«Can fascists really assume this work as theirs?» asked in 1938 the Austrian composer Hans Eisler, also author of numerous political writings. The fourth movement, and more specifically the choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, has musically embodied very different utopias. Eisler himself had declared Beethoven’s work in 1927 as «spiritual property of the working class, not of the bourgeoisie».
During the Third Reich, Beethoven was regarded as a symbol of «German self-affirmation» and «german people’s milestone». «Anyone who has understood the nature of our movement knows that Beethoven embodies it in its highest essence,» wrote Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg. For its part, the magazine Zeitschrift f’r Musik claimed in 1938 that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony represented like no other «the great music of the German past». During the years of World War II, the Ninth was the most performed symphonic piece in Germany.
One of the highlights of the propaganda exaltation of the work during the Nazi regime took place on April 19, 1942 in a concert in honor of Adolf Hitler, on the occasion of his 53rd birthday. In the program, Beethoven’s Ninth performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Bruno Kittel Choir under the direction of Wilhelm Furtgangler. Hitler did not attend the event, but there were numerous senior regime command, dressed in uniform. Two large swastikas flanked the stage and Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, gave a short speech.
His words described Beethoven’s notes as «the most heroic titan music ever from a phallus German heart.» Goebbels’ speech went even further by referring to the choral part of the Ninth’s last movement: that fragment would have the ability to convey to the last German «the scope and glory of this time», as well as to make everyone aware of that unique moment and make them happy «for being witnesses and participants in the greatest time in history.»
Anthem and apple of the discord between the GDR and the RFA
After World War II, Beethoven’s music needed no redemption. In 1952, the verses that the German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote in a rapture of friendship exaltation and which were musicalized in the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven served as a German anthem at the Oslo Winter Olympics in 1952.
The fourth movement of the Ninth became the lowest common denominator between the two Germanys and both claimed for themselves their sovereignty over this music. In the GDR they denied the right to the «imperialist» Western side to inherit Beethoven’s legacy. «Bonn doesn’t need classical music, she doesn’t need Beethoven. And if they perform their work there, they do it to hide their true way of thinking. American cultural barbarians and their lackeys stain Beethoven’s name (…),» wrote the presidency of the National Council of the GDR in 1952, to mark the 125th anniversary of the composer’s death.
Soviet Union and China
In 1936, the Soviet Union celebrated the adoption of its Constitution with the interpretation of the last movement of the Ninth.
Following the Bonn composer’s notes, Stalin’s words weighted the Ninth as «the right music for the masses» and a work that «can never be sufficiently performed.» During both the Soviet dictatorship and communist China, music had to correspond to certain political and aesthetic ideals.
The book Beethoven in China, written by Jindong Cai and Sheila Melvin, describes how Beethoven’s figure began to be reinterpreted in that country to fit the figure of the «original revolutionary», the man who freed music and helped liberate the people as well. In 1959, the Chinese People’s Republic celebrated its tenth anniversary. For the occasion, the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra performed Beethoven’s Ninth, with Schiller’s verses translated into Mandarin. With the cultural revolution, the fate of the Ninth changed, becoming considered a symbol of that of bourgeois decline.