This weekend, Norio Ohga died. He was the chairman of Sony who oversaw the development of the audio CD. Ohga insisted on two things: that the CD be 12 cm in diameter, and that it hold 75 minutes of audio (in stereo), so that it would have sufficient capacity to hold Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its entirety. This is a fact that I have long known, because I used to do a lot of signal processing work revolving around digital audio. A CD stores music using a sample rate of 44.1KHz, and that is a strange number, especially since it is so close to 48KHz, which would have been the more logical case. Except for Beethoven. In order to meet Ohga’s demand, the engineers set the sample rate to 44.1KHz. Had they used 48KHz instead, the Ninth would not have fit.
As the work week began, I started hearing stories about Ohga on the radio, and sometimes they would play the Ninth in the background. If you are not familiar with that particular symphony, you really need to check it out. I used to own a copy on cassette, but I haven’t seen it in a long time. And even if I found it, then I’d need to scare up a cassette deck. So with Ohga’s passing to remind me of what I have been missing, I decided that it was high time I replace that cassette.
I signed onto iTunes and did a search. It turned up, but as the four individual movements. Movement number IV is the choral piece upon which the hymn “Ode to Joy” is based. But that movement is 24 minutes long, and iTunes won’t sell you a song that long as a single track. Instead, you have to buy a whole album. I didn’t object to that, because I wanted to buy all four movements anyhow. The whole album (by the London Symphony Orchestra) was in the neighborhood of $4.00, which I thought was pretty good, so I bought it. As it began to download, I realized that I was getting all nine of Ludwig’s symphonies. Bonus!
I listened to Number Nine at least nine times today, but mostly just the fourth movement. Man. There is no other song like that. Parts of it are so beautiful that I am literally moved to tears when listening. If you have a copy, there is a passage about 15:20 seconds into the fourth movement where the sopranos come in singing “Diesen kuss der ganzen welt”, taking four notes (and about four seconds) to sing the word “Diesen” and that gets me every time. Translated from the German, that passage means “with a kiss for all the world” and is speaking of the Creator’s love for us. That just makes it even more beautiful to me. Beethoven didn’t write the words – it was an extant poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785. Tchaikovski had also written a symphony set to Schiller’s poem, but when he was urged to publish it, he refused. He did not want his work to be eternally compared to the Ninth, because he knew there really was no comparison. Can’t say I blame him!
Va and I selected Ode to Joy as one of the hymns sung at our wedding (almost 25 years ago). We also listened to the National Symphony Orchestra perform it at Wolf Trap back in 1987 or so (pre-kids, but I don’t remember exactly when). What a performance.
This song is all the more spectacular when you know that Beethoven was completely deaf when he composed it. He never heard it, but there’s no way he didn’t know what it sounded like. When it was first performed in 1824, Ludwig got on stage a couple of times to indicate the tempo, but since he could not hear, he couldn’t really do more than that. But it was sure more than enough in my book.
Before I left work today, I burned the Ninth onto a CD (it fits quite nicely, Mr Ohga!) so I could bring it home and listen to it in the car. I think I’ll pop it into the CD player in a few minutes and listen another nine times.