What I didn’t know about Beethoven as a child was that I’d grow to be an inch shorter and orders of magnitude tidier than he reportedly was. Learning to play the violin was all “perfect practice makes perfect” and had little to do with studying the life of the revolutionary composer. What I also didn’t know was that he claimed his role as an artist. Or that, despite failing health and being deaf, he composed what many consider the greatest piece of music of all time. Beethoven’s Ninth was a call to join together, to persist.
When it came to playing violin, I did not persist.
Though I put down my violin three decades ago, “Ode to Joy,” the fourth movement of “Symphony No. 9,” is still inside me. Humming the triumphant tune connects me to 1824 Vienna, when it was first performed and to the time when I cradled an instrument.
Second violin, never first, I played “middle” bits of music in an orchestra. Mrs. Garvey tapped her baton to silence the shifting of musicians in their seats. I lifted my violin, strings beneath my fingers, studying sheets of music on a cold metal stand.
We waited for the quiet before beginning. The first notes of “Ode to Joy,” the sweetness of rosin dust floating away—it was magic. I can remember the bow strokes gliding across the strings. Somehow, the greatest song of all time came from small town students, awkward kids wearing braces and battling acne. Somehow, we made this glorious sound.
That is, they made this sound. I mostly messed it up. The notes I was supposed to be following were swimming on the page. I kept an eye on Mrs. Garvey waving her baton as she squinted at me over reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose. Beethoven would have been mortified to see my lost bow, going down when it should have been going up, or hovering above my strings.
Maybe I would not have given up the violin if I had known how this song, with its explosive hope and resonant humanity, delivered its unique yet universal message to people around the world. It helped Chinese students in Tiananmen Square reclaim their dignity. It gave hope to Augusto Pinochet protesters and prisoners in Chile. It gives thousands of Japanese revelers a way to bring in each new year with daiku, “Big Nine,” their nickname for the symphony. It has been called a universal anthem, a hymn for humanity, for possibility. Don’t give up, it seems to say. Listen. There’s hope for us all.
About a decade ago, after interviewing SJSU’s former quartet-in-residence, the Cypress String Quartet, I purchased a new violin from a music store that was going out of business. I thought I could return to it and pick up songs left unplayed. No.
Still, music is an everyday part of my life, thanks to my musical husband. His fingers effortlessly release the songs in his head onto his piano, guitar, the dining room table, whatever is around. He swears he learned everything about classical music from Bugs Bunny during Saturday morning Looney Tunes, rather than from books on composers lining his shelves or a lifetime sitting at a piano. Lifting the black-lacquered top of his piano, he bangs the keys. Music thunders and spills outside to our neighbors in their houses, filling and eliminating the distance between us.
Music finds its way.
What I didn’t know when I set down my violin the first time is that I would work a few buildings away from San Jose State’s Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies. Since learning about the center’s plans to mark the 250th anniversary of the revolutionary composer’s birth throughout 2020, “Ode to Joy” has been playing in my head.
Beethoven is quite persistent. I hear you, sir. Happy birthday.
—Jody Ulate, editor