What makes for joyful music? A peppy orchestral piece in a bright major key, performed by energetic musicians? Or perhaps that is just levity, not joy? It is good to consider that not all cheerful music—even cheerful classical music— is created equal. And because true joy is none other than Jesus Himself, we should be very choosy when seeking joy in what we hear. We ought to consider not only the musical qualities of a given piece, but also its purpose and especially its text.
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony?
First, let’s have a look at “Ode to Joy”—the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Now here is a piece with vigor and gusto! It is hard to imagine stringed instruments moving any faster than they do here. And it is hard not to prickle with the feeling of grandeur when a full symphony orchestra joins forces with a powerful choir (Beethoven was the first major composer do this). But we must also look at the piece’s text, the end of a poem written by German Enlightenment thinker Friedrich Schiller. This poem, titled “An die Freude,” was intended to represent universal friendship and brotherhood. Here is an English translation:
Joy, daughter of Elysium!
Your magic once again unites
all that Fashion had sternly divided.
All men become brothers
where your gentle wings abide.
Be embraced, ye millions!
This kiss to the whole world!
Brothers–above the canopy of the stars
surely a loving father dwells.
Joy, fair divine spark,
daughter of Elysium,
Joy, fair divine spark!
Schiller’s text is optimistic about the transformative power of joy among men. He even calls it the “daughter of Elysium,” the place of a happy afterlife in Greek mythology. And yet, there is something vacuous and vague about his message. What is this joy? Where does it come from? How do we obtain it? The poem assumes that joy has power to unite all men as brothers and embrace millions. But what if that never happens in the real world….ever? The text’s ambiguity, combined with its clearly false promises, even seems to tarnish the movement’s music itself. Without a foundation in reality, grandeur and vivacity are merely a delight to the senses. They do not lend true comfort or joy.
Bach’s Jesus bleibet meine Freude
Let’s turn to another candidate: J. S. Bach’s chorale setting of “Jesus, Joy of My Desiring.” Bach chose this chorale to end his cantata for the Feast of the Visitation of Mary (BWV 147). Bach’s setting for the text, a tender swell of strings undergirding a small choir and chamber orchestra, lacks the rafter-shaking exuberance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” finale. Yet the text of this chorale—the final stanza of a hymn by Lutheran pastor Martin Janus—kindles the piece, already warm with passion, into poignant joy. Here is the English translation:
Jesus remains my joy,
the comfort and life’s blood of my heart,
Jesus defends me against all sorrows,
he is my life’s strength,
the delight and sun of my eyes
my soul’s treasure and joy;
therefore I shall not let Jesus go
from my heart and sight.
In this text, the essence and source of joy are clear: Jesus! He is our defense, strength, delight, and treasure. He is our gladness when the world’s self-made joy leaves us with nothing but sorrow. He is our life’s strength when the bonds of brotherly love crumble away. He is all we must look to and cling to, for He alone gives us righteousness and peace of conscience before God. Bach and Janus both knew this well, and their marriage of text and music is a near perfect epitome of Christian joy.
Certainly, many pieces of music merit our delight and admiration. But when seeking joy, let us welcome no one less than Christ into the score. For on that day when we stand in joy everlasting, we will be singing of no one but Him.
“Aus die Freude” translated by Steven Ledbetter
“Jesu bleibet meine Fruede” translated by Francis Browne