It is one of the most popular themes in all of classical music, nay, in all of music, period. It has been used as the melody of a famous church hymn written in 1907, as the theme music for the Unified German Olympic team of the 1950s and 1960s, and now as the anthem for the European Union. It is the subject of a viral flash-mob video, proving that its beauty is instantly mesmerizing to the general public. Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme undergirds the long fourth movement of his massive Ninth Symphony. The theme occurs repeatedly, in various guises, in this final movement, which employs vocal soloists and a chorus, singing the words of Friedrich Schiller’s hymn to love and the brotherhood of all men, which reads, in part:
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, burning with fervour,
heavenly being, your sanctuary!
Your magic brings together
what custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover.
Only a few pieces of music in the Western canon rival the fame of the “Ode to Joy” theme: the opening chords of Beethoven’s own Fifth Symphony, “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the first notes of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to name a few. The “Ode to Joy,” however, seems to stand above these, due to its hymn-like, sublime character and its elevated call to universal brotherhood. It will be forever associated with Beethoven’s name, and alone would ensure his legacy as one of the greatest composers—in the estimation of many, THE greatest composer—who ever lived.
The problem is that the “Ode to Joy” theme is not entirely original to Beethoven. He might well have borrowed the main part of it from none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
In 1775, at the age of nineteen, Mozart composed the “Misericordias Domini,” K. 222, a six-minute sacred work that is little recorded and seldom performed today, yet which constitutes a minor masterpiece. Mozart employs what became the germ of the “Ode to Joy” theme three times throughout the work: at 1:00, at 2:00, and at 5:08 in the video below. Beethoven simply tweaked the development of the theme to turn it into the “Ode to Joy”; and then, in the finale of the Ninth, presented it in various incarnations. Listen for yourself to both works:
Of course, the nineteenth century—and previous centuries—did not have the same understanding of the borrowing of ideas that we have today. Composers commonly borrowed from themselves as well as from others. Beethoven re-used the tune of a contredanse for the finale of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, for the finale for the mighty Eroica symphony, and in his Eroica Variations for piano. Hector Berlioz salvaged a melody from an early, discarded Mass, using it in his scenic cantata Herminie and most famously, as the “idee fixee” of the Symphonie Fantastique. Georg Frederic Handel was notorious for self-borrowing, constantly re-using themes in different guises; many of the famous tunes of his Messiah originated in earlier instrumental works. Self-borrowing was common and rarely aroused comment. In terms of borrowing from other composers, the bounds of accepted practice were somewhat muddier. Though the term “plagiarism” was coined in the 1600s, and England adopted the first copyright law in 1709, protection seems to have focused more on the written word. In music, composers freely borrowed ideas, melodies, and even opera plot lines from their peers. In an age before recording, few local audiences would even recognize when a composer borrowed from a peer, and to do so brought little or no shame anyway. It was what the composer did with the storyline, the idea, or the tune that mattered.
Johannes Brahms turned the same trick on Beethoven that Beethoven had turned on Mozart. When Brahms finally summoned the courage to follow in Beethoven’s footsteps in composing a symphony, critics pointed out that the main theme for the finale of his First Symphony was similar to the “Ode to Joy” theme. “Any fool can see that!” retorted Brahms without apology. The sobriquet given to Brahms’ first essay in this genre–“Beethoven’s Tenth”–thus had a double-edged connotation, being hailed by some as a worthy successor to his predecessor’s symphonic models, by others as a weak imitation of them. But this was a comparatively harsh judgment. More often, composers were forgiven their borrowings, as long as they demonstrated originality and genius in their use of them. Creating variations on often quaint tunes, for example, was a common practice. Brahms did this with his Variations on a Theme by Haydn (though the theme was misattributed and is by an unknown composer); Beethoven did it with his “Diabelli Variations” for piano; Sergei Rachmaninov wrote variations on themes of Paganini, Corelli, and Chopin. Sometimes, it was not a tune per se but the overall concept of a piece that provided inspiration for a later composer. For instance, the late conductor-musiciologist Sir Charles Mackerras convincingly demonstrated that Mozart himself modeled his great aria, “Martern aller Arten” on an aria by Johann Christian Bach, imitating its instrumentation, structure, and spirit. The list could go on at length, of course. In each of these cases, the later composer improved upon his model, making something mediocre into something great.
And there is another case of Beethoven using a tune previously employed by Mozart. In 1768, at the age of twelve, Mozart composed a one-act singspiel, Bastien und Bastienne, the overture of which uses as its main theme the primary melody of the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Mozart’s little opera was unpublished at the time that Beethoven composed his revolutionary symphony. Could Beethoven still have heard the piece performed or seen a copy of the score? Or might both Mozart and Beethoven borrowed the tune from a third, unknown source?
As T.S. Eliot, who is sometimes himself accused of plagiarizing, said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In the case of the “Ode to Joy,” the reader/listener can judge for himself if this is what Beethoven accomplished with Mozart’s tune.
Books and music on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.