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All Together: A Global Ode to Joy

Arthur Nestrovski

Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” was written in 1785 and revised by the poet in 1808. Partially incorporated into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1824, it would become one of the most famous works—if not the most famous work—set to music by any composer in the history of Western culture. Paradoxically, it is still little-known among the millions or billions of people who listen to the Ninth Symphony who do not understand German. Its meaning, however, lies at the core of this symphony. Together, in poetry and music, Beethoven and Schiller explore to the full the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity that are the inspiration for the modern democratic world.

That was not the world they lived in, nor was it the world in Brazil at the turn of the 18th century and throughout nearly all of the 19th century, with Brazil being the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888. Brazil received the highest number of enslaved Africans during a period of over 300 years, more than any other part of the American continent. Witnessing the realities of Bahia, the main port of entry for the slave trade, and inspired by those same Enlightenment ideals, Castro Alves wrote his poem The Slave Ship (1869), which is to this day one of the most vivid portraits of the horrors of slavery—horrors it exposes as civilization’s unspeakable secret. This horrific past is embedded in Brazilian society, and its direct and indirect consequences can still be seen all around us.

In the introduction to the Dicionário da Escravidão e Liberdade (Dictionary of Slavery and Freedom), Flávio dos Santos Gomes and Lilia Moritz Schwarcz write that “one hundred and thirty years after the end of slavery, there are still ... powerful, stubborn legacies of it in society. Racism is still structural in Brazil, and is ingrained in the present, so it is not possible just to blame history or the past. Race is a factor in violence and inequality, with the most up-to-date research showing how black people die younger, study for shorter time, have less access to employment ... are more likely to be victims of sexism, have less access to housing and medical care. Slave labor, even if on an informal basis, has far from been eradicated in Brazil.”

With all this in mind—the similarities and differences that characterize Brazilian culture in relation to the European legacy—responses to the challenge laid down by Carnegie Hall for the yearlong project All Together: A Global Ode to Joy were formulated, drawing on the power of joy and situating the Ninth Symphony in a new context, and in a dialogue with our own time and place.

All Together: A Global Ode to Joy will be premiered by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (Osesp) in Sala São Paulo in December 2019, also marking the start of the orchestra’s season celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Then the “new” Ninth Symphonies will be performed by eight other orchestras with soloists and choirs all over the world—the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (London), Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Symphony, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra and KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (South Africa), and an orchestra and 300-voice choir brought together by Carnegie Hall in New York—all conducted by Marin Alsop. Each partner will create its own web of musical references interspersed with Beethoven’s work, and produce a translation or adaptation of “Ode to Joy” to be sung in the language of each respective country.

Osesp’s interpretation of the Ninth Symphony is framed by an anonymous capoeira song from Bahia known as “Slave Ship;” an excerpt from an overture by Paulo Costa Lima: Cabinda—Nós Somos Pretos (Cabinda—We Are Black), an Osesp commission from 2015; and a commissioned adagio for strings by Clarice Assad, which in turn alludes to the theme of the 1967 Tropicalist song “Alegria, Alegria” (“Joy, Joy”) by Caetano Veloso, an anthological song that reacts to arbitrariness in all its forms.

“Alegria, Alegria” is also briefly alluded to in the new Portuguese version of “Ode to Joy”—my own translation—created in the wake of translations of songs by Schubert and Schumann. Some of these songs have been recorded over the last few years, including the “Serenata” (“Ständchen”) by Schubert/Rellstab and “Pra Que Chorar” (“Ich grolle nicht”) by Schumann/Heine. It is one thing to translate a song; it is quite another to translate Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” Aside from differences in register and form, the intention, at the end of the day, is the same: to make sung poetry understandable, in a natural way, for audiences today. Many listeners will have the chance to understand, perhaps for the first time—and in real time during the performance—what is being said in the Ninth Symphony.

Throughout the year, some 30,000 students and teachers who attend Osesp’s rehearsals and educational concerts in the Sala São Paulo concert hall will be taught about the Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” and the history of slavery in Brazil. The participation of singers from Osesp’s Academic Choir and the São Paulo State Youth Choir in the December concerts will also serve as a reminder of the wide-ranging educational work linked to the project, which is as important as the music itself.

All in all, this Ninth Symphony will be a portrait of much of what most affects us as artists, leaders, and citizens; and there could not be a more fitting work with which to bring to a close this season and the eight years that Marin Alsop has been the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director. While the music of one of the greatest composers of the Western tradition will be played and sung with the utmost artistic rigor, there will also be space for dialogues with Brazilian culture in general and, in particular, with contemporary realities. Beethoven and Schiller’s monumental work, in keeping with the spirit of the two men themselves, will gain new life through what it will make us hear and think about; in collaboration with orchestras from various parts of the world, we will be part of a networked project that may inspire others with its appeal for solidarity, justice, and freedom. Music is never just music. Music—this music—may even be more than it infinitely achieves, in the future of the past of each of us.

Arthur Nestrovski is the artistic director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.