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The Meaning of Beethoven's 9th Symphony

Updated on January 9, 2013

Ludwig van Beethoven

Painting of Beethoven around 1819-1820.
Painting of Beethoven around 1819-1820. | Source

The Meaning

What is the message Beethoven was trying to convey in his 9th symphony? The simple answer is: brotherhood. To someone who is vaguely familiar with this symphony that is the obvious answer, but the brilliance of this symphony is how Beethoven showcases the theme of brotherhood in the music.

Brotherhood is the quality of acting brotherly towards one another regardless of race, gender, class, etc. In short, it emphasizes bonding and equality. Beethoven uses the 9th symphony to showcase brotherhood and equality as the gateway to joy, human happiness, and the salvation of all humans.

Disclaimer: This is a personal interpretation of the message (or the program) I believe Beethoven was trying to convey when he wrote his 9th symphony.

Friedrich Schiller

Painting of Friedrich Schiler
Painting of Friedrich Schiler | Source

The Text

The vocals in the 9th symphony only occur in the final movement, it's something that the composer is building up to. Beethoven takes the text used in the final movement from Friedrich Schiller's poem Ode to Joy. Schiller's text is essentially a drinking song about brotherhood.

The ode itself is an old structure in poetry that originates from Ancient Greece. The ode was written in three parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. In Schiller's poem each one of these three sections can be broken down into three verses that alternate with three choruses. Beethoven primarily works with the first and third stanzas of Schiller's ode, and he also adds a few lines of his own in order to introduce Schiller's text into the symphony.

It's important to listen to the final movement while reading the text, so below, is the text in German with the English translation next to it that Beethoven used in the symphony. The lines that begin the text, "O friends! Not these sounds. But let us strike up more pleasant sounds and more joyful," were added by Beethoven himself to introduce Schiller's poem.

German
English
O Freunde, nicht diese Toene! Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freundenvollere!
O friends! Not these sounds! But let us strike up more pleasant sounds and more joyful!
Freude, schoener Goetterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische dein Heiligtum. Deine Zauber binden wieder, Was die Mode streng geteilt; Alle Menschen werden Brueder, Wo dein sanfter Fluegel weilt.
Joy, o wondrous spark divine, Daughter of Elysium, Drunk with fire now we enter, Heavenly one, your holy shrine. Your magic powers join again What fashion strictly did divide; Brotherhood unites all men Where your gentle wing's spread wide.
Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen, Eines Freundes Freund zu sein, Wer ein holdes Weib errungen, Mische seine Jubel ein! Ja - wer auch nur eine Seele Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund! Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!
The man who's been so fortunate To become the friend of a friend, The man who has won a fair woman - To the rejoicing let him add his voice. The man who calls but a single soul Somewhere in the world his own! And he who never managed this - Let him steal forth from our throng!
Freude trinken alle Wesen An den Bruesten der Natur, Alle Guten, alle Boesen Folgen ihre Rosenspur. Kuesse gab sie uns und Reben, Einen Freund, geprueft im Tod, Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben, Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
Joy is drunk by every creature From Nature's fair and charming breast; Every being, good or evil, Follows in her rosy steps. Kisses she gave to us, and vines, And one good friend, tried in death; The serpent she endowed with base desire And the cherub stands before God.
Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen Durch das Himmels praecht'gen Plan, Laufet, Brueder, eure Bahn, Freudig wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Gladly as His suns do fly Through the heavens' splendid plan, Run now, brothers, your own course, Joyful like a conquering hero
Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt! Brueder - ueberm Sternenzelt Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.
Embrace each other now, you millions! The kiss is for the whole wide world! Brothers - over the starry firmament A beloved Father must surely dwell.
Ihr stuerzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schoepfer, Welt? Such ihn ueberm Sternenzelt, Ueber Sternen muss er wohnen.
Do you come crashing down, you millions? Do you sense the Creators presence, world? Seek Him above the starry firmament, For above the stars he surely dwells.

9th Symphony Instrumentation

Woodwinds
Piccolo, Flutes, Oboes, Clarinets, Bassoons, and Contrabassoon
Brass
Horns, Trumpets, and Trombones
Percussion
Timpani, Bass Drum, Triangle, and Cymbals
Strings
Violins I and II, Violas, Cellos, and Basses
Choral
Solo: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone. Choral: Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, and Basses

Themes of the First Three Movements

Beethoven's 9th Symphony has four movements, and it isn't until the final movement that he deals directly with the theme of brotherhood. However, the previous three movements don't deal directly with brotherhood they deal with individual themes of their own, which on a certain level can be related to creating joy. Ultimately, the previous three movements help establish the importance of the theme of brotherhood, which will be explained further down in this article.

1st Movement - The musical theme of the first movement is accepting your fate or destiny. With this being arguably the darkest movement of the symphony, Beethoven seems to treat fate as something that is unrelenting and cannot be escaped from. Although Beethoven portrays fate in a dark manner in this symphony, listeners know, specifically from Beethoven's 5th Symphony, that Beethoven believes the individual can triumph over fate.

Also, consider this quote by Beethoven in regards to fate: "I will seize Fate by the throat. It will not wholly conquer me! Oh, how beautiful it is to live... and live a thousand times over."

2nd Movement - The theme of the second movement is spirit and adventure. Beethoven uses the scherzo to create a lively movement that uplifts the listeners spirit. It's playful nature and its pulsating rhythm almost suggests the feeling of a dance, giving it an adventurous feeling.

3rd Movement - The theme of the third movement is love. Here Beethoven does a few variations on a set of two themes that depict the intimacy of love. This movement is very slow and dreamlike. It suggests that love is both beautiful and timeless.

The main point to get out of the themes of the first three movements is that all three of these themes can lead to joy. Beethoven, however uses the 4th movement of this symphony to dismiss these ideas as ideas that can lead to joy. In other words he will try to say yes these ideas can lead to joy, but it is all for naught without brotherhood and equality.

The 4th Movement - Instrumental Sections

Beethoven uses two themes to depict brotherhood in this final movement. The first theme we will call the Ode to Joy theme (this is the famous one), and the second theme doesn't show up until later, which we wall call the Millions theme, because that is one of the keywords in the text that the theme starts on.

The 4th movement begins by alternating a loud and aggressive passage where all of the woodwinds and brass are playing together with a passage on a darker variation of the Ode to Joy theme played in unison by the cellos and basses. These two passages sound angry and dismissive, and their combination will be referred to as the, "dismissive passage," from here on out.

After the brief intense opening, Beethoven quotes the intro to the first movement, or fate if you will. The theme to the first movement is interrupted by the basses and cellos with the dismissive passage. Here we can see Beethoven dismissing fate and destiny as the gateways to joy.

The dismissive bass and cello passage is now quickly followed by a quote of the second movement's lively spirited theme. This too is also interrupted by the dismissive theme played by the basses and cellos, and again it is as if Beethoven is saying spirit and adventure are not the gateways to joy either.

The third movement now follows this passage, and after only a couple of bars it too is quickly dismissed by the basses and cellos, suggesting that love will not be the gateway to joy either. It should be noted that the dismissive theme at this point now sounds closer to the famous Ode to Joy theme that everyone knows. It's as if Beethoven is suggesting joy is possible with these ideas however, these ideas don't quite cut it without the idea of.... you named it brotherhood.

After the bass and cello passage, the Ode to Joy theme is now played in its true form briefly by the clarinets, bassoons, and oboes, however this is now met with the dismissive theme played by the basses and cellos, too. So is Beethoven dismissing brotherhood as the gateway to joy? Not yet...

After this rendition of the dismissive theme is played, the basses and cellos now take up the Ode to Joy theme in its entirety over the next several minutes. The rest of the orchestra slowly takes up the call to brotherhood, until the whole orchestra is playing the theme. It's as if the orchestra agrees that this theme, The Ode to Joy theme, will be the aesthetic that saves humanity. But have we achieved the complete and universal brotherhood that Beethoven is looking to express...no!

After the full orchestra joins the Ode to Joy theme this section is again interrupted by the aggressive passage of the dismissive theme that we heard open up the symphony, brotherhood has still not been achieved.

An original handwritten copy from the score of the 9th symphony.
An original handwritten copy from the score of the 9th symphony. | Source

The 4th Movement - Instrumental and Vocal Sections

Despite the powerful statement by the orchestra of the Ode to Joy theme, Beethoven doesn't allow brotherhood to be achieved without the inclusion of the vocalists, who have remained silent up until this point. After the restatement of the dismissive theme, Beethoven brings the first vocalist, a solo baritone, to join the orchestra. The baritone soloist sings the only two lines of text that Beethoven wrote for this symphony on a variation of the dismissive theme to prepare us for the inclusion of Schiller's poem.

After the baritone gets through the dismissive portion of his solo, he begins a solo rendition of the Ode to Joy theme set with the text from the verse of Schiller's poem and with sparse orchestral accompaniment. Gradually the rest of the orchestra joins in on the Ode to Joy theme and eventually so does the choir. The full orchestra and choir exchange the Ode to Joy theme by having variations sung by the soloists exchange parts with the original theme being reiterated by the orchestra. This section ends on a climactic coda after the Ode to Joy theme is sung by the orchestra and heads into the Turkish dance section of the symphony.

During this section of the symphony, Turkish rhythms and timbres are used while the tenor starts up a solo that has a dance like quality to it. Again, the orchestra and the choir slowly join in, building up another euphony of sound. This, however, fades and when it does the listener begins to expect the return of the dismissive section. After some tension and uncertain harmonies that switch between a major and minor chord built off of B. Beethoven brings back the Ode to Joy theme with full orchestra and choir solidifying the fact that brotherhood will not be dismissed this time.

After this section the Millions theme is heard for the first time, which uses the text from the chorus of Schiller's poem for the first time as well. This is played in a slower and more grand style, giving the feeling as if an epiphany of tremendous significance has occurred. As Beethoven allows this moment to wash over his listeners he begins his transition into the finale of this symphony.

Beethoven begins his finale with a double fugue, which is begun with sopranos and altos and sparse orchestra in the background. The first subject of the fugue is the Ode to Joy theme, and the second subject is the Millions theme. Beethoven again slowly brings the orchestra and choir back into the fugue, building up the intensity like he has before. The fugue eventually leads the text back around full circle where the text used in the fugue is repeated this time in unison with everyone in the orchestra and choir playing/singing together. The symphony concludes on a triumphant note with the orchestra playing a furiously joyful presto, at last joy has been created from brotherhood.

The Many Levels of Brotherhood.

Besides using the text, many other instances of brotherhood and equality are symbolically heard in this symphony. So consider the following as additional instances of brotherhood that help emphasize the theme of this symphony:

Merging Vocal Music with Orchestral Music - Beethoven manages to do this in a genre that was exclusively instrumental until the writing of this work. Only until we have vocals and orchestra singing the Ode to Joy theme together is the dismissive theme not played anymore. The merging of these two forces, vocal and orchestral, had never been done in a symphony before, and they can be viewed as another symbolic act of brotherhood.

Merging High and Low Art-Forms Together - Beethoven merges two forms rarely seen together on the same stage, before and since, the low and high art-forms. The low art-form is represented by the drinking song that is used as the text. The text is merged with the high art-form being the orchestra and choir that sings and plays the accompanying music. Both are equally important to the sound of the symphony, and to the theme of brotherhood that the symphony is trying to stress.

Merging Different Musical Cultures Together - Although this symphony is primarily sourced in Western culture, Beethoven does take the time to mesh Western culture with the music of the more Eastern sounding Turkish culture. A Turkish feel is created rhythmically and stylistically during the tenor solo that occurs in the 4th movement. By mixing these two different musical cultures together, a cultural brotherhood is implied between various cultures on Earth.

Soloists Are On Equal Footing with the Ensemble - Soloists are usually regarded as being more important than their ensemble counterparts, at least by the general public. But in the final movement, Beethoven uses his vocal soloists to sing in counterpoint with one another, and to do some call and response with the members of the choir ensemble that sing with them. This idea again reinforces the idea of equality as the soloists are used as equal members of the whole ensemble.

Putting the Chorus and Verse Text on Equal Footing - Beethoven gives the verse text of Schiller's poem the Ode to Joy theme, and he gives the chorus text the Millions theme. Each theme gets their own carved out section of the last movement to stress their importance in the whole of the symphony. However, brotherhood is symbolically achieved here at the finale when Beethoven sets both themes together in counterpoint in the form of a double fugue. Showing that the verse and chorus text are equally important, and so is each musical theme.

That's my interpretation of the program of Beethoven's 9th symphony. If you have your own interpretation of this symphony, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

For More Information About Beethoven

Here are a few more biographical articles I have written about Beethoven. They are divided into three parts based off of his changing style of writing music. The articles are:

Beethoven's Early Period of Music Composition -

This article focuses on Beethoven's early life and his rise to prominence in Vienna's musical society. Beethoven looks to learn from Mozart and Haydn while he begins developing his own musical style that will be more famously realized in his writing periods. Famous works from this period include the Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas and the first string quartet.

Beethoven's Middle Period of Music Composition

This article focuses on the prime of Beethoven's life in Vienna as he struggles to accept his increasing deafness, while tries to push the boundaries of music. Famous works from this period include Symphonies 3, 5, 6,7, Piano Concerto 5, and the Waldstein and Appassionata Sonatas.

Beethoven's Late Period of Music Composition

This article focuses on Beethoven's period of writing music when he was all but completely deaf. Although his musical output slows he pushes the boundaries of music very far while writing his most ambitious musical compositions. Famous works from this period include the 9th Symphony, Missa Solemnis, and Diabelli Variations.

The Meaning of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony

This article explores the meaning and ideas of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony. Originally written and dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, Beethoven famously scratches out the dedication and renames it Eroica, which means Heroic.

Beethoven's Most Beautiful: Ten of the Most Beautiful Compositions By Beethoven

This article explores ten of the most beautiful movements of music written by Beethoven. This article is recommended for people who love Beethoven or for people who wish to expand their listening knowledge of classical music.


9th Symphony Interpretation Poll

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    • profile image

      Astudent 3 years ago

      How am I going to cite you? :/

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image
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      Music-and-Art-45 4 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Hello Edwin.

      Sorry for the delay in writing this response. I'm flattered that you enjoyed the article. More importantly I'm glad to meet someone who appreciates this symphony as much as I do. Thanks again for your kind words.

    • profile image

      Edwin 4 years ago

      Ah, hello.

      It's me again. Thank you for replying to my comment; proof that you, be it Sir or Madam are a true, loyal, respectable article writer. It makes me emotional pondering upon the great amounts of sheer effort put into this beautiful piece of text and more so into the vastly helpful comments that follow. You are a hero of this world. A truly inspiring individual, reflecting upon the past and it's musical greats. Simply amazing.

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image
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      Music-and-Art-45 4 years ago from USA, Illinois

      wilsummerdreamer - thank you for reading and commenting, Beethoven's 9th is also one of my favorite symphonies, too.

    • Willsummerdreamer profile image

      Will English. 4 years ago from Marietta, Georgia.

      My favorite symphony. Very interesting essay. I enjoyed reading it. ^_^.

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image
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      Music-and-Art-45 4 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Thanks for commenting Lesleysherwood. I grew up listening to Beethoven, too, he provides a lot of inspiration.

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      Lesleysherwood 4 years ago

      Such an informative hub. I grew up listening to Beethoven, I really enjoyed reading this, thank you!

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image
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      Music-and-Art-45 4 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Hello John thanks for all of the votes and thanks for reading and commenting.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Hi Music and Art 45, and what a wonderful hub this is; I was quite impressed!

      Voted up on all, except funny. Too bad when Schiller was around "funny" was foreign to "drama," hence the reason I did not vote funny..., but highest votes on all else.

      Take care

      John

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image
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      Music-and-Art-45 4 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Hello Edwin thanks for reading and commenting. Beethoven's music is very emotional, especially the 9th, which is probably my favorite symphony he wrote.

    • profile image

      Edwin 4 years ago

      I find this article so inspiring. As a cello player myself, I tend to go for popular Beethoven numbers, but find them increasingly emotional as the music plays on. Sometimes I break down, cry, feel overwhelmed, shout, scream.... But I never forget just how amazing the 9th symphony is.

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image
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      Music-and-Art-45 4 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Hello midget38 thanks for stopping by and for sharing. Glad to hear about your enthusiasm for Beethoven and classical music, and I'm glad to connect, too.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Beethoven himself was an example of the merging of art forms....with his own deafness, he could still create masterpieces to be remembered for eternity. I love this take on classical music & will share, Music and Art!! Am glad to connect!

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image
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      Music-and-Art-45 5 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Thanks for stopping by chasmac and good to hear you enjoyed it.

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 5 years ago from UK

      Excellent insights to a masterpiece. It's always enjoyable to hear the 9th, but with the benefit of your observations in mind, it'll be more meaningful and rewarding. Thanks!

    • Music-and-Art-45 profile image
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      Music-and-Art-45 5 years ago from USA, Illinois

      Thanks for stopping by Spartucusjones, I'm glad you liked it.

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      CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Very fascinating hub! Very well explained and detailed explanation of an important piece of musical history.