A symphony goes around

The European anthem as a mirror of society

Idolized by musicians, misused in dictatorships, re-adapted as the European anthem – Beethoven’s 9th symphony mirrors the society and shows the dimensions of human behaviour. We want to take a closer look at the work, which played a major role in the 2021 season, and its politicised performance history.

[This text has been translated electronically] Hardly any other musical work has shaped European history as Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. For conductor Kirill Petrenko this music contains »everything that is great and threatening in the human being«. Time has proved: over the last centuries, Beethoven’s music has become a magnet for political purposes. Richard Wagner stormed the Dresden barricades with Beethoven’s Ninth in 1849. In World War I, the work was elevated to the status of militant heroic music. The Nazis also instrumentalized the symphony for their ideology as German »titanic music«. A short Berlin video recording of the concert on the day before Hitler’s birthday in 1942 is still preserved. The conductor at the podium at the time was Wilhelm Furtwängler. He was by no means a proponent of the National Socialist ideology; but the fact that he saw himself as a tool of Goebbels’ cultural propaganda, can still be accused of. Curiously, it was precisely Furtwängler who in 1951 opened the Bayreuth Festival with Beethoven’s Ninth freed the Bayreuth Festival from the ballast of the NS era.

Between the DDR regime and the fight for freedom

However, even with the end of the Second World War, the political appropriation of Beethoven was far from over. Stalin considered the Ninth as »proper music for the masses«, in the DDR Beethoven was regarded as a pioneer of the socialist idea. As in the NS era, the musical proclamation of Friedrich Schiller’s ideals of freedom as legitimation for a regime of terror.

However, the Ninth was also heard in the resistance struggle against dictatorships. In Chile, women sang the »Ode to Joy«, to demand the release of political prisoners under the Pinochet regime. Leonard Bernstein conducted the work for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 with a new text: »Freedom« instead of »joy« was now intoned – once again, the symphony had changed in the context of a new socio-political situation.

The Ninth became the official anthem of the European Union in 1985. For the arrangement of the monumental final movement to a hymn-friendly length of two minutes, the world-famous conductor Herbert von Karajan. The fame of the »General Music Director of Europe« seemed to justify this engagement. However, Karajan also had a problematic Nazi past: as a success-oriented young conductor and a member of the NSDAP, he began his career in the Third Reich. In his recordings of that time, one can hear that he had no little hesitation, for example, in listening to the National Socialist image of Bruckner. Nevertheless, Karajan’s arrangement made an important contribution to the reestablishment of Beethoven’s music, as the anthem of Europe, once again embodies the values that Schiller and Beethoven wanted to carry into the world in their time.

»Not these tones«

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, more than almost any other work before it lives from the all-decisive final idea. There is an answer to the dissonant chaos at the beginning of the final movement – that is revolutionary for the symphonic genre – the human voice: »O friends, not these tones!« Paradise is not found in brute destruction but peaceful coexistence. In his, Beethoven proclaims an existential vision of humanity.

Is it even possible to represent such a vision in the singular theme of »Joy«? The intoxicating effect of the mighty chorus that heralds »Freude schöner Götterfunken« succeeds primarily through what precedes it: a wild fugato, followed by a moment of calm in harmonic suspension. One does not yet know where the journey will lead. Conciliatory major? Tristful minor? It is a real liberation when finally the redeeming main key of D major is reached.

Catchy megahit

Over time, however, the »joy« theme has hardly been grasped in this complex totality. Did Beethoven even aim at it? In times in which there was no radio, no recordings, he composed his first megahit. With a simple and catchy melody, repeated several times, he wanted his message to be accessible to all. Even to the audiences with less musical expertise. Yet Beethoven’s core message – »all men become brothers (and sisters)« – calls to our action. Beethoven’s melody is not simple enough to be easily sung. It is simple, so a very complex utopia, the vision of a united world, is internalized at all costs.

Mirror of Society

The 9th symphony is not only a great cultural treasure. It speaks directly to us and motivates us to stand up for the values of freedom, peace, and solidarity. When we look at its performance history, we can recognize the individual and collective misconduct and learn how to do better. The music holds up a mirror to us as a society. What we choose to see, is finally up to us.

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