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Breaking into Joy

March 2000

By Mary Craig

Recently I was watching an A & E Biography on Beethoven (1770-1827). It portrayed his life with an abusive and alcoholic father who locked him in the cellar and made the world a dangerous place. Born in Bonn, Germany, on a forgotten day (there is no record of his birth date), Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770. Both his father and grandfather worked as court musicians in Bonn. Young Beethoven grew up morose and unhappy, terrified of other people, unable to focus in school, wearing raggedy clothes, punished for imperfection. His mother, who never protected him from his fatherís abuses, died in 1787. By 18 he had two younger brothers to care for. He became bitter and bad-tempered. At 22, when his father died, he did not attend the funeral. He was a rough-mannered, pox-marked, swarthy five feet four inches tall renegade who could not be bought.

Against the emotional turmoil and passion of Beethovenís life rose the spirit of revolution pervading the times in which he lived. Ludvig van Beethoven represented the struggle of transition. He created a bridge between 18th century classical and Romanticism. Unlike Mozart, Beethoven always agonized to perfect his work. Graciously, he was able to escape to Vienna to study with Joseph Haydn and Antonio Salieri. Playing once for Mozart, the latter is quoted as saying, "Watch out for this boy. One day he will give this world something to talk about."

As deafness took over his life, Beethoven found himself more and more isolated in a cauldron of personal despair and humiliation. With his spirit crushed by lost loves, his body failing with loss of hearing, he would suffer from violent mood swings and flights of rage. By 1810 as Beethovenís deafness became total, it was as if he wanted to seize fate by the throat and transcend his rage through his music. The bird songs and wind, things he would never hear again, he translated into music.

A lonely man who never married but who had several liaisons with noble but "she would never marry him" women, Beethoven would take long walks carrying sketchbooks in which he would write down his musical ideas. These notebooks reflect his convulsive efforts to contend for the prize of perfect melodies, harmonies, and instrumentations.

Beethovenís early work reflect the salient features typical of the classical era. Not far from the sensibilities of the classical period, this early work is well constructed. Beethoven added only some of his own subtleties, like sudden changes of dynamics. By 1814 to the end of his life, however, his music came to express wider ranges of harmony and counterpoint, longer and more complicated forms of music, improvisatory techniques, surprise rhythmic accents, and other unexpected elements.

Emotionally, Beethoven took music to new heights. Growing up during a time of great social and political upheaval, his music reflects his interest in the struggle for personal and political freedom. He was six when American colonies rebelled against the British and later followed Napoleonís rise to power, and fall. He idolized Napoleon and dedicated "Eroica" to the spirit of the revolution.

In the A & E program, I watched Beethovenís life of intense emotional distress and passion against the abuses and desires for freedom unfold. By age 50, he became like a vagabond. Drunk, raggedy, arrested as a tramp, he was abandoned by friends. All the time, the music was inside and chaos outside. If it is true that a man can possess talents, it is equally true that genius possesses a man.

Briefly, in 1823, he turned to the church for answers and wrote a mass. And then, in 1824, at age 54, he wrote the passionate and optimistic Ninth Symphony. In 1826 Beethovenís nephew tried to kill himself. On March 22, 1827, Beethoven received the last rites by the Roman Catholic Church. During a ferocious storm, Beethoven is said to have raised his fist and collapse. His last recorded words were, "I shall hear in heaven. Clap now, my friends, the comedy is done."

The special I watched on television chose the Ninth Symphony to be the backdrop for Beethovenís life. In one instance he was shown running, running, running, as hard and as fast as he could from the abuse and oppression and enemies of his soul that so characterized his experience. When he could run no more, he fell down, eyes closed. But when he opened his eyes and looked up, he saw the heavens and the stars. At this dramatic moment, the music broke into "Ode to Joy." Just as this finale to his Ninth Symphony broke the bounds of conventional music by stemming tumult with its eloquence and insistence on decision, Beethoven also passed into a "new song," a song whose simple stately flow swells into a mighty flood. This hymn to a righteous God and brotherhood to all men reflected Beethovenís belief that God was approachable.

As suddenly as the music broke into joy, so also its message broke within me. Here was Beethoven, crying out from the depths of despair and oppression, the victim of injustice and cruelty, breaking into joy. I saw two options. One, that at the breaking point we can self-destruct and crumble under the weight of circumstance; or two, that we can come to the end of ourselves, fall flat on our backs, look up, and break into joy. Beethovenís "Ode to Joy" would call us to the latter.

How are the bonds of wickedness broken? How are the abuses of evil overcome? How do we transition from one age to another? How do we rise up and reign in the conquest of victory over the terrors and horrors of life? We humble ourselves before the Almighty, look up to the source of our redemption, and break into joy.

Beethovenís music portrays the time. It was a time of transition. It was a time of struggle to overcome oppressors, injustice, and abusive exploitation. It was a time with revolt in the air. It was time to loose the bonds of convention and pretense, white wigs and powdered faces. It was time to reach for the real. It was a time of revolution.

Carl F. H. Henry in the Bakerís Dictionary of Christian Ethics describes revolution as "a sudden and violent socio-political process aimed at the overthrow and/or seizure of governmental power." It is to be distinguished from rebellion. Rebellion has a more limited objective, while revolution is more comprehensive in scale. Revolution is a process, a movement aimed at radical change.

We might see repentance as a call to renewal, to new life, indeed, to "revolution" of sorts. The gospel calls us to radical changeÖin outlook, in issues of the heart, in the dimensions of life lived before God and man. For me, "Ode to Joy" is a call to move in metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, to submit to Jesus Christ making me a new creation, with the old passing away and all things becoming new. (2 Corinthians 5.17) It is a call to live in a new perspective, in a new freedom, in a new glory, in a new song. It is a call to die to the old and rise. It is a call to find dominion over death, devils, and disease. It is a call to break into joy.

[Editor's note: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," is the tune that is sung to the hymn, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," by Henry van Dyke.]

 
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