What is it about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that, in the 192 years since it was composed, humanists, Marxists, Nazis, liberals—all have loved it and tried to appropriate it?
Salve, amici! The fourth movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony must be one of the most recognisable pieces in the repertoire of Western classical music. Set to the words of Friedrich Schiller’s An die Freude, the piece has become a secular benediction at public occasions and has been appropriated by all points on the political spectrum. Most famously, it was used by Leonard Bernstein to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall in his historic Christmas day Berlin Freedom Concert in 1989.
In 1972, the Ode to Joy was adopted as the European anthem, and the music was set to different words as the national anthem of Rhodesia from 1974 to 1979. During the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Chilean dissidents sang the anthem of protest and Chinese students played the movement over loudspeakers in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Earlier in the 20th century, Protestants borrowed it for their hymn, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, Marxists saw class struggle in it, while the Nazis saw it as an expression of superior Germanic artistic genius. The Ninth has even penetrated popular culture, popular at the Olympics, football tournaments, on television, in video games, inspiring flash mobs, and seeing success even as a Spanish pop song, El Himno de la Alegria, in 1970. There have been dozens of interpretations of Beethoven’s last symphony, from its first performance on 7 May 1824, in Vienna, down to the present day. Hector Berlioz, the famous French composer, was intoxicated by Beethoven’s music and Claude Debussy, another French composer, called the masterpiece a “magnificent gesture of musical pride.” Richard Wagner wrote that “beyond this symphony there can be no progress, for there can follow from it immediately only the completed artwork of the future, the universal drama”—we are meant to understand that Wagner alone could produce such work.
Richard Taruskin, American musicologist, called the fourth movement a “mounting wave—or better, a spreading infection—of Elysian delirium.” Maynard Solomon, a Beethoven biographer, heard a secular deity who transcended particularisations of religious creed, “a fusion of Christian and Pagan beliefs, a marriage of Faust and Helen.” Not all interpretations were so flattering: Susan McClary, a musicologist at Case Western Reserve University, denounced the first movement as an “example of horrifyingly violent masculine rage”, and Dutch conductor Gustav Leonhardt called the Ode to Joy a puerile vulgarity.
There can be no definitive interpretation, of course. Wilhelm Furtwängler, widely considered to be one of the best conductors of the symphony, once said that trying to nail down Beethoven’s ideas any more precisely than that is like pinning a butterfly to an entomologist’s wall. “How one viewed the Ninth,” Jan Swafford, a biographer of the German genius, wrote perceptively, “depended on what kind of Elysium one had in mind”—hence the appropriation by humanists, Marxists, Nazis, and liberals alike.
Like many of Beethoven’s works, Symphony No 9 in D Minor, Opus 125, as it is technically called, pushed the boundaries of music. It was the longest symphony ever composed until then and the first to use voices, hence the occasional reference to it as the Choral Symphony. Despite its composition in a minor scale, generally associated with melancholy, Ode to Joy is filled with gaiety, striving and power. Beethoven also became the first major composer in history to use the metronome—a mechanical device used by musicians to keep time as they play.
What we hear when we listen to the Ninth today is not what the audience heard in the early 19th century or even how Beethoven wrote the symphony. Conductors take their artistic license with any piece, it is true, but there has been some controversy over the maestro’s time markings. Were one to strictly follow Beethoven’s instructions, the symphony would have a much greater tempo and lose some of its clarity and mystical profundity. Some historians have suggested that the composer’s metronome was broken, others have argued that given the smaller, less resonant halls of the time, the nature of orchestras and musical instruments, and playing style, the greater speed could have been accommodated. However, orchestras were not a professional affair in Beethovenian times and the faster beat would have made the piece much harder for the musicians as well as the vocalists. According to a contemporary source, the symphony took 65 minutes to perform in its entirety. Today, a complete performance of the Ninth ranges from a brisk 64 minutes (Arturo Toscanini, 1952) to a leisurely 79 minutes (Karl Böhm, 1981).
It is easy today to think of post-Napoleonic Vienna as the hotbed of cultural innovation, a paradise for aesthetes and elitists with sophisticated tastes. In truth, the Austrian capital was far from it. Frustrated by the conservative and popular—Italian—tastes of his fellow burghers, Beethoven wanted to release his grand creation in Berlin. It was only with the intervention of Vienna’s most prominent citizens that the German genius was persuaded to give his masterpiece to the Austrian capital, his second home since his mother died in 1787. Dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, Beethoven presented his Ninth Symphony at the Theater am Kärntnertor barely six weeks after it had been written.
Incredibly, it had been rehearsed completely only twice, that too by a group of largely amateur musicians. Given the challenging technical demands even for modern professional orchestras, one wonders what monstrosity amateurs might have played that May evening. Beethoven was his charming self, snapping at a soprano soloist who complained that a note was not possible, to “just learn it, the note will come.” Worse, there had been no time to have the score neatly printed—it had to be hurriedly copied by hand for the entire orchestra and Beethoven was not known for having neat and crisp original sheets for the copiers to duplicate. In the short time between the completion of the symphony in late March and its performance in early May, Beethoven also had to wrestle with the local authorities to allow him to perform at the Kärntnertor.
The programme for the opening night involved not just his new symphony but also the overture of his Die Weihe des Hauses and, more notably, sections of the religious Missa Solemnis. In those days, Austria had a law that forbade the performance of religious music at secular venues. It was only after one of Beethoven’s benefactors leaned on the chief of police that permission was granted.
Despite the lack of preparation and the chaos before the opening, Beethoven received a standing ovation from the crowds. One reviewer wrote that Beethoven had outdone everything that had been thought possible until then; another recognised the impossible demands the maestro had made on his vocalists and commented that the “singers did what they could.” A more effulgent critic declared that Beethoven had “brought the holy life-giving flame directly from heaven.” But some commented that the symphony was too long and difficult to follow, calling the beginning of the famous fourth movement a horrible noise. Wagner would later describe it as Schreckenfanfare. Music lovers today would be astounded to learn that ultimately, Beethoven’s great Opus 125 was not an economic success in its day.
What went into the Ninth? The year was 1824: Europe had just defeated Napoleon Bonaparte after nearly two decades of warfare that left five million dead. The brief whiff of liberalism was brutally stomped out at the Congress of Vienna as the people of Spain, Poland, Italy, and Greece found out by the time the Ninth opened. Nonetheless, the winds of liberalism and nationalism had started to blow in the continent and the world—more and more people were beginning to demand greater political and intellectual freedom. It was also the Romantic era, and poets like Giacomo Leopardi, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Alexander Pushkin, George Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley had begun to do with words what Beethoven would transcend with music.
There is no reason to suppose that Beethoven was apolitical: in fact, his scratching out the dedication of his Third Symphony, the Eroica, indicates that the composer was indeed politically aware and very much a liberal. Beethoven was by no means a modern democrat—in the liberalism of the early 19th century, he probably subscribed to the Platonic idea of philosopher kings. Yet the composer had to pay lip service to the European nobility upon whose patronage he depended and for whom the French Revolution was too recent to tolerate overt proclamations of universal brotherhood.
Although Beethoven used no words, he had always held that music was a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. The call to universal brotherhood, certainly not new, was phrased as a secular hymn with all the pagan imagery one might expect in a classical bacchanalia or of the Romantics. Beethoven’s music sought to bring people together, as music lovers, as liberals, as humans; ironically, the maestro’s music achieved what he himself rarely could in life.
Until next time, stammi bene!
This article was published in the May 2016 Issue of Swarajya Magazine. To subscribe, click here.
Jaideep A. Prabhu is a foreign policy wonk who is staunchly committed to the graceful art of living well. Prabhu is a certified scuba diver and an advanced brown belt in Okinawan Goju Ryu. He has studied, at various levels, the Classics, philosophy, literature, flamenco and Irish dancing, and the guitar. He enjoys cooking and is particularly fond of Mediterranean cuisines.