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Schiller's "Ode to Joy"

SCHILLER, FRIEDRICH. “An die Freude” in Thalia. Herausgegeben von Schiller [edited by Schiller]

Leipzig: Georg Joachim Göschen, 1787-1791

12 numbers in 3 volumes. Contemporary half calf, marbled boards. Browning, stains to first title-page. A very handsome set, complete with the rarely found printed musical setting for “An die Freude” (Vol. I, no. 2, p. 1).

FIRST EDITION of the “Ode to Joy,” celebration of the brotherhood of man, hymn of the Age of Revolution, and ultimately a touchstone of the Romantic movement. Schiller “is today best known for his glorious ode “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) composed in 1785” and published in the journal Thalia in 1787 (Classen).

“An die Freude” was set to music countless times in Schiller’s time and afterwards, receiving its greatest and most exultant treatment in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth (“Choral”) Symphony. Beethoven observed that a great poem is more difficult to set to music than a merely good one because the composer must rise higher than the poet: “Who can do that in the case of Schiller? In this respect Goethe is much easier.”

Schiller’s poem, which appeared near the height of the Age of Revolution, was radically revolutionary. The poet tempered the poem in 1803, changing, for example, “Beggars will become Princely brothers” to “all men will become brothers.” As Leonard Bernstein reminded his audiences, the poem was originally an ode to “Freedom” (Freiheit) and only later was it changed to “Joy” (Freude).

“Schiller’s ode is a salute to humanity’s possibilities, it is giddy, unabashedly so. For Schiller, this euphoria, this insatiable drive for friendship is a saving grace for the species. Reason alone cannot explain it. It is essential if humankind is to overcome its darker moments, including the perilous path that leads to cynicism and nihilism. Friendship is thus an elixir. ‘For certain humans the power of nature strips away the stupefying limitations of convention,’ he tells some friends in Leipzig as he is scribbling on this poem, signaling the refrain that Beethoven will make famous. But the work is radical and blatantly political in its orientation–it envisions a world without monarchs at a time when the distant colonies of North America alone offered the alternative. It imagines a world whose nations live in peace with one another, embracing the dignity of their species as a fundamental principle, and democracy as the central chord of their organization. Its long appeal to Beethoven lay in just this intensely subversive, revolutionary core. … Schiller’s words are perfectly fused with Beethoven’s music. It may indeed be the most successful marriage in the whole shared space of poetry and music. It is a message of striking universality which transcends the boundaries of time and culture. It is well measured in fact to certain turning points in the human” (Scott Horton, “Schiller – Freedom’s Hymn”).

This first printing of “An die Freude,” in an unrestored period binding and complete with the musical setting, is a rare survival. No other examples appear in the Anglo-American auction records of the past forty years, though lesser copies have surfaced in Europe.


Provenance: 1. signed in each volume “Lersé,” presumably Goethe’s childhood friend Franz Christian Lersé (1749-1800), who was employed at the time of appearance of the Thalia at Pfeffel in Colmar as a teacher. In the 1770s Lersé was a student in Strasbourg with Goethe and became his friend and confidant. Goethe refers to Lersé in his autobiography.  2. Freiherr von Berckheim in Weinheim, with stamps and bookplate in each volume.