It is a trompe l'oreille, as it were, of musical chronology that by the time Beethoven came to set this celebrated Ode to Joy as part of the finale of his Ninth Symphony (1822-4) his much younger contemporary Schubert had ail but finished his explorations of Schiller's work, including a setting of the same words at least seven years earlier. It is true that Beethoven had toyed with the idea of setting the words from as early as 1793; we know this through a letter written in that year to Schiller's wife by one Bartholomäus Fischer of Bonn which enclosed a copy of Beethoven's song Feuerfarb (the text not by Schiller) and which predicted the composer's future fame. Beethoven had evidently told Fischer that he intended to set An die Freude to music, paying due attention to each strophe. Before 1822, however, Schiller had hardly featured in Beethoven's musical life; on three occasions (in 1813, 1815 and 1817) he turned to the poet's work for epigrammatic verses suitable for canons and album-leaf inscriptions for friends and colleagues (including Ludwig Spohr).
No doubt one of the reasons that Beethoven delighted in providing the definitive setting of these words (and nobody could deny that this is what they are) was that since its publication the poem had stood as an insuperable challenge to composers, not least himself. To confirm this very fact, the Leipziger Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of April 1818 pours scom on all the composers who had attempted to set the song to music strophically and states that only a through-composed solution would be acceptable.
How many other more suitable poems might the critic have chosen to illustrate the advantages of durchkomponiert song composition? A simple, all-embracing singable tune captures the mood of this particular lyric better than a fussy line-by-line response to the poet's various images. The words are above all populist and cry out for a populist musical response. Both Schubert and Beethoven understood this and the younger composer was instinctively on Beethoven's wavelength in a quest for a rugged and noble simplicity. Beethoven even provided a theme where, for most of the melody, the tune moves in single steps, easy for 'everyman' to both sing and remember. It was Beethoven's masterstroke to place his tune in a complicated and highly wrought context where grandeur and simplicity could complement each other to their mutual advantage.
John Reed conjectures that Schubert's tune was perhaps influenced by the final movement of Beethoven's Fantasie for piano, chorus and orchestra, a work in which he perhaps took part as a member of the chorus. It is also possible that he was inspired by the example of Zumsteeg whose An die Freude appears in his sixth volume of Kleine Balladen und Lieder (1803), although when comparing the two settings side by side it is the older composer's which is the more ornate and fussy in terms of melismatic vocal line and interjection from the piano. The breadth of the lyric is too much to be contained by single voice with piano and, although a 'big tune' is required, even Schubert's does not bear endless répétition. We perform here two of the eight strophes printed in the Gesamtausgabe.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993