“THE HISTORY OF classical music is littered with monuments. Some stood as temples, guiding the human spirit toward its most elevated potential. Some crumbled under the forces of political turmoil, only to be reassembled with their fissures laid bare. Others looked down sadly above the fray. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony belongs to a category all its own.
At once innocent and ruthless, mythical and mundane, it has raised its glorious head without flinching — accompanying Western history through its greatest losses and triumphs — since its 1824 premiere. Many people associate the symphony with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a symbol of hope and solidarity for the entire Western world. But it was also performed by a children’s choir in Auschwitz, only to be reinvented as the official European Anthem less than thirty years later. A crucial source of inspiration for Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, it inaugurated the Bayreuth Festival in 1872 and returned in 1933 under Richard Strauss’s baton for the first time under Nazi rule. The symphony has been performed every year in Japan since 1940, with singers numbering up to five thousand.
“My Beethoven is not their Beethoven,” as Nietzsche, and later Mahler, would say. Already in the nineteenth century — looking toward the aforementioned concert of 1989 in which Bernstein replaced “Freude” (joy) with “Freiheit” (freedom) — the French historian Edgar Quinet understood the symphony as “the Marseillaise of humanity.” In 1927, the centenary of Beethoven’s death, the composer was heralded as both a “true democrat” by the governor of New York and a “titan of prehistoric times” by Nazi party leader Alfred Rosenberg. In his collection of essays, Blood and Honor: A Struggle for German Rebirth, Rosenberg wrote: “‘Tread your path, brothers/ joyful, like a hero, toward victory!’ That is the climax of the Ninth Symphony…. [T]he German Beethoven towers over all people on the continent.”
Propaganda like this makes it hard to argue with sociologist and critic Theodor Adorno, who believed that the symphony had been distorted by social use. “The Ninth has been interpreted out of existence,” declared musicologist Nicholas Cook in a similar vein. “It has been swallowed by ideology.” Yet it is no coincidence that this single symphony has been appropriated for one political or social statement after another. It conveys a belief — the potential of mankind to create a new world order by sheer force of will — that has spoken as directly to fascists as to technocrats. Beethoven’s late works emerged in a time of great political repression, and the composer had no problem adopting the position of a musical hero who could liberate his listeners from the confines of their reality. After the Napoleonic Wars, Beethoven would write work that could easily be labeled propaganda, such as the cantata Der glorreiche Augenblick (The Glorious Moment) for the Congress of Vienna, which ordained a new German Confederation to replace the Holy Roman Empire in 1814. The previous year he had composed Wellingtons Sieg (Wellington’s Victory) — a creatively barren celebration of the British victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Vitoria, replete with simulated gunshots — for a charity concert in honor of Austrian and Bavarian soldiers.
The Ninth is Beethoven’s testament to humanity, a search for salvation that evolves into its own worldly sermon.
And now, in the era of globalization, a worldly Beethoven has risen from the ashes of the politics of the previous two centuries. Daniel Barenboim, in his project Beethoven for All with the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble that brings together young musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries, declared that Beethoven’s music “regardless of where [we are] in the world speaks to all people.” He and the orchestra gave a high-profile performance of the Ninth two summers ago in Berlin’s Waldbühne, an arena built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics, before recording the complete Beethoven Symphonies and embarking on a tour of four different continents. Last spring, the Ninth became the focus of Deutsche Grammophon’s first app with educational software developer Touch Press — a new format that hopes to aid the ailing recording industry. The design allows users to seamlessly compare historic recordings by Leonard Bernstein, John Eliot Gardiner, Ferenc Fricsay and Herbert von Karajan while scrolling through four different versions of the score, from a nineteenth-century manuscript to a graphic display of pulsing dots that map the orchestra’s different sections. Anyone, anywhere can hear the call of brotherly love with a single touch.
In spite of the Ninth’s many appropriations as propagandistic rallying cry, vessel for transcendent pacifism, and untouchable masterpiece, it was actually a deeply personal work: Beethoven’s deep-seated political views are sublimated into its musical fabric. The Ninth was a stroke of fearless modernity, not only in the introduction of text in the final movement — an unprecedented move for symphonic writing that opened the form to infinite possibilities — but in the development of the simplest material to the most extreme ends, which paved the way to the epic sound worlds of Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich and anybody who followed them. Today it is certainly not unusual for a classical work to turn the most basic material into an explicitly political statement by thematizing a current event or integrating electronic samples. Beethoven, however, had the courage to use symphonic form as a vehicle for his own struggle — against physical illness, society (of which politics was a part), and his own fate — and turn it into an allegory for the human race. “Only art held me back,” the composer wrote in his despondent Heiligenstadt Testament. “Almighty God! You look down into my innermost being, you know it, you know that the love of mankind and an inclination to do good dwell therein.”
The Ninth is Beethoven’s testament to humanity, a search for salvation that evolves into its own worldly sermon. The two-note motive of the opening Allegro descends out of a celestial void, as if bearing God’s word through a haze of mountain mist. The clarinet, oboe and flute join the horns one by one to open the way, but less than a minute into the symphony, the timpani and a tutti passage thunder in to bring us back to earth. The winds — which protest ever so slightly — are subsumed into an epic greatness as barbaric as it is uplifting: throughout the course of the first movement, any attempt to bring respite is reversed by the low strings, sweeping it into the militant, dotted rhythms of universal truth. In order for peace to prevail, the individual must cede to the faith of the masses.
But it is a secular faith — one that allows man to triumph above nature and take fate into his own hands. In his unfinished fragments about Beethoven, Adorno describes the symphony as a “ritual of appeasement, on the mountain path of myth, de-mythologicization and mythologicization at once... his music is the inner prayer of the bourgeoisie.” As Europe’s politico-religious structures crumbled, the Ninth emerged as a temple of hope for his fellows. The second movement, with its sleek fugue and clean descending octaves, is certain of victory, even as the timpani seem to stumble in like a drunken man. More than one writer has wondered if Beethoven’s deafness hadn’t gotten the best of him by the time he wrote his last symphony, but that is exactly where its glory lies. A folk-like tune emerges serenely in the horns — setting off cascades of descending pizzicatos and a playful oboe solo — but comes abruptly to an end when the recapitulation bludgeons its way back. It is in the sublime Adagio that Beethoven provides the most unselfconscious bridge into late Romanticism, from the pair of clarinets that voice a Mozartean line into the slow-moving melody of the first violins, which could have come from the pen of a young Mahler. The brutish unisono chords that creep in for two to three measures at a time have no chance in this world of wistful beauty. Until the final movement, that is, when scampering winds and bashing timpani usher in a short recitative for cello and bass, chasing away the operatic drama that came before. Material conjured from previous movements — a brief entrance of primordial mist, two measures of caressing winds — cannot hold their own against the grandeur that is to follow. The low strings interrupt the woodwinds’ initial announcement of the “Ode to Joy” theme to officially usher in the chorale with their funereal timbre.
The Ninth was a stroke of fearless modernity — an unprecedented move for symphonic writing that paved the way to the epic sound worlds of Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich and anybody who followed them.
But who can resist this magnificent march toward happiness? “It was no rude hankering for the sea that had urged the master on to this long voyage,” wrote Wagner in his Artwork of the Future. “Resolutely he threw out his anchor, and this anchor was the word. This word, however, was not that willful, meaningless word which the fashionable singer chews over and over as the mere gristle of the vocal tone; it was the necessary, allpowerful, all-uniting word in which the whole stream of full heartfelt emotion is poured out... this word was ‘Joy.’” The sopranos reach for the heavens, but by the Alla Marcia, the battle has been won. This is a purely human realm, with a male chorus calling beneath the solo tenor to go, in the words later appropriated by Alfred Rosenberg, toward victory. The “starry canopy” is pulled down to earth: “Are you falling down, millions? Do you perceive your Creator, World?” The chorus dominates the orchestra — a triumph above all odds — only to disappear again like a collection of phantoms, dispersed by the percussion of the Turkish march that closes the piece. Only in death, it would seem, can humanity achieve the harmonious unity we strive for in life.
Even if history might teach us that the Elysium on earth so fervently desired in the “Ode to Joy” is an illusion, the Ninth has preserved itself as a place where nature can cede to the voice of human truth — whatever that may be. Rosenberg heard the hope for a will to create new worlds; Leonard Bernstein, the struggle for peace. “Somehow it must be possible for us to learn from [Beethoven’s] music by hearing it: no, not hearing but listening to it, with all our power of attention and concentration,” Bernstein says in a video captured on the Deutsche Grammophon app. Beethoven — syphilis-ridden, deaf, utterly alone and disillusioned by a German empire caught between repression and revolution — found the means to resist despair. The Word was the only way forward. And after the Ninth, in its fusion of poetry, philosophy, and morality with aesthetic revolution, history would never be the same. “What men have fought for, have stormed citadels for, and, in their moment of fulfilment, have jubilantly proclaimed — it is not to be,” says the composer Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus as he revokes the Ninth. But it marches on, an “Energizer Bunny,” in the words of Richard Taruskin, carrying an irresistible mix of idealism and nihilism. Only when the citadel is destroyed can the chorus rejoice above its remains. Freude! Freude! is all that is left to sing.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.