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Poet Tracy K. Smith breathes new life into Beethoven’s Ninth

Smith’s new English lyrics for “Ode to Joy” will premiere in a Handel and Haydn Society performance at the Hatch Shell Aug. 27.

Tracy K. Smith, a former US poet laureate who recently moved to Boston, poses at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. Smith composed a new English text for the fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 (the "Ode to Joy") that will be premiered with the Handel and Haydn Society at the Hatch Shell this month.
Tracy K. Smith, a former US poet laureate who recently moved to Boston, poses at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. Smith composed a new English text for the fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 (the "Ode to Joy") that will be premiered with the Handel and Haydn Society at the Hatch Shell this month.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In the original German, it’s called “An die Freude.” The English-speaking world knows it as “Ode to Joy.” Thanks to Beethoven joining its words with an unforgettable melody in his Symphony No. 9, this 1785 poem by German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller has become possibly the most iconic text in the notoriously conservative tradition of classical music. But when former United States poet laureate Tracy K. Smith was commissioned by Carnegie Hall to write new English lyrics for the Ninth Symphony’s choral finale, she didn’t flinch.

“I think that if I were thinking about this as a touchstone in the classical music world, I would have recoiled,” Smith said in a phone interview. Instead, she thought about it as a translation project — just like one she’d been working on when she got the commission. “When I get into the nuts and bolts of translation . . . I’m thinking line by line. I wasn’t making a statement in classical music. I was simply thinking about words and images and rhythms.”

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Smith, a Falmouth native who grew up in California, was one of several poets Carnegie Hall commissioned for the Global Ode to Joy Project, the brainchild of American conductor Marin Alsop. For the 2020 celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Alsop planned to lead several performances of the Ninth Symphony on six continents, with the “Ode to Joy” text translated into a local language for each one. Smith’s interpretation was slated to premiere at Carnegie Hall itself, sung by a live chorus, but amid the ongoing pandemic, the celebration went online, and Smith’s new text was never performed live.

In a serendipitous twist, the Handel and Haydn Society recently tapped Alsop to lead a performance of Symphony No. 9 at the DCR Hatch Shell on Aug. 27. “I said to [Handel and Haydn], ‘Listen, I have this fabulous new text . . . ’ I don’t think they expected that at all,” Alsop said in a phone interview. “But they’ve been so excited and responsive.”

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And so, Smith’s adaptation of the “Ode to Joy” will be premiered to a live audience on the Esplanade — just a few miles from her new home in Newton, and across the river from her alma mater, Harvard University, where she recently joined the faculty in the English and African and African American Studies departments.

For Smith, a mother of three young children, joy means more than elation. “I think that joy is about acknowledging the largeness and beauty of others. Joy is about doing that work in order to create harmony, and I loved that Schiller’s poem seems to be thinking about that,” she said. “It was really exciting to think about bringing those ideas into contemporary, familiar English.”

In her adaptation, Smith treated nature as a powerful force with its own agency, in contrast to Schiller, who praised it as a divine creation. “Earth, forgive us, claim us, let us / live in humble thanks and joy,” Smith’s final stanza reads. “Let our hearts wake from our stupor / let us praise you in one voice.”

It was important that the vision of community and shared joy in the “Ode” didn’t come off as easy or effortless, she said. “When someone hears ‘brothers, sisters,’ I want them to hear that this is a choice that we can make in looking at our relationship to others. Even others that we don’t necessarily see ourselves as similar to, they fit in that category, too.”

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Tracy K. Smith at the Hatch Shell.
Tracy K. Smith at the Hatch Shell. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

During her tenure as poet laureate, which took place during the Trump administration years of 2017 to 2019, Smith spent a lot of time traveling to lead poetry readings and discussions in rural towns across the country. “I felt oddly fortunate to have a reason to go out into different parts of America, where people didn’t automatically agree with my perspective on things, and use poems as a way of coming together and listening to one another,” she said.

Poetry, she noted, can bypass what she sees as surface-level ideological barriers and open up avenues for genuine connections. “To be able to have these really thoughtful, vulnerable, quiet conversations was kind of miraculous . . . I think it helped stave off a certain despair that I might have felt during the first years of the [Trump] administration.”

Smith wrote her “Ode” before the pandemic, but some of the problems that COVID-19 magnified were at the top of her mind while she was working on it. Now, in a moment where “very little is resolved,” the poem resonates on a different level. “The context in which you’re reading something is always the determining context,” said Smith. She spoke of a “sense of loss and anger” amid unceasingly bleak news, and the ongoing, interwoven emergencies of the climate crisis, health care, and racial inequity.

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“The more closely you look at something, the more you realize it doesn’t have borders,” said Smith. “The imbalance that we perpetuate as human beings on the planet touches every context of our lives, and we have some really clear examples now with COVID of what that feels like.”

Alsop wasn’t too familiar with Smith’s work before the project, but after Carnegie Hall suggested her, the conductor thought she’d be perfect to bring “Ode” into the 21st century. “I wanted someone who didn’t shy away from issues of our time, who could reference them in a way that was digestible and compelling. For me, that’s what art does. It brings the issues facing us today into people’s consciousness,” said Alsop. “I always feel that classical music can do something to let itself evolve.”

It has been a long and eventful journey to the stage for Smith’s “Ode,” and as its premiere approaches at last, the poet is feeling a sense of gratitude. “This is a window of time during which it’s possible for people to gather and hear and feel music and this text together,” she said. “I hope that it’s something that you can carry away.”

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY

Aug. 27, 7 p.m. Rain date Aug. 28, 7 p.m. At DCR Hatch Shell, Charles River Esplanade. Free. www.handelandhaydn.org


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.