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About a month ago I got to experience something pretty close to magic. I was one of eighty or so Chorus Niagara choristers standing behind the Niagara Symphony Orchestra as together we performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I had my score open to the bars just before the choir comes in, ready to sing, but for the moment was reveling in listening to the orchestra play the opening section of the fourth movement.
The whole of Beethoven’s 9th is a masterpiece, but it’s the fourth movement people know really well. That’s when you finally get to the melody line so famous it features in the movie Sister Act and the “Drink Milk, Love Life” commercials of 90’s Canadian T.V.; the musical theme to which Beethoven set the words of a poem titled “Ode to Joy.” The movement doesn’t start off with that theme right away. It dances around a bit, bringing back melody lines from the previous three movements, until all of a sudden, after a bit of a tease from the bassoons, you hear the cellos take up the theme, and everyone leans in a bit closer.
The cellos hang on to the theme for a while, playing through the entirety of the melody before passing it on to the violas, who also play through the entirety of the theme before they then pass it on to the violins – who, you guessed it, play the entirety of the theme – and by this point the audience is on the edge of their seats in anticipation. Each new passing on of the theme is a tease – the melody is familiar, and it feels good, but so far it has been muted, held back, and you know there’s something more, much more to come.
Finally, the moment comes. With one great sweep of his arms, the conductor brings in the entire orchestra, one majestic, united body playing this tour de force of music. In that performing arts hall on that Saturday, it felt like an arrival. Not even the conductor was unaffected. Leaving the orchestra to carry the tune, he dropped his arms, leaned back against the rail on his podium, and simply beamed at the musicians, letting them get swept up in the music. His smile was matched by those in the audience. This felt good. It was familiar, it was beautiful, it was uplifting, it was a moment we had been waiting for, and finally had reached. It was joy.
I think a lot of life is spent hoping for, waiting for, moments like this. When all the different pieces of our lives come together in some beautiful harmony, some momentous arrival into something that feels good, that feels right, that elicits joy.
In his book Say Yes: Discover the Surprising Life beyond the Death of a Dream, painter and writer Scott Erickson says that we all have some dream life – some ideal of what life should be. He uses the analogy of a comfy, cozy onesie to describe this dream life. This dream life fits us perfectly. It feels good. There are no tags scratching the back of our neck, no jeans that are just a little too tight, no buttons that aren’t quite lined up. It just fits.
In our dream life, our jobs, our family life, the city we live in, the house we live in, our hobbies, our goals…all these different aspects of our life fit together perfectly, hum along in cohesion, one unified orchestra (to mix metaphors) playing a melody we know and that feels good.
The trouble is, life isn’t always – or even often – like this. Sometimes the melody line is only held by the cellos or the violas. We find a job we love, but its in a new city that’s far away from our friends and family. We have a spouse and children we adore, but we’ve had to put career aspirations on hold for a while. We go back to school, pursuing an idea or a topic we’re passionate about, but that means putting off buying a house for a while. We settle into years of retirement, but they’re marked by the ache of missing loved ones. We hear a comforting, familiar, joyful melody line in one part of our life…but we’re waiting for the rest of our life to catch up and join in.
But maybe life never fully catches up. Maybe we never arrive at some moment where everything is humming along together in perfect harmony. The melody just keeps being passed from cello to viola to violin – all good glimpses of what we so desperately long for – until finally the Maestro brings all things together in the fullness of what we know is coming. And in the meantime, it’s enough that we hear the melody line now and then, here and there, as it floats through our office windows or hums in the voices of our children, for it beckons us forward, sitting on the edges of our seats in anticipation, as we sing along quietly to the tune and say, “This, too, is joy.”
Your description of the building anticipation is the next best thing to actually being there. Last winter the Holland Symphony and the Hope and Community Chorales performed Beethoven’s Ninth. As exhilarating as it was to hear, I could only imagine the euphoria a person must feel being part of the performance. What a good way to begin the day. Thanks.
I enjoyed that concert also. Thanks Laura
All will be well in so many ways. Thank you, again, for bringing joy.
Agreed. Thank you Laura.
I got goose bumps just reading your brilliant description! How wonderful! Thank you. Trusting I will catch snatches of the melody throughout the day.
“It felt like an arrival.” Very nice. Thanks for taking us to a good place today.
Wow! Such a wonderful description of the tension between finding joy in life now and the longing for the “new heaven and new earth” when Christ will finish His work of restoration and fixing all the brokenness around us. Made me cry!
Thanks for your article Laura. Judy Tamminga is my sister and the De Vries’s are now my pastors here in NM. Small world. Blessings! T
I had the joy of singing Beethoven’s Ninth with four orchestras, I think, back when I was doing such things–in many ways, another lifetime. And yes, there is this metaphor for life in the anticipation of singing the one big wonderful piece with all the singers and full orchestra. But what is great about the Ninth is that there is a whole symphony full of lovely things that happen just in the fourth movement before we get around to the bit that everyone knows. And there are three movements before it, full of worlds of musical wonder: lifetimes that don’t get lived again, but which inform the final chorus. And there is the living that is so important: while we are waiting for that final portion of that final movement, the chorus that maybe we’re meant to sing in the New Creation–where Ludwig will be jazzing it up considerably with Schoenburg and Copeland and Hammerstein and Hendrix and Elvis and all the Beatles and eventually Jon Batiste–there are all these other wonderful themes, these other amazing melodies in our lives. We need to be careful not to miss them.
Thank you for this, James.
Thanks for this powerful and beautiful message. It reminded me of a poem entitled
“Finale” originally in the Dutch by Jan Willem Schultz Nordholt . Dr. Henrietta Ten Harmsel a long time English Prof at Calvin, translated Nordholt’s poetry in “So Much Sky”.
Dogmatics does not teach this anywhere,
unless perhaps in some good book of hymns,
that all the deepest things for which we long
must be fulfilled in music and in song;
and that the judge on that great day of days,
of which the poets wrote throughout the years,
will not speak wrath or judgement in our ears
but give the sign for singing, both hands raised;
and that the angels then will stand in rings,
each playing his own instrument-en suite-
and all the holy saints will rise to sing,
watching the great conductor give the beat.
That beat strikes up the music of the spheres—-
he motions it with both hands lifted high.
Enthroned in might and splendor he appears,
seated on rainbow arches in the sky.
Thank you for that beautiful article. A dear mutual friend is right now anticipating this…”until finally the Maestro brings all things together in the fullness of what we know is coming.”
So beautiful and powerful. Thank you, Laura.
So, so lovely Laura. Thank you. As a long-time chorister and musician, this spoke to me deeply… all the themes and vocal/musical lines of our lives weaving in and out, sometimes “arriving” just right, and other times fading away, or maybe coming back again in a few years. Tears of joy!