Inside Hermann-the-German’s Sweet Castle, at Chicago’s Christkindlmarket, frosted sentiments abound. There’s a gingerbread heart for every bear, mouse and wish.
Mein süßes Bärli — my sweet little bear. Schmusebärchen — cuddly bear. Zaubermaus — magic mouse. Sexy maus — (figure it out). Mausbärchen?
Sternschnuppe — shooting star. Drück mich — hug me. Tausendschön — a thousand beauties. Knutschkugel — ball of kisses.
Sometimes the message transcends confection. Freude, schöner Götterfunken — joy, brilliant spark of the gods. Seid umschlungen, Millionen — receive this embrace, you millions. Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt — this kiss for the whole world.
If Hermann-the-German can’t easily frost Friedrich-the-German’s inspired thoughts on gingerbread palettes, the baker at least shares the hope of elevating the poet’s words through new mediums: the musical aspiration of Ludwig-the-German and the Internet mission of Riccardo-the-Italian and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Weimar poet Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) penned “Ode an die Freude” — the “Ode to Joy” — in 1785, nine years after the American Revolution and four ahead of the French. Schiller’s Enlightenment-era paean to freedom and brotherhood found its champion in the Romantic era’s Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827), whose Symphony No. 9, as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the CSO Chorus and music director Riccardo Muti, will be streamed free online for der ganzen Welt, beginning May 7.
In elevating “Ode to Joy” to the vocal-symphonic ethereal, Beethoven celebrates Schiller but selects Schiller, too. “All men become brothers,” yes, but the composer omits the poet’s call for “Human pride before the thrones of kings” and deliverance “from tyrants’ chains.” It’s the beginning of saddling “Ode to Joy” with whatever shifting meaning the historical moment requires.
Over the years, “Ode to Joy” has become so weighted with polemic, parody and familiarity, it’s tough recognizing whether the message still resonates. What do its words and music mean to the rest of us in real life, every day?
Ask the Saxons and Midwesterners at the annual Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza.
Nicole Lorenz, from Dresden (“I’m the former communist side”), is a vibrant swath of ruby locks running about Hoffmann Company’s birch-carved panorama, hemmed by wooden toys and ornaments. Lorenz, a sometimes singer and seasonal Chicago saleswoman, still associates “Ode to Joy” with “the unification of the two Germanys — they always played the song, so for me it stands for ‘when the wall came down,’ but it also stands for the opening of New Year and embracing the new beginnings.”
Lorenz memorized Schiller’s poem in school, but now “I don’t even really listen to the lyrics. I just think about the music. And for me the Ninth Symphony is a really powerful one because it has so much energy in it.”
A wooden-toy shop is an odd spot for talk of “recharging your batteries,” to use Lorenz’s metaphor. “It’s such a strong piece, such a forceful piece,” she says. “You can’t really listen to the Ninth Symphony and be quiet and sit in your chair. You usually stand up.”
Across Daley Plaza, it’s Schiller’s words before Beethoven’s music at Bienes Honighaus, where St. Louis resident Grayson Selby mans the honey stand — a surprising preference from a pianist versed in the composer’s heroic Waldstein Sonata, Selby’s favorite from university days.
“The ‘Ode to Joy’ is just celebrating the positive aspects that just having joy can bring into your life,” he says. “There are a lot of things that can cause it, and you can generate your own joy as well — almost one of those reminders to be thankful and grateful for what you have.”
Selby’s optimism permeates his work this cold, drizzly afternoon. “I think that anything you do — no matter what you do, no matter who you are — it’s up to every individual person to find the joy in what they do,” said Selby, who’s a pianist and seasonal honey hawker. “You may not have the exact job you want, you may be doing exactly what you want to. It’s up to you to be generating that thankfulness, that joy. Having a celebration of it, it’s like in this piece — it’s a daily reminder to sort of stay present and aware.”
Dan Ruth, a wistful visitor and longtime German teacher at Michigan City High School, in Indiana, gives Selby’s toil a valedictory. Donning an alpine hat peppered with volksmarsch trinkets, Ruth knows from “Ode to Joy” that “many times we try to find good fortune in forcing ourselves into a certain occupation, but really one should follow their love and what they are really interested in knowing and then make that their job. If you have fun and joy in what you’re doing, then you’re going to enjoy it through your whole life and not just for the moment.”
Tell that to 13 escaped desk jockeys (and their 26 Bitburger drafts) inside the Christkindlmarket’s Timberhouse; they’re all making the most of their lunch hour — apparently their afternoon’s sole non-billable moment. It’s said Schiller’s ode began as a drinking song, and today the Timberhouse feels like a Chicago Bar Association production of The Student Prince. (Try talking Beethoven’s 3/2 and 6/8 time signatures with drinkers bettering their 2/1 pilsner signatures.)
At one end of the table are sculpted hipster beards, with bristles crafted to Viennese perfection. So perfect, you might call out the ode’s joyous opening — “Freude” — and expect back, “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
At the other end looms … hosen, schöner Götterfunken. Someone’s once-a-year gold holiday trousers reflect the brilliant spark of the gods. Let’s call him Mr. RCA, since he displays two of the trademarks of singers forever associated with that label: the powerful tenor of Mario Lanza and the brash pants of Elvis Presley. He makes a great toastmaster, so raise your glasses:
Receive this embrace, you millions!
This kiss is for the whole world!
Brothers, above the starry vault
A loving father must surely dwell!
Do you fall prostrate, you millions?
World, do you sense your Creator?
Seek him above the starry vault,
He must surely dwell above the stars!
Prima la Bitburger, poi le parole. Maybe Schiller’s ode is a call to topple tyrants, a Seth Rogenesque-looking bro suggests: “I think what it’s trying to say is, ‘Kim Jong-un, you will not censor America!’ ”
Frothy spirituality? From another: “I’m not a religious person, but this seems like a religious song, right? Embrace what God has given you, which is the drink. And seek your creator, which means ‘keep drinking.’ Seek your creator and receive his embrace.”
Mr. RCA gets the last word. “The embrace is the alcohol, the kiss is the alcohol, and the alcohol is what opens up your mind and helps you understand that next world, a little bit better than you do when you’re sober, perhaps. This opens your mind. Loosens things up.”
Opening minds and loosening things up. Recharging batteries. Generating joy — and welcoming it your whole life. For the Loop’s modern-day Schillers and Beethovens — and their sternschnuppen and schmusebärchen — the poetry and melody of “Ode to Joy” still register.
“The more you look into it, the more you read into it, the more profound and meaningful it becomes,” says Selby, the once and perhaps future pianist. “If you just know the jingle, it’s just that — it’s a song.”
Andrew Huckman is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.
TOP: “Be good to me.” “Kiss me.” “Shooting star”: Kylee Schafroth, from Clifton, Ill., and Lexi Wilken and Josette Carpenter, from Chebanse, Ill., craft a gingerbread “Ode to Joy.” | Photo by Andrew Huckman