Natalie Jacobs was a serious writer all her life. In 2008 she died suddenly at age 35. She left a body of unpublished
work, including a fictional biograpy of Franz Schubert entitled When Your Song Breaks the Silence. “An die Freude” is a
chapter of the novel. It describes the famous premiere performance in Vienna of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, here
seen through eyes of an admiring Schubert.
An die Freude
May 7, 1824: An Ode to Joy
The night of the concert was a warm one, unusually so for early May, and outside the theater the
spring stars glinted in a velvety sky devoid of the usual smoke and clouds that hung over the city.
Franz had heard it said — only half-jokingly — that the elements were celebrating the passing of the
infamously wicked English poet, Lord Byron, less than a month previously.
He walked alone through the darkening streets, trembling a little, a halt in his step, one hand clenched
around the ticket that he had bought with some of the money he earned from publishing his quartet in
A minor. As he walked he hummed over some of the variations from the quartet he had just finished,
which was in D minor, like the symphony he was going to hear tonight. Different permutations of a
theme, the piano accompaniment to his song “Death and the Maiden”; and another permutation: ten
years ago he had sold his schoolbooks to see “Fidelio,” and hurried along these same streets to the
Kärtenthor Theater with his heart full of happiness. He was all empty now; the happiness was gone,
and everything else, except for his music and his worship of the one who walked before him, his
A year since he had been in the hospital, and he was pulling himself back together, knitting his mind
into a new whole. It was hard. It was hard to work, and live in joy and music, and leave the manuscript
page to look at himself in the mirror: his poor patchy hair, the ghost of the rash on his cheeks and
forehead, his face thinner and older and a wary, flinching look in his eyes. Yet through it all, every day,
he surprised himself with what he could do. His new quartets were like dreams, self-contained worlds,
woven together with his finest handiwork. They seemed not to belong to him and yet they bore his
mark on every page — they were his and nobody else’s. When he looked at them, he knew he was
strong, though he felt weak.
Tonight, maybe, things would turn around for him, if only a little bit. He hoped to find a little light to
shed on the problems of where to go next after he finished his quartet in D minor. He wanted to make
his way towards a symphony, and yet he was almost frightened to start again on a symphony after
the last time — so many fine things wasted, there, his half-finished edifice gone to ruin. Tonight would
provide no clues for him, nothing tangible, but it might somehow spark an idea or two, convince him
that yes, it could be done, one could say something new and glorious even out of the depths of inner
darkness. A voice shouting out of silence. One could only hope.
He was early. The theater was just starting to fill up. He made his way among the empty seats to his
own and sat down, trying to get in a position where his back would not ache after hours of sitting. He
was beginning to enjoy himself already, though the orchestra had not even assembled yet. He always
liked going to theaters; looking up at the arch of the roof, all that empty vertiginous echoing space, he
wanted to fill it all up with his own music and shake the rafters with himself. He had been thinking lately
of putting on a concert of his own. He wondered whether anyone would come, besides his friends —
though a Schubertiade on a grand scale wouldn’t be half bad, come to think of it.
His seat was on the main floor, the cheapest spot, though it was a stroke of good luck that the person
who ended up sitting in front of him was an old man nearly as small as himself, and so he could see
the stage. His friend Josef Hüttenbrenner, who had lived upstairs from the Mayrhofer menage during
those two years, was singing in the chorus, and knew the master personally; he had offered to get
Franz in for free, but Franz wanted to pay his way. It was the right thing to do.
He waited, then, and looked at all the people assembled in the galleries and the boxes, some eating
their suppers, others drinking wine, the women in their high-waisted dresses and the men like parrots
in their bright coats and waistcoats, a few faces he knew there among the crowd: Anselm
Hüttenbrenner, Josef’s brother, who waved to Franz from his box seat; the Frölich sisters, all four of
them, looking rather intimidating in identical white dresses; and wasn’t that the Grand High Poobah
himself, Johann Michael Vogl, the Court Singer, towering head and shoulders above his companions?
He nodded formally at Franz when their eyes met, and then turned away, as if embarrassed that he
had acknowledged the composer who had given him a new voice to sing with.
According to the handbill, the concert would begin with an overture, “The Consecration of the House,”
and then three pieces from a Mass in D — they were not called a Mass, since there was a law against
liturgical music in the theater, but a Kyrie, a Credo, and an Agnus Dei could be nothing else. After the
intermission, a new symphony in D minor, with a choral finale from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” A chorus in
a symphony? How would it be done? It was either completely brilliant or completely mad. Either way, it
would be glorious, certainly; the master would surely not stoop to writing another “Wellington’s
Victory.” But then, who could say?
Resigned to his lack of knowledge, Franz folded the handbill neatly and settled himself down to wait.
At last, the orchestra assembled and a heavy hush fell over the audience, broken only by the faint
expectant rustle of skirts and handbills. The oboe played its A and all the instruments echoed it: a
long, drawn-out tone, composed of many voices, which thrilled him in a strange way, not because of
any inherent beauty in it but because of its potential: all the timbres and colors of the orchestra, all
notes and chords, contained in that single readying sound. It seemed funny to feel that way. But it
was true. He had felt the same way in the Seminary orchestra, playing that primal A on his violin.
The conductor came out on stage with the score under his arm, followed by — was it? yes — the man
himself, beetle-browed, his head held high. His unruly grey hair, combed into a semblance of neatness
for the special occasion, had no sheen in the bright light of the stage. There was applause for him, but
he did not respond, of course. He seated himself to one side of the orchestra — he too had a score
and a baton, but Josef Hüttenbrenner had said that the orchestra and the choir had been strictly
adjured not to pay any attention to him.
He looked different in daylight — a thick-set man with a compressed, angry face, stumping along the
streets of Vienna, sometimes shouting or singing to himself as people moved aside or followed in his
wake, nudging each other and pointing. Franz would see the grey head coming through towards him
and his stomach would contract, his palms sweat; much to the amusement of his friends, he would
then go pale and cross the street as the great man stalked by. “Why don’t you go talk to him?”
Schober might say, the voice of reason. “He won’t bite, you know.”
But he could, and did. Everyone had heard the stories. He was angry at the world, and since the world
could not be raged at, he raged at the people around him. Franz would sometimes go to the inn where
he liked to have dinner; sitting amid a crowd of embarrassed-looking friends, the great man would rant
and pontificate for hours and all anyone could do was smile and nod. Franz would never have been able
to get close to him, and even if he could, it would have been more than he could bear to be rejected by
the man who knew God.
Once, he had almost done it, a few years ago before his troubles began. He was walking in the Graben
— he had just bought a new hat at one of the fancier shops, and felt pleased with himself — when he
saw the man walking towards him with a teenage boy at his side, a relative, judging by the family
resemblance. As they approached, Franz could hear the master’s voice, too loud in the manner of the
deaf: “Now, you tell that lying bitch to keep her hands to herself, do you hear me?” At that moment
Franz passed so close to them that he could have seized the great man’s sleeve, spoken to him,
stammered his gratitude, kissed his hand, made his worship understood somehow, but he did not. He
In short, Franz was afraid.
If God were a madman, he would be worshipped from a safe distance.
The conductor was looking at the master now, as the anticipation in the air became a living thing, and
at last he turned his fierce bulldog face to the orchestra and gave the tempo with a sharp motion of
his hand. The conductor lifted his baton, and brought it down, and the music began.
He was a little disappointed at first. He listened, aimlessly shredding his ticket stub into confetti, and
found that he could see clearly what the master was doing: the patterns, the intent. There was no
mystery. But then, the pieces from the Mass — then, everything changed. It was very beautiful. He
lost himself in the intricate interplay of soloists and chorus, the grandeur of the orchestra and the cries
of belief which shook the roof, and came out of it again in astonishment, wondering at a faith so
strong that it could produce music of this splendor. “Glory to God in the highest!” Beethoven cried,
along with a thousand other composers living and dead, but for him the words had meaning and
weight; he held them in his hands and they came to life. For Franz, they were words. He had never
been able to understand faith. He knew that Christ had died for him, but it was the pain of the
Crucifixion which moved him, the sweat and blood and tears, not the greatness of God. Beethoven
always outshone him.
He felt a little dizzy by the end of the Agnus Dei. It may have been the music, but then he had been up
late the night before. The doctor kept telling him to take better care of himself, but he forgot. He had a
bad memory. When he got up to go out to the lobby, his vision went blurry and he had to sit down
again. Too much beautiful music — bad for your health. Like too much rich food. Beethoven as a
Sacher torte. He fanned himself with the handbill, like a fat old lady on a hot day, and waited until the
other people in his aisle filed out before he tried getting up again. This time, he was successful.
He emerged into the lobby, feeling a little lost amid the crowd of avidly chattering concertgoers, and
came across Anselm Hüttenbrenner there, looking a little sly and weasely as he always did, and pleased
with himself; he may have been a little too proud of knowing Beethoven, but he was a good fellow, for
all of that, and a fairly decent composer as well. He was drinking wine with some girl, but upon seeing
Franz, he rushed over and greeted him effusively with a peck on the cheek, like a maiden aunt. “Good
Schubert! How goes it with you? Schwind said you’ve been ill. Are you feeling better?”
“Every day is a little better. Are you enjoying the concert?”
“Of course, of course, anything of Beethoven’s is fine by me. And you? I see you’ve worn out the
knees of your trousers with worshipping. Or have you been worshipping someone new?”
“Oh, be quiet. Good evening, sir,” he added, looking up and up to the towering height of Court Singer
Vogl (who was nearly seven feet tall, and whose head bumped against the roofs of carriages and
cabs). Vogl, looking down with grave benevolence, said, “God’s greetings to you, boy. Have you any
new songs for me?”
“Only string quartets, Sir. And the Mayrhofer songs you’ve seen already.”
“Too bad,” said Vogl, and strode away majestically.
“Polite, isn’t he?” said Anselm.
“Oh, he’s all right. He’s been good to me.”
“I’ll bet he has. Look, speaking of which, after the concert I think I ought to introduce you to your
false idol, the old man - don’t you think it’s about time? If you’re worried about talking to him, it’s all
right, you just write everything down in one of his notebooks and he understands - he’s really not as
frightening as you think. Oh, for God’s sake, don’t look at me like that. I know what you’re going to
say. God, you’re predictable. It’s your loss. Oh, there’s the bell.”
Franz followed him back inside without saying a word and made his way to his seat again. For a
moment there, he had actually been tempted, but of course common sense had taken over. Anyway, it
didn’t matter. It was time for the new symphony. He was so excited that he soon forgot all about
Anselm and everything else; he banished all other thoughts from his mind and opened himself up to
whatever there was to hear.
It took some time to get the choir all assembled on the stage again. Josef Hüttenbrenner looked as if
he had been drinking, as did the bass soloist. Typical Viennese. The women soloists looked very
nervous — the contralto was biting her nails — while the orchestra members furiously practiced
elaborate runs and scales in weird remote keys, all of which seemed to be part of the symphony. He
couldn’t imagine what it would sound like.
Then, the conductor came back out, and the master with his score and baton. He had been making
conducting motions throughout the first half of the concert but it was clear that he had no idea what
was going on. Franz had watched him, when he was not listening to the music: odd mingled
expressions of bliss and frustration passing across that scowling, pock-marked face as he gazed at
the silent ministrations of orchestra and choir. Sometimes he looked so enraged that it seemed a vein
might burst in his forehead. But now, he looked quite calm as he gave the tempo and the music began.
Or had it begun? What was going on? There was just a pianissimo murmur of strings, open fifths, and
Franz thought for a moment that there had been some sort of mistake and the orchestra was tuning
again - except they were playing D, not A. But then he realized what was happening. It was the primal
moment: the chaos before creation, as the other instruments added descending cascades of open
fifths, the simplest chords. Franz thought of God moving on the face of the waters, in darkness and
silence. And then the music grew, expanded, exploded into a huge statement of the first theme that
made him jump in his seat. Behold, the creation of the world!
From then on, he knew he was in the presence of something very wonderful, very new, altogether
new. For in no other symphony had music remade the world. And the music around him rose and rose,
blossoming into a million fantastic shapes, while he watched and listened, trying to understand even
while the music transformed him into a vessel filled with sound, shaking with it, all conscious thought
purged from his mind, burned clean. He felt as if he could fall into the music, soar through it like a bird,
swim in it like a dolphin, drink it like rich heady wine. He was drunk with it, and as it sang through his
veins, he forgot it all: his failing body, his failing art, all gone, lost in this vast and wonderful ocean of
He wished he could take it and pull it into himself, make the brilliance a part of himself. The idea of
making something as wonderful as this was beyond his comprehension. How did the man do it? How
could he possibly be holding this inside him? He looked so insignificant down there, hunched over his
score, unaware of the glory all around him.
This is why he’s deaf, Franz thought. He’s been listening to God too much. The thought was absurd
and would have made him smile had he not been grinning with elation already.
The second movement, which would have been the slow movement in any ordinary, earthly symphony,
began with sharp blasts from the horns and the pounding of tympani, so loud and abrupt that it
frightened him — it sounded like thunder. The rest of the audience broke out into a mix of shouting,
clapping and booing, so loud that it nearly drowned out the music. The conductor stopped the
orchestra and looked around with an irritated expression. The master looked bemused. “This is
nonsense,” said a man somewhere behind Franz. “I want my money back.” Franz contemplated ways
of hideous death for the man while the conductor prepared to begin again. This time, the music
An allegretto slow movement. My God. Would the man stop at nothing? But then, there was the
choral part coming up. Will the audience boo? Will they be angry that the symphony is being remade
before their eyes? He knew that nobody would ever write a symphony the same way again. His plans
for a grand symphony of his own had just died horribly, struck down by those blasts from horn and
tympani. There was no way he could say anything more after this.
And then, finally, the music gathered itself up, flung itself out in a grand triumph of strings and horns,
and poised in midair. The silence came. And into the void, a great voice cried,
O Freunde! Nicht diese Töne!
And the other parts came in, alto and tenor and bass, and it was beautiful.
So you could have voices in a symphony, after all, he thought. Why not? And how beautiful, how
lovely . . . Listen to that, the soloists together, and the chorus there, Deine Zauber binden wieder . . .
and he hasn’t even brought in the sopranos yet. There they are. What a dreadfully high part. Poor
ladies. Oh, my . . . .
He had set this poem himself, back in his vortex year, but it hadn’t been anything like this. This was
the harmony of the spheres. And if he had to stand back from the Mass because he could not believe,
he could believe this: not the words of brotherhood and joy so much as what the music was saying,
about harmony from chaos, about the ability of music to carry the world on its shoulders.
It was a symphony in itself, this choral part. There was that wonderful swinging march, about setting
forth like a victorious hero (Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen!), and the slow strange part with its
peculiar cadences, and the joyous bouncing hymn, and at last a wild presto which had the orchestra
members sweating profusely and the chorus members on the verge of collapse, repeating again the
words “Joy, thou lovely spark of God!” until everything, all at once, crashed to a halt, and it was done.
A stunned silence. Then the applause.
It went on and on. Franz clapped automatically, a spasmodic movement, until his hands ached and his
palms turned red, one applauder among hundreds. Still the applause continued. The conductor,
shining with sweat, bowed; the soloists bowed in succession, one at a time; the choir and orchestra
beamed, red-faced. People shouted and waved their hats and handkerchiefs. After the fifth ovation, a
voice shouted “Silence! Be quiet!” from the back of the theater. It was the Police Commissioner, in full
uniform, obviously worried that this Beethoven maniac had succeeded in causing some sort of
insurrection. Nobody paid any attention to him.
Amid all the tumult, only one person sat without noticing, still looking at his score with his back turned.
Finally, as his name rang in the smoky air, the contralto soloist came forward and, taking him by the
arm, led him to the edge of the stage. The applause redoubled; he stood there blinking, a smile sitting
awkwardly on his blunt features and the score tucked under his arm. Perhaps he saw all the mouths
speaking his name, perhaps not. He certainly saw the clapping hands: opening and shutting doors that
made no sound, not even a whisper. For all the shouting of his heart, he was wreathed in silence,