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Deceptive Cadence: The Music And Morality Of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

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German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827), painted by Kloeber circa 1805.
Image credit: Hulton Archive

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Ever since Beethoven‘s iconic Ninth Symphony premiered May 7, 1824 at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, it has remained arguably the most popular composition in the classical music canon, thanks largely to its final movement, the “Ode to Joy,” with a text by poet Friedrich Schiller.

But Beethoven’s music has become something much more than popular. With its expansive length, mold-busting design, and the inclusion of solo singers and chorus, he was proposing nothing less than a philosophy for humanity.

Beethoven, the composer-philosopher, was a man who suffered more than we can imagine and yet he retained optimism and a sense of hope that we can admire and even envy. He believed wholeheartedly in the goodness of humanity, the power of love, joy, unity, tolerance and peace to overcome and endure.

I am convinced that we inherently know and feel these aspirations when we hear Beethoven’s Ninth and are drawn to it both musically and morally.

Beethoven’s Ninth has become synonymous with many important political and social events over the course of the last century. In 1972, the Council of Europe adopted the prelude to the “Ode to Joy” as the Anthem of Europe to celebrate the shared values of the member states and express the ideals of a united Europe: freedom, peace, and solidarity. In 1985, European Union leaders chose it as the official anthem of the E.U.

Outside Europe, the “Ode” has been tapped as a protest anthem from demonstrators in Chile, who sang a version of the famous tune during protests against the Pinochet dictatorship, to the more recent Occupy Wall Street–driven gatherings in Madrid.

During the 1989 Christmas holiday, my teacher and mentor, Leonard Bernstein, conducted a version of Beethoven’s Ninth at the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall where he changed Schiller’s word “freude” (joy) to “freiheit” (freedom).

These important adoptions and adaptations of Beethoven’s Ninth inspired me to create a new project, “All Together: A Global Ode to Joy,” marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020.

The fact that this unique composition has inspired the imagination, hopes and aspirations of so many people from such diverse backgrounds led me to imagine a 21st-century rendering of the symphony – one that could bring to life the journey of the entire piece and capture the essence of the specific community where it is performed.

In partnership with Carnegie Hall, I will bring this project to six continents over the next year. We’ll bring new texts to each location, plus added music – as preludes and interludes – reflective of that particular region to connect and amplify the narrative.

In Baltimore, the new text has been created by rap artist, Wordsmith. For our final performance at Carnegie Hall, former U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracey K. Smith will do the honors. In Africa, the new text will be in Zulu; in New Zealand in the te reo Māori language but, above all, Beethoven’s (and Schiller’s) themes of unity, tolerance, equality, love and joy will shine through to touch new generations.

It is exactly this universality makes the “Ode to Joy” so special in expressing our desire for happiness and brotherhood. From the Americas to Europe, Asia and the rest of the world, Beethoven’s music and Schiller’s words have been the carriers of a universal message that transcends the boundaries of time and culture.

This message, filled with optimism and a fundamental faith in what is best in humanity, could not be more relevant today, when we see far too much disorder, misunderstanding and extremism.

All Together: A Global Ode to Joy” begins Dec. 12 in São Paulo, Brazil and concludes Dec. 19, 2020 at Carnegie Hall.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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