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Inside Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

We deconstruct the music, and look at the world that inspired it.

"Ludwig van Beethoven," by Karl Joseph Stieler (Credit: Art Archive/Beethoven House)

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its “Ode to Joy” finale, has come down through the centuries as history’s great and towering hymn to freedom, joy, brotherhood.

We roll it out as a climax, a capstone, a high marker of moments of human profundity.

But the year of its premier, 1824, in Vienna, was a time of great repression, of ultra-conservative nationalism, as old dynasties pushed back against years of Enlightenment and revolution.

This Hour, On Point: Beethoven’s Ninth, in the tide of history.


Harvey Sachs, music historian whose new book is called “The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824.” He is on faculty at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. You can read an excerpt (copyright Random House 2010.)

James Conlon, music director for the Los Angeles Opera. He also serves as music director for the Ravinia Festival in Chicago and the Cincinatti May Festival. He has conducted performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

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  • Brett

    Aside from the shear power of the 9th, the beauty, and the “waking up and shaking up of the aristocracy” in how it begins, what I find most interesting about the symphony is that it exemplifies how great artists grapple with certain themes in their work over time until they bring them to full fruition. One can hear some of the themes Beethoven brought to bear in the 9th coming through in his earlier work. It seems he was readying himself, developing his ideas thematically–as early as the 5th– for the 9th Symphony.

  • Brett

    should have been “sheer” not “shear”! ;-)

  • Ellen Dibble

    Hi, Brett. You point to something I’ve wondered about composers, this one especially: How does he do it? It’s like creating a thunderstorm, an elegant one.
    Next question: why does my brain remember music like this eidetically (I think is the word, something meaning photographically, but in this case auditorially). Is my aging brain still “recording” like that?
    I read a biography of Beethoven a few years ago, I think the one by Maynard Solomon, never focused in on his stretch in Vienna (see the link above) where he wrote the 9th. However, my first trip to Europe about 1985 I took a train from Brussels to Vienna, and looking for the cheapest place to stay, near the center, the post office, the Graben I think where the plague victims had been buried — anyway a hollow drafty room with piano music a few stories down — it was a great deal. I read about Vienna later and saw that Mozart had stayed in that hostelry. Indeed those were dour days, business-like and somewhat depressed. The Japanese were touring there more than rich Americans. I guess that was due to the Cold War, per the Sachs link. I spent a couple weeks, and went back a year later, still pretty much lost. The streets change name every block or so, and they go in circles rather than squares like New York City. I wanted to see the place at the edge of the history I knew, Prague being next.
    How Beethoven programmed my brain to contain the 9th and why. I learned German on account of him (for one). Amazing the other face of Germany coming to the fore in the early 20th century.
    How Vienna lost its glitzy, edgy culture about the same time, intellectuals and artists leaving, as per the link to Sachs, in a wave? I thought that wave was war I and war II. But apparently Vienna never honored its own till they were dead??? Leaving out Strauss? Status had been (and in ways maybe still is) engrained (due to defending the Austro-Hungarian empire against in particular the Muslim invaders) in the military and monarchy, so no surprise there. Arts last. I mean, arts get credit last.

  • Mary Trerice

    Hearing those opening strains takes me back instantly to the early 70′s and Boston Symphony Hall. You could purchase student tickets for just a few dollars and for the 9th I was seated as far up and back in the balcony as one could be. The quality of the sound was astounding and I sat there with my eyes closed, physically and emotionally experiencing the power. No concert since has come close to that night.

  • Barry Freedman

    My eyes always tear up when I hear the soaring choral passages in then 9th, because I can’t wrap my mind around the paradox in human nature this piece represents. That is that these majestic sounds are a product of the same culture that later put children in ovens and exterminated millions.

  • Pat Hawn

    Didn’t the “Huntley Brinkley Report” use a movement from Beethoven’s Ninth for their theme song? That’s how I got interested in classical music.

    • Jerick

      That was the beginning the 3rd movemenet of Dvorak’s 9th New World Symphony that was used back in the 50′s/60′s by Huntley/Brinkley.  Not Beethoven’s second movement of his 9th, though it is similar.

  • robert bristow-johnson

    Tom, you might remember that the beginning of the 2nd movement (the “bomp, bomp… bomp, bomp” part) was used as the theme music for the NBC Huntley-Brinkley Report. That is how I, as a kid, was first introduced to it.

  • Nancy White Cassidy

    When I was in high school, 37 years ago, I was absolutely obsessed with Beethoven. I was also studying classical piano at the time, and was determined to be able to play many of the 32 piano sonatas.

    Beethoven’s seeming tragic life, his childhood abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father, this anti-social (but at times, extremely sensitive and tender) behavior and awful last years of living in absolute squalor until his death, just fascinated me.

    It was when I was in high school that my classmate took me with her and her family to see the 9th at Tanglewood. I’ve seen it live many times since, and I receive the same thrill now as I did then!

  • Fred Li

    This piece is one of my all time favorites and regularly gets played in its entirety. Though each of the movements can stand alone, I always try to make the time to listen straight through.

    When the technical specs of a playback format (CD) include play time to encompass The 9th complete, that says it ALL…..


  • r b-j

    Looks like, Pat, we were typing at the same time (and thinking the same thing).

    The cool thing was that this was the news my parents watched most of the time (I dunno why, but they didn’t like Walter Klondike). Every day, hearing the same theme, even a 10-year-old will start to understand it. It wasn’t the first classical music I ever heard (my mom played it all day on the radio and most of it was utterly unremarkable), but it was the first classical music I ever “got into”.



  • Nancy White Cassidy

    Barry Freedman…Although Beethoven was German by birth, he never – EVER – would have condoned what the Nazis did. I cannot associate him with Nazis. Wagner, yes. Beethoven, NO.

    His 3rd Symphony, “Eroica”, had been originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. But when Beethoven heard that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, Beethoven, in a rage, tore up the title sheet, and rededicated it, instead, to the “Heroic Nature of Man”, thus “Eroica”.

  • Justin

    Thanks so much for covering the Ninth. I’ve performed just the 4th movement, and it was an incredible experience. The information in and around this symphony is so deep that conservatories spend semesters on just this. I thank you for giving such an intriguing overview.

  • Mr. Trees


    Even now, listening to the broadcast, I am in rapt anticipation for the booming voices of the 4th movement of the inner symphony; The Ode to Joy.

    Thanks and Bravo

  • Ellen Dibble

    In the biography I read, it was suggested/hypothesized that Beethoven had lead poisoning, and actually died of it. It was from something he ingested regularly, maybe pewter tableware, or a medicine. I forget. But I believe I’ve read that lead poisoning (in adults) can lead to deafness. I mean, there are other difficulties involved, but it lends a lot more meaning to the surmounting that the 9th lays out.
    Not all of us go deaf. Not many composers continue, deaf. But many of us have difficulties associated with toxins. Anyway, I do.

  • Music Fan

    When I was in the fifth grade, my mom let me skip school so we could go into Boston to hear the 9th performed. It was fantastic. Thanks for the interesting show.

  • Stephen Symchych

    Can Dr Sachs comment on Beethoven’s opinion of Mozart’s Magic Flute? While there is obviously a lot more going on in the 9th than an imitation or elaboration, I see some interesting thematic (in both senses) echoes.

    The first movement– a scene of stress and uncertainty, which happens to use the mirror image of the motif in Tamino’s first entrance. Second movement– a slightly drugged scene of gods at play, especially if both scherzo and trio are taken at Beethoven’s exact tempo. Third movement– hymnal benediction, whose scoring is somewhat reminiscent of the boys’ blessing in MF. And so on.

  • Fred Arnstein

    The first time I heard the 9th, on my father’s 78 rmp records!, I was duely overwhelmed by the emotion and majesty of the piece. But then, as I’ve heard it more over the years, I’ve come to believe that my original reaction was not genuine. I was experiencing what I was supposed to. The truth is that I find the symphony rambling, almost boring, compared with most of his other symphonies. The 5th, 6th, and 7th particularly strike me as the real masterpieces among his symphonies, and the 9th, great though it is, is distinctly inferior to these. And the fact that it’s a late work — so what. I don’t think there’s any comparison between it and, say, Beethovens late string quartets. I’m not saying that each person shouldn’t have their own reaction to the symphony, but those are mine, and I’m curious if your guest has not had the same feeling, or if he understands why I might feel as I do.

  • Nancy White Cassidy

    Ellen Dibble…That’s entirely possible…lead was everywhere, including in ladies’ makeup at that time. But the common thought was that Beethoven’s deafness, erratic behavior and awful health problems at the end of his life was a result of advanced syphilis.

    Regarding death of great composers…I read about a theory that Mozart died, not from a disease, but as a result of being poisoned by one of his paramour’s husbands, who used a poison called “aqua tofana”, a ‘popular’ poison during that period.

  • Mary Craig

    I teach Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in middle school, where I teach both German and choir. The melody, which moves mostly by steps up and down, is accessible for students beginning to learn note-reading. It offers some rhythmic challenge (especially the syncopation on “Alle Menschen”.) Singing the text in German offers students the chance to see that singable translations often stray from the original text significantly. The first verse’s “Joy, beautiful spark of the gods” and “we enter, drunk with fire” are a far cry from the “Joyful, joyful we adore thee” version printed in protestant hymnals.

  • george

    I went to a Yiddush camp in the 40′s. At the end of summer, instead of Color War, we had something called Folke Yom Tov — in which every group dressed up as a different country. And we all marched in for the major moment to the sound of the 9th symphony singing, in Yiddush, alle menschen zeiner bruder. It was a folk festival celebrating the untiy of all mankind.

  • Ellen Dibble

    It makes all the sense in the world that one who has to struggle REALLY hard for transcendence of bad humor, difficult past, ill health — such a person would be the best to express the stretch to SOMETIMES, not always, get beyond the bad parts of experience.

  • Wil Davis

    If you like the ninth, then check out the Fantasy in C minor for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra, op. 80; composed 16 years before the ninth was finished, and led the way in terms of use of a chorus in a symphonic work.

    Fabulous piece of music and much underplayed on this (US) side of The Pond.

    Back to the ninth: I was very disappointed when the EU adopted the last movement as the “European Anthem” – typical of the bloody politicians! bah!!! The music has to be taken complete and in its own context, and not just pared down and utilised for some other use!

    - Wil

  • Ann Frantz

    As a violinist playing in a community symphony until recently, I loved Beethoven’s symphonies. The Ninth draws emotion from deep inside, pulls at the heart and head. The challenge and satisfaction of playing it made me a better musician. The Ninth made me want to stop and squeeze my arms to my chest at its height; I settled for a big grin as I played. The rhythmic exchange woven throughout the orchestra is exciting to hear, and just as exciting to play. I believe Beethoven simply created what came through his soul, in a brilliant, inimitable fashion, leaving us all a timeless experience in passion – both joyful and despairing.

  • Dana

    Hi, would someone please recommend a good recording of this piece? Thank you.

  • john w. rippetoe jr.

    thank you for a great show on Beethoven’s ninth. I enjoyed Tom Ashbrook’s unbridled enthusiasm for the symphony, and agree completely! And for all of the furious, punishing joy(!) of the 4th movement, I am always most moved by the excruciating vulnerability and intimacy found there, by the heart-breaking tenderness of its embrace as it pauses, almost suspended to just the pulse felt in its embrace, to just the few breaths taken by perhaps one or two instruments, and how at the end of the (Beethoven’s?) struggle and just before soaring to its cosmic finale, the symphony seems to look back one last time, unwilling to declare (perhaps the declamation(word?) Tom was referring to) victory without offering/promising to include every soul, and returns to embrace each and all before and as it makes its final ascent, forever human and terrestrial but no longer earth-bound….thanks again for a great show!


    I love Johanne Sebastion Bach.

  • Akilez

    I mean Johann.

  • Don Drewecki

    Has anyone who professes to love the Ninth Symphony ever bothered to listen to, and absorb, the even greater Missa Solemnis?


  • Ellen Dibble

    Don, I have listened to the Missa Solemnis about as much as the 9th. The Benedictus, the way it unfolds like a flower at dawn, achingly sweet, and infinitely sad. I recall being laughed at for favoring it. But I think nobody finds fault with the Benedictus.
    Anyway, I find that music can be way too much for me, as I grow through middle age. Perhaps it’s an issue of time. For a while I would only listen to music that was really important to me if I happened to have it played AT me, on the radio, their choice. Now I avoid even that. I don’t need to revisit the crashing ending of the 9th, for instance. I know it’s there.
    The Fantasia that someone posted — I think I used to listen to that, also loving the way Beethoven used voices there, maybe preferring that. Thanks for reminding me. Just by the name, it is probably less excessive than the 9th. Less furious.
    I am thinking Beethoven’s I think first symphony, I think the second movement, that children including myself learn to play on the piano, and even there, it immediately commands the breathing of the listener. You hang upon the next note, which seems inevitable, but not inevitable like a march. Inevitable like a miracle. It seems to float, to lift you the way a kite is lifted in the air. Lots of stretches of Beethoven are like that, intoxicating.

  • Laurence Glavin

    A few years ago, James Levine stated that for him, Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”, which he was about to conduct, was the single greatest piece of music in his experience. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to specify one piece, because that means whenever he is conducting or performing another piece (when he is able), that composition is NOT the world’s greatest work of music! The print edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica bites the bullet and names LvB as the “greatest composer who ever lived”, probably on the basis of the works he composed after the custody trial he won in court but lost at home. They probably came to this conclusion, despite the immensity of the contributions by J. S. Bach and Mozart, simply because even their works don’t quite reach the grandeur of Beethoven’s signature works with 3 digits in the opus number. So I must fault Tom Ashbrook for calling the 9th Beethoven’s “masterwork”…he left us a dozen or more of such pieces!

  • Ellen Dibble

    The Benedictus of the Missa Solemnis, 10 minutes from YouTube, a little slower than I have programmed in my brain. But fine.

  • Brett

    Before I begin with the main part of my comment I want to say something about how, for lack of any other word coming to mind, dangerous it is to paint German identity over the centuries with a broad brush, as did Barry Freedman; and, I would agree with Nancy White Cassidy in that if any German composer could be associated with the mindset we think of as Aryan culture, it is Wagner. I am reminded of the movie version of Gunter Grass’ novel “The Tin Drum.” Before the Nazis came to power, the main character’s family had a piano in their parlor with a portrait of Beethoven setting on its top. When HItler rose to power, the father (who embraced Nazism) removed the portrait of Beethoven and put in its place a portrait of Hitler. At the end of the war, when Berlin was in shambles, there is a scene in the movie where the father removes the portrait of Hitler from its frame atop the piano, puts back Beethoven’s portrait, and says in a defeated, somber–almost nostalgic–tone, “Ah, Beethoven, there was a good German.”

    I feel it is important insight into Beethoven to look closely at his name. The “van” (as opposed to the aristocratic “von”) was an important representation of class distinction in Germany present in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Ludwig was reminded his whole life of his status, particularly so when one considers for whom he was writing and performing his music. I sense this informed his music.

    His patrons caused him some conflicted feelings [my conjecture] in some respects (both in that he had a bird’s-eye purchase, so to speak, on a world of power and money and yet struggled to maintain regular income all the while). He befriended his most notable patron, Archduke Rudolph, for example, yet was creating music that would challenge his most important “audience” members. It’s as if he was saying in his music [again, my conjecture], “listen to me!” Or, “you pay me, but you don’t tell me what to feel or what to write!” One thing is for sure, the nobility was not going to nod off to sleep (as they were inclined to do during some symphonic performances) during the 9th! I believe he was proud of his “van” and found his patrons contemptible on a certain level.

    There was something in the air in Beethoven’s time, something shifting in the mores of Europe. The French Revolution had happened, and there was radical social and political upheaval in Europe. The ideas that were beginning to germinate around the time of Beethoven’s birth and were sprouting into new ways of seeing the world, of art, etc., would soon blossom into Romanticism and were a reaction against classicism and neoclassicism. I see Beethoven as being a kind of bridge between those worlds; he was partially in one world and partially in another. Much of our art from the 19th century, much of Romanticism, then ushered us toward the modernism of the early 20th century. I suppose all art moves in such a fashion from one period to another. Looking at the movement within different periods as a whole it is macrocosmically what each great artist goes through in his or her own evolution. Many fine artists work within their genre, but the truly great ones advance the genre and light the way for something more, something else to come along.

    I also sense Beethovan was not apolitical (Nancy White Cassidy here, for example, cites his Third Symphony’s dedication to Napoleon–one that perhaps cost him a dedication fee–and his later title change from “Bonaparte” to “Eroica” upon hearing of Napoleon’s proclaiming himself emperor as evidence).

    I hear so many aspects of a changing world in his 9th Symphony.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Someone asked about recordings of the 9th. I googled Toscanini, Beethoven’s 9th, a conductor who long long ago was lauded. Even recently, though, someone has been uploading bits of Toscanini conducting it. Audio quality is surely better on more recent recordings.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’m not sure if this is the Beethoven Fantasia in question (the choral part), but 134,000 people have listened, which is not 5 million, but it’s quite a plus vote — a Russian chorus. There was quite a bit of Mozart-type grand sound to it, I think, very like some parts of the Magic Flute? Plus Beethoven’s pounding rhythms and rich chords.

  • Joshua Hendrickson

    As a teenaged intellectual, I fell in love with Beethoven’s 9th. As a thirty-one-year-old dating an 18-year-old intellectual, I learned that not all of us eggheads have the same reaction to great art. “That’s not JOY,” she exclaimed in disgust during her first listen to the fourth movement. “That’s POWER.” While I could concede such an interpretation I still felt offended on behalf of poor dead Ludwig. In spite of his great popularity, I still think of Beethoven as the most misunderstood of the great composers, too often equated with a racist jingoist like Wagner, all because his music is powerful–though not a celebration of power itself. Beethoven was a humanist, though perhaps not a gentle one. Years later, I wonder if my ex ever came to understand that.

  • Joshua Hendrickson


    I recall an essay by Ursula K. LeGuin, the great science fiction and fantasy writer. She spoke of not believing in prediction, and said that she did not think anybody knew where humanity was going–except, possibly, for Beethoven, in the last movement of the last symphony.

    Leonard Bernstein’s comment about the Ode to Joy working on a spiritual level even for those (like me) who reject religion is quite right. It moves me deeply. After all, God doesn’t have to be real to have an effect on our imaginations!

  • http://nancib.wordpress.com/ Peng from Jamaica Plain

    I missed part of this show yesterday on WBUR and I wasn’t able to hear the entire rebroadcast so I went looking for the podcast. Unfortunately this show isn’t available on the podcast yet. Do you have an ETA on when I’ll be able to get it?

  • peter nelson

    Tom, you might remember that the beginning of the 2nd movement (the “bomp, bomp… bomp, bomp” part) was used as the theme music for the NBC Huntley-Brinkley Report. That is how I, as a kid, was first introduced to it.


  • http://www.followingtheninth.com kerry candaele

    I very much enjoyed the show, especially as I am just finishing a documentary on the global impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The trailer is here: http://www.followingtheninth.com


    kerry candaele
    venice, ca

  • Ferenc Lestar

    The 9th is one of the greatest composition of the music art. The proof for Beethoven’s tremendous effort prior to this monumental achievement was the 20 year long ‘advance-guard action’ the Choral Phantasy, the other great work with elements of the 9th.

  • George

    With all the (deserved) focus on the Finale, please do not overlook the incredible, brilliant first movement of the 9th, which in some ways I prefer. The first bars remind me of an orchestra tuning, or wind rustling waves of grain, and then the first eruption. It has a glorious fugue section that always sends chills up my spine. Amazing.
    Here is a YouTube clip of it:

    In my view, nothing in the classsical repertoire comes close to combining both the emotional power and beauty as does Beethoven. Missa Solemnis, Choral Fantasy, late quartets, Grosse Fuga, certain piano sonatas. How did he do it? He was on another plane. And deaf? Truly heroic!

    Finally, if you are a pianist, Franz Liszt transcribed all of the Beethoven Symphonies for piano, which I believe are still in print. I have had some rapturous moments trying to play them. Enjoy!

    • Anonymous

      The only works that come close, I believe, are some of Bach’s works, transcendental, incredibly moving, and are mind-boggling technical virtuoso performances. The “Little” Fugue in G minor, for instance, but there are others.

  • Brett

    I agree, George. I prefer the first movement of the 9th, and I feel it is often overlooked in general discussions about the symphony. Possibly because the Finale has been used so much in so many different ways, for soundtracks to so many various movies and on television and radio, that it has permeated the collective consciousness? Anyway, thanks for the link!

  • Ellen Dibble

    George’s link leads nowhere. Maybe something was removed from Youtube?

  • George

    I just did the search this morning on YouTube for “Beethoven’s Ninth first movement” and got this performance by LA Phil. Good quality video and sound, if you like Dudamel. Also this search worked:
    “dudamel beethoven 1st movement”

  • Ellen Dibble

    Thanks. I was looking for the conductor Otto von Klemperer for a Missa Solemnis. Older recordings, not so easy to find, so I appreciate this.

  • justanother

    Beethoven, a man makes me breath hard! ;-)

  • justanother

    And a timely being!

  • justanother

    “Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, II. Allegretto” in the movie “The Fall”, ahhh……..

  • justanother

    A human with heart and soul, and experienced either physical or mental hardship, would greatly appreciate this lively, angry but beautiful human being.

  • justanother

    Sorry, use the wrong word “lively”, I meant to say “full of live, internally”.

  • justanother

    A heart breaker, again and again and again………. with generations to come!

  • justanother

    My apology, I meant to say “A timeless being”. It’s funny sometimes we say the opposite thing from our thoughts. :P

  • Boyce Garland

    Its interesting that the development of emotions, loyalties and character traits in Beethoven personally from around 1990 through the rest of his life are fairly in common with many other headstrong, perhaps arrogant yet romantic and heartfelt types who finally reconcile/justify all the chaos in their lives with the conviction that a loving all-powerful God is indeed head of the universe, that he sent his only son to prove this love, and that all is good in the end.

    Personality, psychological studies have always interested me more than just the intellectual determination of what makes one a musical genius. Beethovens life story reminds me a good deal of myself, somewhat arrogant and tempestuous and taken to anger, but in the end, thankfully the feeling of love in my soul engendered by an overly generous heavenly father outweighs any negative emotion I could have. Of course Beethoven was belitled by royalty and forced to deal with ugly family situations and betrayed but then we all are….life can very hard! But in the end, I feel strongly, beethoven was committed to a christian worldview because of the painstaking effort and absolute commitment of the last 10-15 years in making sure this tremendous work of art was completed.

    Like me Beethoven was a radical conservative populist…those of you who take the Fruedian view that all is lost and that at our core we are just an ugly mish-mesh of deviant urges can chew on that one for awhile!!

  • Larry

    Beethoven’s Ninth is a simple story. A child (oboe) intrudes on the grandparent’s aches and melancholy (timpanis) and while the old person firmly pushes the child aside in self-pity again and again, the child keeps returning. Little bit by bit the child subdues that old nest of sadness completely until the gloom finally collapses with the light of an Ode to Joy. The story is a celebration of family…the new loving the old. Anyway…that’s what it is for me.

  • http://www.nickjr.org Kennedie

    i just really love beethoven’s always….YOU ROCK!

  • Pingback: NPR’s On Point and Beethoven’s Ninth « NOVA Community Chorus

  • Ysun

    Beethoven was a rare phenomena that happened on planet earth. The experience I get every time  i listen to the 9th is always an explosion of bliss. It’s simply joy, bliss, and love. 

  • ariel

    One of the worst programmes concerning music that one could

    • A-man

      You comment absent any point of view, simply demonstartes your inability to support your position…

  • Sifka

    I have to say I find it comforting that the Nazis gave it such a crappy performance.

  • bnpeters

    If you’re interested in ‘The Ninth’ and its global impact, learn more about the documentary called ‘Following the Ninth’ (http://followingtheninth.com/).

    The very existence of Schiller’s poem and Beethoven’s chorale have, in a sense, become self fulfilling prophesies.  Together they do make “All men [humanity] become brothers”.

    This work must surely rank among the most profound accomplishments of humanity.  If only the rest of us could aspire to such achievement in our everyday lives, the world would be much more Joyous.

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