Thursday, June 05, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 5: A Song That Has A New Meaning Every Time You Hear It

[Ludwig von Beethoven and Friedrich Schiller]
Today's prompt in the 30 Day Song Challenge presents a very tall order.  A song that has a new meaning every time you hear it?  The way I figure it, this selection had better be either (1) a song you don't hear very often, (2) a song that is written in code, or (3) a song that is absolutely, undeniably brilliant.

My pick is the latter.

Today I'm picking "Ode to Joy," which is really the final movement of the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, with the lyrical ode penned in 1785 (almost a half-century before its musical accompaniment) by German poet, playwright and historian Friedrich Schiller.  A little bit of history: the original title of Schiller's "Ode to Joy (Freude)" was actually "Ode to Freedom (Freiheit)", celebrating what must have looked to Schiller in 1785 like the very special kind of freedom that could only be achieved through universal human friendship. But alas, just a few years later in 1800, Schiller wrote in a letter to his friend Christian Gottfried K├Ârner that in retrospect he judged his Ode to be "detached from reality" and "of value for us two, but not for the world, nor the art of poetry." For better or worse, Schiller revised his "Ode to Freedom" in 1808, changing the title to "Ode to Joy" and deleting the final (most overtly political) stanza.  That must have been a disheartening concession for Schiller, but what remains as the "Ode to Joy" is nevertheless one of the most successful marriages of music and poetry in the history of human creation.

Here it is, sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  I'm posting this version first because it includes the lyrics:



Now, all due respect to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as well as every other staid and stable churchgoer, but THIS below (by the Soul Children of Chicago) is what an "Ode to Joy" ought to sound and look like:


As I've mentioned before on this blog, I grew up a PK and so probably learned the words to "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee" (the title by which most church-folk know "Ode to Joy") around the same time I learned the words to the Pledge of Allegiance.  And at that very early age, I probably understood the words to Schiller's Ode as little as I understood the words to the Pledge of Allegiance.  "Ode to Joy" has always been a strange and awe-inspiring song to me, which I suppose is appropriate given that it is a song of adoration, itself a strange and awe-inspiring emotion.  As someone who has wavered between increasing and decreasing distance from the church over the course of my adult life, I can still say that, at ever one of those varying distances, this song has drawn me closer to the transcendent than anything else.  

There is no possible way to recount every "new meaning" I've heard in this song over the now forty years it has graced my ears, but here are some highlights:
[Age: 10-12ish, Junior High] Hearts unfold like flowers before thee / Opening to the sun above.  This was probably the line that first awakened me to the depth and profundity of the song, when I was only barely at an age to understand depth or profundity at all.  It still stands as a metaphor for what a truly healthy loving relationship might look like, i.e., something that opens, unfolds and nourishes the heart.

[Age: 17-22ish, Early College] Drive the dark of doubt away. Like a lot of people, my college years were the first occasion of my consciously and intentionally straying from the church.  And like many PK's, the place I ran to and eventually took up residence in was Philosophy, a discipline characterized by many more Odes to Doubt than to Joy, and in which the former is a far greater object of adoration than the latter.  I remember attending a service at some random Episcopal church in NashVegas one Sunday morning in my early 20's, in search of I knew not what, and hearing an abbreviated version of "Joyful, Joyful" again, only as if that time for the first time.  The description of "doubt" as a kind of "darkness" resonated deeply with me at then, as it does still today.

[Age 24-27ish, Late College] Ever singing, march we onward / Victors in the midst of strife / Joyful music leads us onward / In the triumph song of life.  My years at the University of Memphis were a loooong and winding road, during which I devoted as much time writing songs, learning to play guitar and gigging with various (more or less competent) bar-bands as I did to trying to finish my B.A.  (Yeah, ok, that's not even close to true.  I devoted FAR more time to playing in bands than I did to trying to graduate.)  At any rate, as music became more a central part of my life, I realized that this particular stanza from "Ode to Joy" was exactly right.  And, because of that, the song became an entirely different sort of "hymn" for me, representing what I believed deeply and truly about song.  I fell in love with the idea of a an army marching onward, ever singing, victors in the midst of strife, lead forward and onward by the joyful "triumph song of life."  For whatever it's worth, to this very day, that is the image that inspires and motivates me.  And that is the one and only kind of army I would fight with for a better world. 

[Age: 29ish, Graduate School] Thou are giving and forgiving / Ever blessing, ever blessed.  I wrote my dissertation on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which meant that I spent a good deal of my graduate school years not only reading and researching the very worst of what human beings have done to one another, but also thinking about what forgiveness could and could not do (as well as what forgiveness should and should not do) in the aftermath of what we now call "crimes against humanity."  At one point during my research, on a Sunday afternoon, when I was about halfway through reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu's book No Future Without Forgiveness, I heard "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee" being sung just outside my window by the church choir practicing next door.  (There was literally only 5 feet between the windows of my apartment in Philadelphia and the church next door.)  Now, I suspect that God (s'il y en a) has much more important things to do than send me signs, but that moment felt like a sign to me.  It felt like a directive from God-- or the choir next door, or humanity in general, or whatever else, I really don't know-- to stop and think deeply about the relationship between giving and forgiving, and the manner in which the activity of blessing manifests itself in the condition of being blessed.

----------------------------------
Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

No comments: