All great art is something everyone can appreciate and, yet, everyone still have a different interpretation. Music is no exception.

The reason Beethoven’s ninth symphony speaks to me is that I hear it as a grand story unlike anything that had really come before it.

The opening measures of the first movement remind me of a brilliant sunrise, of a great new beginning, followed almost immediately by chaos. It’s the dawn of time, of the violent creation of the universe, and settles out somewhat quickly only to surge into instability again. It’s the cycle of life, constantly alternating between triumph and tragedy. The recapitulation returns us to the sunrise motif, remind everyone that every day is a new beginning. It also represents to me the dawn of man on the cooled earth.

The second movement is a story of war and peace. The persistent downward motion in minor in this movement represents the tendency of mankind to fall into argument and battles. Just as the fighting motif seems to bottom out, there is an abrupt upward motion and the key turns to major, a much lighter and warmer motive. This is the rise of voices calling for peace and reconciliation. Several iterations of these war and peace themes imply the repetition of history. Ultimately, the movement ends in major, celebrating the triumph of peace over all.

The third movement is a love story. It is gentle and the abrupt modulation halfway through represents the turning point. The courtship becomes true love. There feels like a lot more motion, much more activity in the melodies following this point, which is the celebrations of love. The final notes give me a picture of the couple quietly walking home towards a sunset.

The fourth movement jars the listener with its sudden urgency at the start. It’s breaking the fourth wall, coming back to reality from the stories or perhaps daydreams that are the first three movements. The celli and basses interrupt the stirring chaos as a voice of reason, a narrator. I envision a grandfather, who has been telling these three stories to his grandchild. Now he asks the child to tell him what it all means. What is the overarching moral of these stories?

The naïve child focuses on the individual stories, failing to see the bigger picture. Beethoven, in his pure genius, has mini-flashbacks to each of the three prior movements–the child trying to understand or retell them–before being interrupted in each vignette by the narrator trying to refocus on the bigger picture. Finally he lets out a brief laugh, the staccato tutti chords just prior to the big reveal: the primary melody of the fourth movement by our cello and bass narrator. Other voices join in as they start to understand the theme. But just as the child thinks he’s got the message, we are jolted again by the swirling return of reality.

What happens now is analogous to the Wizard of Oz changing from monochrome to technicolor. Suddenly the story is brought to life by a baritone soloist. The words he sings are the actual words of Beethoven himself, literally telling us we are wrong: “Oh friends, not these sounds!” Then he tells us to strike up the band as he will proceed to explain exactly what it all means: “Let us instead strike up more pleasing and more joyful ones!”

From here we launch into the text of Schiller’s poem, an ode to joy itself. The tone of the music is various shades of joy for the first half of the text and rather literal.

Starting with the recitative by the men at the words “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” now Beethoven and Schiller break the fourth wall. The chorus is sharing the message not only with the child but also the whole world. From this point on to the end of the piece, the message is directed at the audience.

Perhaps the finest moment in the whole work is just prior to the fugato, where the text reads: Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen? Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? Beethoven sets these rhetorical questions in a hushed, awe-filled, but pleading, tone. He’s compelling the world to contemplate the amazing miracle that is life. While not necessarily the literal translation, I’ve always interpreted the second line as: “don’t you know who your creator is, world?” He’s asking everyone to consider that something as magical as pure joy could be anything other than a gift from God himself. It’s a truly powerful moment when delivered correctly.

The fugato is the ultimate grand finale. It is the celebration of everything that is great in the world and strives for a world where all men truly are brothers, as there is nothing more joyous than the unity of mankind.