“Ode to Joy” and the harrowing of hell

Katy Shevel contemplates Christ's descent into hell on Holy Saturday through the lens of Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash

In 1786, Friedrich Schiller published his best-known work, a poem entitled “An die Freude,” known in English as “Ode to Joy.” Schiller’s poem was an instant hit. In fact, it was such a success that it soon sparked the imagination of another famous German artist. Shortly after its composition, Ludwig van Beethoven aspired to set the text of “Ode to Joy” to music.

What was it about Schiller’s poem that captivated Beethoven’s imagination? From the deification of joy, freude, as a metaphysical goddess animating all of creation:Joy, thou brightest heaven-lit spark!” to the rousing, rallying cry: “All mankind are brothers!” Schiller’s text artfully captures a spirit of unity and jubilation, a prevailing ethos reflective of the late 18th-century German Enlightenment, according to Hugh Barr Nisbet in On the Literature and Thought of the German Classical Era. At the time of the poem’s publication, there hadn’t been any major wars in Europe for some time. Enlightenment philosophy was at its peak and ever hopeful for the potential of human progress. “Ode to Joy” celebrates the bond of human friendship and the triumph of eternal cosmic happiness over despair.

Unfortunately, the optimistic age for which Schiller’s poem was written soon dissipated at the end of the century. In the wake of the violent political and social upheaval of the French Revolution, Schiller’s lighthearted “Ode to Joy” seemed a relic of a bygone naïve era. Even Schiller himself was quick to point out the flaws of his own work. He published a scathing condemnation of it in 1800 calling it “thoroughly faulty” and a “bad poem.” Schiller continues in a letter to his friend Christian Gottfried Korner, “But because it appealed to the defective taste of time, it received the honour[sic] of becoming something of a folksong.”

In other words, Schiller attributed the success of his work to the generational spirit of optimism with which it was composed. However, he was quick to distance himself from the original sentiments of “Ode to Joy.” Schiller even wrote a revised version of the poem. In 1805, the revised version was published — and would eventually become the version Beethoven set to music.

In his revised version, Schiller dilutes some of his most radical rhetoric, says Nisbet. The central line, “All mankind are brothers,” was originally, “Beggars become princes’ brothers,” implying the erasure of class distinctions. In the revised version, Schiller removes references to a sword. He also eliminates much of his overtly Christian language. Whereas in the 1786 version, Schiller alludes to apocalyptic theological themes, describing an ultimate resurrection from the dead and the final pardon of all sins. Fascinatingly enough, in Schiller’s original version of the poem, even hell itself will ultimately be obliterated: “Every sin shall be forgiven, hell itself shall cease to be.” He describes the dead being raised up to join the living. Schiller’s original version ends:

“A serene hour of departure!
A peaceful sleep beneath the shroud!
Brothers—and a gentle verdict
On the dead the judge may utter!”

In Schiller’s original version, there is an eternal triumph of peace and hope over death and despair: this is the source of our most ultimate freude.

But this joy, Schiller believed, was contrary to his changing context. Thus, he redacts his work of art. He rewrites it. Considering grave and violent realities that abruptly transformed the world around him, he dismisses “Ode to Joy” as outdated. Irrelevant. In soft-pedaling the rhetorical strength of his original work, it is as though Schiller gives up on the final triumph of freude. For how can joy truly triumph when so much suffering and evil still exists in the world?

This Holy Week, we may be asking ourselves a similar question. In the context of the crisis currently unfolding in Ukraine and with the constant talk of pandemic trauma, we might be reluctant to celebrate the festal fanfare of Easter this year. Perhaps lingering in the still silence of Holy Saturday feels more appropriate.

On Holy Saturday, the church commemorates Christ’s “harrowing of hell.” This “harrowing” is understood as the Son of God’s descent into the underworld to release the dead souls in captivity. This Christian teaching finds scriptural support in 1 Peter 4:6, which states that “the gospel was proclaimed to the dead,” and in Ephesians 4:9, which states that Christ “descended into the lower parts of the earth.” Then, of course, there’s that little loaded phrase we corporately profess in the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into hell.”

On Holy Saturday, the church sinks down into the lower depths with Jesus. We contemplate that lonely, hollow abyss, hoping and praying for deliverance. Our souls ache for the light. Here in the void, we wait.

Yet Christ descends into hell not for the sake of gloom and despair. But for the sake of the ultimate triumph of joy! Christ descends into hell to raise every soul – living and dead – to eternal life with him. In our metaphorical descent with Jesus, we realize the triumph of Easter isn’t complete without the anguish of Holy Saturday. Christ must enter the fullness of our sorrows to lift us up into the fullness of his joy.

Still we wonder, is it right to celebrate the triumph of joy and hope in a world that is yet so hopeless and broken? Beethoven thought so.

In 1824, Beethoven’s dream to set Schiller’s poem to music was finally made manifest in the “Choral Finale” of his notorious Ninth Symphony. At the time, Vienna was effectively a police state, and the line, “All mankind are brothers,” was a cry of protest. In Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven found an aspiration vision of freude for all humankind, a unifying call for hope and happiness. But for Beethoven, this vision of joy is neither cheap nor instantaneous.

For three entire movements of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the listener spends her time with only instruments. Harvey Sachs describes the first movement as “brutality and despair,” the second movement as “harsh struggle,” and the third movement as “acceptance of life as it is.” In her journey through Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the listener experiences her own “harrowing of hell” and emerges out the other side to the fourth and final movement, a euphoric choral celebration. At last, the soaring voices singing Schiller’s text bring her home. In the fourth movement, “what Beethoven wants us to experience now is all-embracing joy,” writes Sachs in The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824.

In the end, history would not remember the text of Schiller’s poem without Beethoven’s Ninth. It’s the soaring euphoria of Beethoven’s “Choral Finale” that best captures Schiller’s original vision of happiness. Yet it’s also the deep sadness and struggle of the first three movements that take the listener on a slow, meandering quest. But once she arrives at the symphony’s final movement, she has found joy at long last.

On our own journey through Holy Week this year, we might want to linger a little longer in Holy Saturday. Though we mustn’t forget that in the harrowing of hell, Christ triumphed even over the bleak desolation of the abyss. Therefore, when joy is absent from the world and from our hearts, as Christians, we look to the cross. We are reminded of the promise that we belong to God in life and in death. For once we finally arrive at the end of our life’s journey, at the conclusion of a race well run, the fullness of Christ’s eternal bliss for us will be complete.

Freude. Joy!