It just didn't seem possible. How could a deaf man, no matter his musical genius, compose a symphony that was to become the most recognized piece in the western musical canon? At the premiere in Vienna in 1824, the 20-year-old contralto, Caroline Unger, allegedly turned Beethoven to face the audience so that he could at least see their response. There were five encores, and he couldn't hear a single clap.
Of all of the qualities that made this piece endure, there is one that goes amiss on no one who listens to it: its obsession with the experience of “Freude” or joy. Both Beethoven and Schiller, whose poem, “Ode to Joy,” the composer used for his choral symphony, came into the world at the tail end of the Age of Enlightenment that soon gave way to the carnage of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Like us, they lived in times of dramatic change with terrible loss of human life. Yet, through all of it they were able to give us this piece that wrenches closed hearts open and transcends division with its extraordinary beauty.
As I watched the lone young man in the black overcoat wearing a sober dark tie walking with unmistakable purpose through the empty grounds of the Louvre as the sound of that choral symphony rose, I felt “Freude.” It had been gone for such a long time, when it seemed that we were on our way forward to a past whose atrocities we knew all too well.
Was I just being a gullible romantic, and wasn’t this just the overly-confident, green young French President Elect giving a premature finger to the nationalists and autocrats who said that the European project was over?
The young man gave a speech in which he said he would serve “with love.” Joy, love, reason, morality. They just hadn’t seemed possible any more - not in the same breath. But he offered us a drop of that magical serum called hope and the interconnections became like the beams between the musical notes in the fourth movement of that unforgettable symphony.
He had campaigned for one year through none of the established political parties on a platform that many said was a dead end. The media had tried to make a soap opera out of his unconventional marriage (similar to mine), and the superpowers had actively attempted to undermine his campaign in favor of extremist, anti-democratic forces that seemed to be engulfing the world. His winning just didn’t seem possible.
The question remains as to why all of these Goliaths could not bring down David. The reason, I believe, lies in his appeal to what has been missing. I have found myself beginning to unsubscribe to e-mails threatening that the sky will fall down if I don’t provide another USD 50 to this or that Congressman or woman. This inspires nothing in me except dread about the long string of e-mails that will most certainly follow about the horrible catastrophe that will befall us if I do not contribute.
Into this vacuum of imagination suddenly there landed the seed of everything unlikely that ever happened. Its name was joy.