Guest commentary by Jeffrey Myers
Presbyterians (and other church folk) who would enjoy sharing in the Beethoven Jubilee Year – the composer´s 250th birthday is not only being celebrated in Germany, but around the world – need only open their hymnals and raise their voices in singing “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”! (It is hymn #611 in the “Glory to God” hymnal.) Indeed, the text of this “hymn of joy,” one of the most popular hymns in the English-speaking world, was written by Presbyterian minister Henry van Dyke Jr., and intended to go hand-in-hand with the final movement of Beethoven´s Ninth Symphony.
Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the most frequently performed composers in the world, was born 250 years ago in Bonn, Germany. While not all churches might be able or willing to undertake one of Beethoven’s major works during this anniversary year, the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” provides a simple, yet meaningful way to share in the celebration of the composer´s legacy during the jubilee year (learn more here: https://www.bthvn2020.de/en/).
It was Friedrich Schiller´s “Ode to Joy” (1785) that originally provided the inspiration for the final movement of Beethoven´s final symphony. However, the uplifting, hope-filled verses of Henry van Dyke´s poem, combined with the choral finale of Beethoven´s 9th, set the feet of Christian joy tapping. Van Dyke, whose circle of friends included a former classmate, President Woodrow Wilson, and who later conducted Mark Twain´s funeral at Brick Presbyterian Church, wrote the hymn in 1907 while teaching English literature at Princeton University.
There are a number of meaningful ways and settings in which congregations might connect with Beethoven and his hymn, from creative worship experiences and lecture series to concert visits and children´s art projects. Here are a few simple suggestions to get the “brainstorming” process started:
- “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” can be employed creatively as a Call to Worship, interspersing verses of the hymn sung by the congregation or choir with corresponding verses from the Bible spoken by the congregation or pastor. Liturgy might include one of the psalms of praise or Scripture such as Job 38:7 or Isaiah 55:12, which celebrate all of creation rejoicing in God. Philippians 4:4-8 (rejoice!) would lend itself to worship in Advent.
- Churches might also consider including the original verse three of the hymn, which was omitted in the current Presbyterian hymnal.
- For those churches that enjoy using media in worship, there are lively renditions of the hymn available, from singer Amy Grant and the a cappella group Pentatonix to live performances of the hymn in the Royal Albert Hall in London and the lively film soundtrack from “Sister Act 2” featuring Lauryn Hill.
- Works of art corresponding to the biblical images contained in the hymn might also be used in worship, such as “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” by William Blake.
- Van Dyke´s hymn of joy also offers congregations an opportunity to reflect upon the theology behind the hymn in light of contemporary theological views. Typical for its time, “Joyful, Joyful” not only sees God abundantly revealed in nature, but also shares in the optimism of progressive growth (“bigger is better”) accompanied by a steady movement in the direction of God´s coming kingdom: “Ever singing march we onward / Victors in the midst of strife / Joyful music leads us sunward / In the triumph song of life.”
- Many scholars presume that Beethoven was born on December 16th, as his date of baptism is recorded as December 17, 1770 (in the composer´s day it was quite common to baptize children shortly after birth). Beethoven´s birthday, just a week before Christmas, could be tied in meaningfully with Advent or Christmas itself.
Van Dyke was also a talented short-story writer, whose works include “The Story of the Other Wise Man” — a classic tale which could be done as a play with children during the Christmas season.
- Preachers could consider exploring Beethoven´s faith and/or use of religious motifs in a sermon. The topics of hearing/deafness or joy vs. happiness might lend themselves as well to a sermon series.
- “Glory to God” also includes “Christ Is Risen! Should Hosanna!” (#248) that draws upon the music of Beethoven. In addition, organists might enjoy the challenge of playing arrangements of Beethoven — or even trying their hand at improvisation during a contemporary worship service. One of the events in Germany this year will involve a crossover jazz concert (“Beethoven Meets Jazz”).
Since Beethoven, as one German critic noted, “set heaven to music,” it would appear that the sky (or perhaps, the heavens) is the limit, when it comes to innovation and widening the boundaries of praise and worship – especially during this Beethoven Anniversary Year! And when worship is conducted in the key of joy, all who participate will “join the happy chorus / Which the morning stars began.”
JEFFREY MYERS is a Presbyterian pastor serving together with his German wife, Andrea, in Frankfurt, Germany.