Ode to Joy

My final symphony—my best by far!—
Which crowns a challenged life of brilliant works.
Vienna’s finest came! Some from afar:
Nobility, musicians, Prussians, Turks.
A triumph! Yet it made my proud heart bleed:
The orchestra refused to let me lead.

They argued I could not conduct from silence—
The man who leads must hear and sense the mood
Within the concert hall lest he do violence
To the score. Though pained, I understood.
A maestro who breaks tempo earns each jeer.
O, how I long for youth—when I could hear!

Alone within my flat I pound each note
And weep with each piano string I break.
I listen for the music that I wrote
And settle for vibrations. O, the ache
Of knowing that my eardrums have been bound,
My music spent. To never hear one sound!

I brood about the symphony last night.
I truly cannot tell how well they played.
The strings and woodwinds—was their tone too light?
The baritone and alto—did they fade?
The pacing? Was the timpani too loud?
I’ll never know: should I feel shamed or proud?

This much I grasp. The music that I’ve wrought
Has left the words of Schiller much improved.
In melody and harmony I’ve caught
True brotherhood and God, and all I’ve loved.
I could not face the audience for fear!
But when I turned, I saw Vienna cheer!

O Fate! Must silence be my only choice?
I dream each chord, each note, each treble clef
And pray that God above can hear my voice.
How else can I compose now that I’m deaf?
Perhaps in Heaven I’ll again be whole.
For now, the Ninth has soothed my battered soul!


Poet’s Note: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered on May 7, 1824 at the prestigious Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna. The performance was conducted by Michael Umlauf, the theatre’s Kapellmeister, who allowed Beethoven on-stage but strictly instructed the musicians to ignore any directions from the deaf composer. When it was over, the symphony received rapturous applause which Beethoven could not hear. Legend has it that the young contralto Carolina Unger approached the maestro and turned him around to face the audience, to see the ovation.



The Silent Choir Loft

Our harmonies were flat and seldom tight
And some of the more modern music choices
Were loud instead of beautiful and bright.
Still we rejoiced in lifting up our voices.

We sang to God for our small congregation!
But that was long ago. I’m bold to ask:
How long till we again sing celebration?
How long must hymns stay muffled in a mask?

What diabolic force could make a vice
Of lifting hearts and spirits up with song?
I cannot think the cure is worth the price
When banning heartfelt worship seems so wrong.



Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or commentary.

CODEC Stories:

29 Responses

  1. jd

    Enjoyed both poems, Brian. I think you interpreted
    Beethoven’s probable feelings well in “Ode to Joy”and
    no doubt many of us can relate to “The Silent Choir Loft”. Both
    poems touched me in a personal way and one can’t ask
    for more than that. At least not this “one”.

    • Brian Yapko

      Dear j.d., thank you for your kind comments. I’m pleased my work was able to touch you personally. That makes writing the poetry very satisfying indeed!

  2. Paul Freeman

    You can feel the author of the music’s pain in Ode to Joy. This piece is both moving and educational in its grounding in history and knowledgeability (I made that last word up) of music.

    As for The Silent Choir Loft, it’s a poignant piece that’s a poem of our time.

    Thanks for the reads, Brian.

  3. Anna J Arredondo

    Brian, I like both of these, especially Ode to Joy with its speculatively insightful development of feeling. The juxtaposition of the two is interesting: in the first the limitation being inability to hear the music, and in the second the restriction being on producing it.
    The Silent Choir Loft reminded me of Luke 19:39-40 “And some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Him, Teacher, rebuke Your disciples. And He answered and said, I tell you, If these shall be silent, the stones will cry out.” Still, I’m all for continuing to rejoice in lifting up hearts and spirits and voices; why let the stones have all the fun?

    • Brian Yapko

      Anna, I love your comment. I wish I had thought of the passage from Luke when I wrote this because it’s right on! You’re right. Why let the stones have all the fun?! Another poem perhaps.

  4. Cynthia Erlandson

    Both of these are very moving and insightful, Brian — thank you! I’m confident that Beethoven would be grateful for “Ode to Joy”, and that choirs and music lovers everywhere would thank you for “The Silent Choir Loft”.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Cynthia. Beethoven was a complex personality so I hope you’re right! As for the Silent Choir Loft, I wrote it out of frustration because I sing — or at least I used to. But choirs are still either forbidden or muffled behind masks and that seems very wrong to me — and dangerous. The government should have no authority over how worship takes place.

  5. C.B. Anderson

    The pace and the diction in both poems were superb, Brian, and the succession/progression of the related notions was expressed with lines that were expertly knitted together and drumhead-tight. You are full of good ideas.

    • Brian Yapko

      C.B., thank you very much for your kind comment! I especially like your mention of “drumhead” since this is a poem about music!

  6. Margaret Coats

    Brian, your Ode’s third stanza “at home” wrenches my heart for Beethoven. I know he had more than one piano, placed on the wood floor with legs removed, to let him feel as much resonance as possible. To think of him listening for his music to no avail, and weeping when his violent playing broke strings! I have a pianist friend who reminds audiences that the piano is a percussion instrument, but he stops short of destroying the instrument. Here it’s almost as if Beethoven wrecks the strings as a figure for his own broken eardrums. But the stanza sets up your conclusion, in which the composer dreams the music, and accepts the obvious success of the Ninth Symphony premiere as salve for his battered soul.

    I like the fifth stanza statement that Beethoven improves Schiller’s words. When I teach about lyric forms, and come to the ode, I say that Schiller’s Ode to Joy is the most renowned ode in any language worldwide, and of course its fame outside German literature is due solely to Beethoven’s music. Still, you take care to specify the spiritual themes for which Beethoven selected it as his choral text. This poem is a thorough treatment of a highly sensory and sensitive subject!

      • Margaret Coats

        C. B., I’m sure you are not surprised that few young students have heard of Keats or Dryden, masters of the ode in English. Most, however, can connect with Beethoven’s Ninth to get an idea of what an ode is. A special side benefit of teaching from this point of view is that students are more receptive to Dryden. In mere words, his odes are more difficult than those of Keats, but with Beethoven’s Ninth in the back of their minds, students are willing to work at listening.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Margaret, for your very sensitive comment. Many years ago I had read about Beethoven, stone-deaf and unaware, having to be turned to be made aware of the audience’s ovation. I have always been deeply moved by the story. I’m glad that the incidents described in this poem moved you as well. I’ve also heard about Beethoven sawing the piano legs off so that the case and keyboard could rest on the floor and create more vibration. Talk about pathos!

      Since I would have guessed that Keats held the honor, I was very interested to learn from you that Schiller’s Ode is the most internationally renowned. In hindsight that makes sense — especially since the Ninth is so often performed internationally. (I remember the performance celebrating the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.) My understanding is that Beethoven himself wrote the words leading to the introduction to the choral part ( O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!…)

      I’m very pleased that you liked this work!

  7. Jeff Eardley

    I really enjoyed these two Brian. They are a delight to read and are up there with your best. I hope that the choir-loft will be back in business before too long. Thanks for a most informative musical interlude.

  8. Cheryl Corey

    I think your bio has it backward. You’re a poet, who’s also a lawyer.

    • Brian Yapko

      Hah! Thank you, Cheryl. I probably wouldn’t dread the phone nearly as much and I’d probably sleep better at night!

  9. Damian Robin

    The Ode to Joy flows along so lightly and yet the heaviness of Beethoven’s violent rave against his deafness is plain and clear. He knew what he could do, make renowned words sound higher. And he knew where this ability came from. You make these weighty ideas fly. Wonderful.

    The second poem has similar themes in the beauty and buoyancy music can bring, and the disappointment of the senses being muted.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Damian! For Beethoven to take the relatively simple, musical theme of the Ode to Joy and invest it with gravitas and universality was quite an achievement. Yes indeed — he knew where his ability came from. As do we.

  10. David Watt

    Brian, I really enjoyed your two musical themed poems.
    “Ode to Joy” succeeds in getting to the very character of Beethoven, and the sense of frustration he must have felt due to deafness. But your poem also
    shows that Beethoven soared above his limitation, in music, and in life. This contrasting of highs and lows has its own musicality.
    Your second poem rings true for me. I listened to a performing choir several months ago, where choir members from Year 7 and above were masked. Although the performance was of a high standard, the masking couldn’t help but distract and detract. There is no beauty or logic in masked singing.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, David. I’m pleased that my characterization of Beethoven rings true for you and I very much appreciated hearing your story about the choir performance you attended. I agree fully with your conclusions. Masks ruin the musical effects by muting all sound and by making the words unintelligible. They are distracting to see and they are miserable to try to sing in.

  11. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, you have an enviable ability to write from the first-person perspective in such a way that the character’s heart and soul is laid bare. Reading your words had me feeling Beethoven’s despair, reaching out to comfort him, and appreciating him on at a greater level. “Ode to Joy” brings the deaf composer and his historic moment alive with superb poetry – poetry I wish I’d written myself.

    “The Silent Choir Loft” says everything about the current state of many churches… beautifully. The long-term effects of masks, both physically and mentally, will put those who forced them on us to shame. We’ve been let down by many of our institutions… but, to be let down by one’s church is heartbreaking.

    • Brian Yapko

      Susan, I’m so honored by your comment! Thank you! First person perspectives are my favorite for writing poetry. I find it gives immediacy and human consequence to a dramatic situation — more “skin in the game” as it were. In this case, I could not have written about the Ode to Joy except from Beethoven’s bittersweet point of view. I’m deeply touched by your compassionate reaction to Beethoven’s tragic circumstances.

      I’m also very glad we’re on the same page regarding church-issues and mask-issues. You are so right. The long-term effect of masks will be dire. Imagine a generation of children terrified at seeing a human face! There may well be a poem — or a science fiction story — in that.

  12. Margaret Coats

    Brian, I forgot that I had intended to make a comment on “The Silent Choir Loft,” so here it is. A singer who is coughing or sneezing ought not to wear a mask in choir; he should bow out until his illness no longer detracts from his musical skill. That puts the question of whether or not to sing on a rational basis.

    In many places at present, reason and music are overcoming fear and political correctness (the two reasons for masking). Just as mask tyrants are willing to allow eating and drinking without masks, even in large group settings, the discussion about church singing is fading away, as long as masking continues to be practiced enough to acknowledge subservience.

    The human logic behind this is clear. Who can take seriously the recommendation to sing unmasked to one’s own children at home only occasionally, and outdoors, even if you are fully vaccinated? Or the recommendation that church choirs may sing when 80% of the local population is vaccinated? As the national vax rate reaches 60%, there are already signs that church singing will be delayed until the state rate is 90%. And with vaxxed persons known to be fully disease susceptible?

    What I liked most about your poem is the repetition of “How long?” “How long” is a classic psalm motif, recognizing that the decision belongs to God. His be the worship in song!

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Margaret, for this additional comment. I fully agree with you and I like your observant point “… as long as masking continues to be practiced enough to acknowledge subservience.” How true! New Mexico just lifted its indoor mask mandate this week (one of the last states to do so) so I have high hopes that normal singing will resume at church, not just for choir members but for the congregation. The final decision will be up to our bishop. And I appreciate your noting the liturgical aspects of my poem’s phrasing. My use of “bold to…” was also intended as a subtle allusion to prefatory language introducing the Lords Prayer prior to communion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Captcha loading...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.