‘Oh, you’ll know’: LB Symphony’s Eckart Preu talks ‘Ode to Joy’

The Long Beach Symphony will perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Saturday, as part of its season-ending program, that also includes Handel’s “Royal Fireworks Music.” The Ninth is a masterwork, of course, and its crowning glory is the “Ode to Joy,” a piece of music, though first performed 195 years ago, that has remained as relevant and popular through the centuries as when it was shooting up 19th century Vienna’s Hot 100.

Not only is the Ninth/Ode in heavy symphony rotation—joining the likes of the Nutcracker and Beethoven’s Fifth—but has remained a popular selection for film scores—”Dead Poets Society,” “Die Hard,” etc. And though “Ode” is associated with a state of spiritual ecstasy, it has also always been utilized as an anthem for protest, whether it involved the Pinochet dictatorship or student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

We spoke with LB Symphony Music Director, Eckart Preu, about what Beethoven does in the “Ode” to make us love it so… and if that mattered to him.

I maintain that “Ode to Joy” is the most popular and beloved piece of music, ever. Musically, what is going on in that song that has made people react to it in the way they do? What is Beethoven doing in it that makes us love it so?

It’s the perfect combination of memorable melody, sophisticated counterpoint and sheer overwhelming raw power. We have to wait for this final movement for quite a while, so the long-anticipated fulfillment of expectation plays a big role in the release of emotions. Also, the main melody of the “Ode” is repeated over and over in various incarnations to make sure we won’t forget it. And when 200 people on stage are engaged in the final super fast and heated yelling of “Joy!” it’s so extreme you have to love it.

Is there any other piece of music you play that consistently gets the reception that the “Ode to Joy” gets?

There are quite a few works that tend to have a direct impact, usually resulting in standing ovations, usually with rousing final movements: Beethoven’s 5th symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony or piano concerto, Mahler’s 2nd symphony. A lot of works that provide a similarly satisfying ending go through a journey from darkness to light. Who doesn’t cheer for a happy ending?

While many people think of “Ode” purely as a beautiful and inspirational piece of music, the fact is that it also has a long history of being used politically. What about it makes it a political song?

It was conceived with a political idea in mind, inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment. The idea of freedom, brotherhood and love is universal and is arguably as important and relevant now as it was 200 years ago.

Regarding the song’s popularity, from what we know of Beethoven, was it important to him that his music was popular? We know about his intensity and single mindedness, but did Beethoven want to be liked?

I think everybody wants to be liked. Not by everybody, but by people important to one’s social circle. Beethoven as an artist was loved, admired and worshipped like few musicians in music history. He wanted to be loved and wanted to love. That’s why he was so drawn to the main message of the “Ode”: “Seid umschlungen, Millionen“—“Be embraced, you millions.” Besides the general love of humankind, his longing for a mate for his private life was challenging for him, and his famous temper and progressing deafness were not helpful in his quest for a lasting personal relationship which never materialized.

I imagine that “Ode” is like “Nutcracker,” a greatest hit that symphonies schedule quite often because they know the public wants it. Be honest, do you ever get tired of the thing? Does it become like the Rolling Stones with “Satisfaction”? 

True musical masterworks provide new adventures every time and every turn. There are many miracles hidden in this score, many of which reveal themselves only over time. I have conducted this symphony more times than any other symphony, and I am in awe of its mastery and the many layers of musical texture. The complexity of the score provides many opportunities to rethink the musical concept and try out new things every time. And it is not a musical hill, it is like climbing Mount Everest. Every time you attempt to conquer this musical mountain you are challenged at your core, technically, musically and emotionally. No chance you can get bored here.

How does the audience know “Ode” has begun?

Oh, you’ll know. Beethoven prepares us several times for the arrival of the tune. The impact of the final movement is the result of several things: 1) He lulls us into a comfortable and warm zone before jolting us awake with the arrival of the shocking dissonances of the last movement. Then there’s a long recitative section by the basses, this is still so novel nowadays it’s hard to imagine how odd it must have been back then. 2) Following the recitative of the bass section the music seems to stop and the tune begins, again with the basses of the orchestra, very softly. Introducing the theme of joy softly is a stroke of brilliant imagination because now he can build the tune repeating it over and over with dramatic interruptions until the baritone, soloists and chorus sing it in unison in forte.

And that’s just the beginning. Short answer: yes, you’ll know.

Long Beach Symphony performs Beethoven’s Ninth, Saturday, at 8 p.m. in the Terrace Theater at 300 E. Ocean Blvd. For more info and tickets, visit the link here or call 562-436-3203.

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Steve Lowery began his journalism career at the Los Angeles Times, where he planned to spend his entire career. God, as usual, laughed at his plans and he has since written for the short-lived sports publication The National, the L.A. Daily News, the Press-Telegram, New Times LA, the District and the OC Weekly. He is the Arts & Culture Editor for the Post, overseeing the Hi-lo.