Ode to Joy

Blackbird heralds dawn as light breaks.
Where his gentle wing abides
spring enters in as a protest
and his song sings of hope.

I had the pleasure of being invited to talk about poetry on Radio Humberside this week as part of the BBC’s shout out for short poems to be considered for inclusion in a City of Culture poetry installation later this year. Anyone can participate; simply write a poem of no more than four lines that says something about where you live. Write it on a postcard and drop it in one of the posting boxes either at the Radio Humberside office or at one of the libraries.

The poem I contributed, Ode To Joy, is at the beginning of this column. I had been listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the magnificent fourth movement with the Ode to Joy and thinking about its significance as one of the most enduringly popular and moving classical compositions of all time.

In 1942 the Nazis attempted to appropriate the Ninth and the Ode to Joy’s unequivocal message of unity and brotherhood in a performance for Hitler’s birthday. This naturally tainted the piece for some time, but it was reclaimed in 1951 when it was conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Bayreuth music festival. Subsequently it was adopted as the anthem of the European Union in 1971 and has been performed at significant moments in history since. For instance, Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the Ninth when the Berlin Wall came down. The Ode to Joy continues to resist appropriation and be a resolutely optimistic work that truly celebrates universal values of love, unity and cooperation.

Inspired by Freidrich Schiller’s poem written in 1785 Beethoven takes the essence of the poem as inspiration for his symphony. It is a beautiful eulogy to the power of joy and of divine love. I was struck by the line in Schiller’s poem in which he references the sanctuary of heaven ‘where your gentle wing abides’ and its borrowed plumage well serves my own poem.

The song of the blackbird was my inspiration, as well as this wonderful moment in time, the spring equinox, when dark finally gives way to light and the days lengthen towards the summer. Listening to the blackbird singing in the early morning and hearing the pure notes of life affirming delight in its song, I am as uplifted as I am when I hear the Ninth Symphony. Both contain music that speaks directly to the soul and connect the oneness of the self to the embrace of the universe. In my poem I wanted to bring together Beethoven, Schiller, the blackbird and the idea that human connection, unity and shared optimism still matter. However dark the days might seem and however hard and cruel the world can appear to be, there is still a way to transcend darkness and to find solace and hope in the sublime; whether that is in the sublime beauty of Beethoven or in the morning song of the blackbird in your garden.

(First published in The Cleethorpes Chronicle, Thursday 23rd March 2017)

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