lifted toward heaven by the German genius who wrote that score.

How grateful we should be to that son of a drunken father, that struggling boy whose mother died when he was yet in his teens: Ludwig van Beethoven!

We have in recent months heard other of Beethoven’s symphonies. All have both stirred and cheered us.

And all this came from a lonely man who pulled himself away from others because of growing deafness. Beethoven, who became the support of his brothers when his mother died, at twenty-eight realized he was beginning to lose his hearing. At forty-nine this bold figure with shabby coat, torn sleeves, and heavy thicket of hair could communicate only by writing. He was fifty-five when that momentous No. 9, known as the Choral, was completed in 1826. At fifty-six he was dead.

Once when he felt death near, he wrote a message to his brothers, saying: “Almost alone in the world, I dare not venture into society more than absolute necessity requires.”

Then he added, “O God! Thou lookest down upon my mysery; thou knowest that it is accompanied with love of my fellow creatures, and a disposition to do good.” (G. T. Ferris, The Great German Composers, pp. 131–32.)

And from that mind that could not hear men talk came the roar of joyful music. He wrote it on scraps of paper, on walls, blinds, and tables. Great symphonies and choruses have carried his powerful tidings to the world.

So on late winter days when I become weary of drab skies and gray experiences, it is good to reflect on that “emancipator of music” whose soul stirred with happy sounds as he battled deafness, feebleness, and poverty. But even more, he shared that exulting feeling with others through his works of music.

Beethoven’s life and music reecho for me the words of Jesus to his eleven apostles after that last supper with them and after Judas had slunk out into the night to go about his dark mission:

“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer. …” (John 16:33.)

[illustration] Art by Don Young