Immortal Beloved & An Ode to Joy
In Immortal Beloved, the film about Ludwig van Beethoven, there is one scene of such power that it has haunted me since the day I saw it in 1994.
Now, many scholars dispute much, if not all, of the film’s contents, but that has nothing to do with the scene I’m about to relate. For in this one part of the film, there is such an artistic melding of music and film that it takes your breath away.
The scene begins with the widow of Beethoven’s brother, doing a voice over as she joins the crowd going to the concert hall to hear the Ninth Symphony. The music begins and eventually we see the adult Beethoven inside the hall, facing the orchestra, as his symphony is being played. He is deaf and cannot hear anything that is going on.
As Beethoven looks towards us and the orchestra plays, he slowly glances up and sees stars painted on the wall behind the orchestra, which triggers a childhood memory. We then flash back with him to the time when he was a boy. He is sitting at a window and staring at a bright and star filled sky. It is a picturesque moment, until he hears his drunken father coming home, and as we have seen earlier in the film, that means the young Beethoven is about to get a beating. His brothers lie in bed terrified.
The young Beethoven then climbs out of the second story window and finds a way to the street below as his father goes up the stairs inside the house. The boy begins to run through the streets as his father screams his name after finding that Beethoven is not in his room.
It is at this point that the film draws us in, invites us to share the journey as this young boy runs through the forest to escape the horrific pain and chaos that the world has presented to him. It is here where we are beckoned to join him and leave all of our personal demons and misery behind us.
Throughout this scene, the orchestra continues to play the music that echoes the boy’s journey, while the adult Beethoven fades in and out of the scene with a barley perceptible smile as he recalls his wild dash through the trees and darkness.
Finally, the young Beethoven reaches a lake. A luminescent full moon glows off in the distance. We watch as he takes off his night shirt and wades slowly, carefully into the water. The chorus and orchestra gradually grows in the background.
Finally, the director, Bernard Rose, changes camera angles and rather than watching the boy from behind, he moves us so we are looking straight down on the boy from above. Beethoven then begins to float on his back in the still waters. Slowly, patiently as he drifts, the camera begins to move upwards and away from him, while the stars begin to reflect in the lake surrounding the future composer.
The music and chorus of “Ode to Joy” swells up behind the floating figure and fills our souls as we move away farther and farther, the boy now just a speck, a star, a part of the cosmos until his bare outline begins to look like a constellation. It is a moment of pure transcendence.
You never want this scene, this moment to end.
Then, we are back in the concert hall as Beethoven, still facing the orchestra, is lost in the memory of his youth, until the orchestra leader turns him around to face an audience which is giving him a standing ovation.
All through this, we are watching, knowing the feeling of escape, the power of the universe to make us feel so small, and yet the music telling us that we are capable of so much, for we too are a part of this very same universe and have within us the power to soar.
It is such a glorious moment. So stunning. So hopeful, even though we know the violence and burdens of the world are out there surrounding us, waiting for us.
The film eventually moves on, but this moment remains. For me, it’s a treasure.
Art at its most dynamic, invites us to dream. To live outside ourselves, and go beyond this mortal coil.
One wonders how a mere man, Beethoven, could write such music. What power graced him with this gift to create a piece known worldwide and with the ability to lift the souls of all who hear it.
It’s staggering in its incomparable majesty.
Yet the world, both his and ours, does not go away so quietly.
Does the homeless man on the street, mumbling to himself, have the ability to soar anymore? Does the dying soldier in the dead of night hear this music in his mind so far away from his home and family? Does the mother who has seen her young child die in front of her know of any joy?
When does this world take away our capacity to transcend it? When do we stop looking out into the universe and, seeing infinity, perceive ourselves as tiny and meaningless?
Yet we do have power and value. We have the ability to create within us something, perhaps not the Ninth Symphony, but something that will touch our inner selves. For isn’t it the creative process that is all. Doesn’t it allow us to imagine the stars and then become one with them?
I have wondered that so many times. Questioned myself. Tried to touch the eternal. Tried to create.
One night, I decided to drive out into the desert. When the world becomes too large, just the act of driving at night, and being in the desert, seems to help me regain my balance. With a sense of purpose, I drove to Joshua Tree National Park. I knew a road seldom traveled. When I was beyond human contact, I stopped the car. The night had no sound. No wind. Nothing. You could touch the stars. Away from city’s lights, meteors shot back and forth.
I put on a tape of the Ninth Symphony. I played it so I could hear it outside the car. Standing, I leaned against the hood and looked up. I gave myself over to Beethoven’s masterpiece.
It was a perfect moment. I felt as if I were floating on a lake. Floating off into the starlit sky.
I left the burdens of the world behind and allowed the joy to slowly cleanse me.
The music rose and fell, flying off into the cosmos. Infinite. Never ending. Going on forever and forever. This world shrank in comparison. I listened to Ludwig van Beethoven’s timeless piece of music and my being soared.
When it was over, the silence picked up where the music had just been. Everything appeared the same, yet different.
I got back in my car and drove home with nothing but the hum of engine on the road and the majesty of the universe to accompany me.
If you ever watch Immortal Beloved, I hope you pay attention to that one scene near the end of the film. Watch as the music and film coalesce. I hope you too can see eternity and glory. I hope, if even for just a moment, you can leave the burdens of this world behind.
It’s your right, as a person on this planet, to know you have the capacity to behold a sacred moment of transcendent power.
Let it fill you. Let yourself soar.