Bernard Rose: “Immortal Beloved”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

For Jim

Ever since I was a teenager trying to play Beethoven’s classic piano sonatas, I have loved the thundering, passionate, soaring thrill of his music. While I mostly succeeded in butchering “Sonata Pathétique” and “Sonata Appassionata,” I nevertheless became quite enamored of his Romantic-era compositions.

But what of Ludwig van Beethoven, the man? Like most people, I knew that he had lost his hearing at some point in his life but that he had – unbelievably, inconceivably, almost miraculously – continued to compose music. And if the tempestuous chords of his compositions were any indication, he surely must have had a raging soul.

How then, I wondered, did a breath-taking, awe-inspiring piece like “Ode to Joy” come to cap his final symphony?

Bernard Rose’s 1994 biopic, Immortal Beloved, offers some insights. The film focuses a good deal of attention on Beethoven’s secret romance, the unnamed woman whom Beethoven addressed in a letter as “immortal beloved.” Beethoven really did leave behind such a letter, and biographers have speculated ever since as to her identity. By way of the film, Rose claims to have solved the puzzle, but other biographers and historians seriously doubt the accuracy of his conclusion.

While the identity of Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” is an intriguing (if flawed) storyline, the appeal of the film for me, the image that stays with me, is the unveiling in 1824 of the Ninth Symphony and its rousing final chorus, “Ode to Joy.”

The lyrics to the final chorus were based on a 1785 poem, “Ode to Joy,” written by Friedrich Schiller. Beethoven made some additions. In 1907, Henry van Dyke wrote “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,” the now-familiar English lyrics to “Ode to Joy.” But I prefer the lyrics Beethoven adapted, which you can read both in the original German and the English translation. I love the reference to “joy” as the “beautiful spark of divinity.”

Without giving anything away, I can say that the “Ode to Joy” sequence at the end of the film – with Beethoven’s spirit seemingly floating and spinning in its complete fusion with the universe – is one of the greatest moments in films about musicians.

Not only does the sequence thrill me as it brings “Ode to Joy” fully to life, but it also speaks to the triumph of the human spirit. Beethoven – a battered, haunted, tortured human being, a great composer who has lost his hearing – soars above everything to create the triumphant praise of human life. This is nothing short of amazing.

“Ode to Joy” has special meaning to my husband, Jim, and me. I imagine that it does to many other people as well. We play it every year on the anniversary of Jim’s organ transplant, which we’ll do again a few days from now. And because it is such an important piece of music to us, we had a bagpiper play it as we walked out of our wedding. “Ode to Joy” indeed!

Though it has its detractors, Immortal Beloved is definitely worth viewing. Gary Oldman is magnificent as Beethoven, and the music carries you through the film. The ending sequence moves back and forth between the young Beethoven’s ecstatic merge with the universe and the inaugural performance of the Ninth Symphony, which the completely deaf Beethoven himself conducted.

At the end of the symphony, the crowd went absolutely wild. One witness said, “the public received the musical hero with the utmost respect and sympathy, listened to his wonderful, gigantic creations with the most absorbed attention and broke out in jubilant applause, often during sections, and repeatedly at the end of them.” Beethoven received five standing ovations. Says one source, “there were handkerchiefs in the air, hats, raised hands, so that Beethoven, who could not hear the applause, could at least see the ovation gestures.” The film captures the triumphant moment perfectly.

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Watch:Watch the “Ode to Joy” sequence from Bernard Rose’s film Immortal Beloved.

Image Credit: Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven, public domain,