Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as a Model for Triumph over Adversity

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

Imagine if Michael Jordan had been diagnosed with macular degeneration in the middle of the 90’s. The condition would likely have ended his career and he would not stage the amazing comeback from 1996-98, for which he is now well regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time. Fortunately for him and basketball fans everywhere, that did not happen. However, I bring up this example because this was the impact Beethoven’s hearing loss at an early age would have on him. It affected his emotional state, his social status, and his career as a composer. So what can we learn from this?

Imagine if the one skill for which you are the best known, the skill that ensures your livelihood, and that establishes who you are in this world, is slowly taken from you. This is what it can feel like to be terminated from a promising career in mid-life. Like an illness, the process is seldom immediate, but rather starts with highlighted mistakes, bad performance reviews, letters of warning, corrective actions, and ultimately a slow tightening of the noose around your entire job. While there are certainly some employees who do need to correct their behavior, for the most part the process is outside of the control of the employee and the conclusion is more often than not an end to a career.

What to do next? Well this is the time that it is important to rebuild oneself and to look to the examples of others. Beethoven may not come to mind for such a moment, but he should. For most of us who grew up listening to pop, hip hop, or rock, classical is like a chalky pill, but perhaps a closer listen might be warranted. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is such a powerful statement of the triumph of the spirit against tremendous odds. He wrote it almost completely from memory of what music sounded like when he could still hear. His genius, his will-power, his forgiveness for his fate, and his ultimate generosity to mankind, are exemplified in the majesty of this symphony.

A first thought might be to balk at the length of the piece at nearly an hour, but to that I suggest just downloading the 4th movement into your phone, listen to it a few times and let the movement do just that: move you. It starts off with a powerful drum, not unlike the fury of past symphonies, but then settles back and revisits all the emotional themes of the first three movements. These then slowly evolve into that most recognizable melody, develops further with a rousing chorus, and then methodically progresses to the grand finale.

Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies in his life, but he is most certainly the greatest composer of all time. He wrote this symphony after the successes of the 3rd and 5th, not to mention numerous other smaller pieces. By the time it premiered, most people had written him off, considered him failed for never having married and stubbornly refusing to conform to societal norms. They saw a man well past his prime, a relic from a faded past. After all, the old grouch was stone-deaf; what could he possibly produce in such a depleted state?

The greatest piece of music ever written.

Some will disagree, I know, but the 9th needs to be heard in the context of its time. It arrives in the aftermath of devastating wars, the crumbled ruins of old governments, the waning of whole empires, and a questioning of the revolutionary theories from the greatest minds of the Western world. In the darkness that saw the awakened conscience of men (and women) in all their misery, this symphony clears the clouds and shows that this is not the end after all. Like his 3rd and his 5th, this symphony does not honor god or some aristocrat, it honors the individual and ushers in a new hope for the world, then and today.

If you are struggling to find sense or purpose from a major setback in your life, even the end of a career, then close your eyes and give this symphony a listen, especially the fourth movement, so well delivered here by Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Then listen to the deafening applause at the end, the same today as it was when it was first performed. It’s power transcends time, cultures, politics, and all the other divisions of our world.

This blog post was previously published in The Gigster 'Zine, our free newsletter discussing new and innovative part-time opportunities & strategies for anyone with a college degree. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.
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