translated from Spanish: Beethoven and the 250th birthday of his birth: how the «Ninth Symphony», his most emblematic work, became a political symbol


Critics thought the fourth movement overshadowed the rest of the symphony and the trend in the 19th century was to bypass the choral part and only touch the first three movements.
It would seem curious, then, that this is the most invoked and remembered part of the «Ninth Symphony», but there is more than one explanation why that tune has had such an extraordinary destiny

«On the one hand it looks like a popular melody, it’s simple, easy to remember And to sing«, tells BBC News Mundo Esteban Buch, history professor of music at Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), in France.

«It has a cheerful inner tension, an association with something utopian that is joy. At the same time it has a rhythmic and melodic internal tension (which adds complexity)».

But there is also the text of the «Ode to Joy». Schiller, the author, originally wrote it as a drinking song, but Beethoven reordered the verses and changed their context.

«It alludes to the idea of fraternity, that all human beings become brothers,» says Professor Buch. «That very simple idea of The universal solidarity is what comes to people’s feelings and they’re the reasons to sing it.»

And singing it is what has been done over the decades and in a number of different contexts.

«It’s the musical fetish of the West,» Buch describes it in his book Beethoven’s Ninth: a Qolitical History («Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History»).

The play has a Plasticity which makes it ideal for very different people, for various types of political orientation and for all types of institutional instruction.

«There were cases where it was used as a national anthem and is currently the anthem of the European Union,» Buch tells BBC Mundo.

«It has both a popular presence at very micro levels in people’s lives, even contexts such as the current pandemic can be sung. as a kind of challenge to destiny and collective suffering.»

For freedom

One of the most cited events held with the «Ninth Symphony» was the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989.

American conductor Leonard Bernstein performed a version with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in which the word «joy» (Freudes, in German) was replaced with «freedom» (Freiheit).

Around this time, and with the same allusion to freedom, it was heard in the voice of the Tiananmen Square protesters, against the oppression of the Chinese authorities, as well as in Chile in protest against the abuses of Pinochet’s government.

But the use of the «Ninth» to project political ideas it’s not a new phenomenon.

According to the EHESS professor, the «Ode to Joy» in particular, with or without lyrics, was used from 1824 to the present day in the political context, as a symbol, in the ritual sense or as the object of utopian projections.

«In Vienna in 1824, there are statements, not so much from Beethoven but from his friends, to herald the premiere of this symphony as a national cause, with the idea that Beethoven is a great artist for the Austrian nation. And that, in fact, is a political use,» he says.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was celebrated a month later with a concert of the «Ninth Symphony». Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Also with a political dimension was the inauguration in 1845 in Bonn, Germany – the composer’s hometown – a statue in his honor on the initiative of a group of international musicians who tended to worship music itself and Beethoven as the titular god of musicians.

«There is a very long list of political actors who liked the «Ninth» and made that taste an ethical symbol,» according to Professor Buch.

«A music that represents beauty and therefore represents the goodness of my cause.»

To Hitler’s taste

Unfortunately, there were other types of occasions that were associated with the symphony. The most distressing for many Beethoven lovers, Buch says, was the Nazis’ use of not only the «Ninth» but the composer’s music in general.

The choral section was played at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, which are remembered as an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.

And the complete symphony was directed by Wilhelm Furtw’ngler, with the Berlin philharmonic, for Hitler’s birthday in 1937.

According to eThe Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, the symphony was the perfect choice because he illustrated with his «combativeness and struggle» the Ability of the Fuhrer to achieve a «triumphant and joyful victory».

Esteban Buch also points out as «outrageous» the fact that in 1974, the newly independent Republic of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which imposed a regime of Apartheid, adopt the ode as its national anthem.

«It was a black moment in the use of the «Ninth,» which recalls that the most beautiful and generous music can be used by an undemocratic group,» says the EHESS academic.

The version of the «Ninth» used in the European Union anthem is an arrangement by Austrian director Herbert von Karajan, who was a member of the Nazi Party. Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Nor does the European Union escape the shadows of totalitarianism in its adoption of the «Ode to Joy» (without lyrics) as an anthem of the bloc.

This version is based on an arrangement by the famous Austrian director Herbert von Karajan, who is known to have been a member of the Nazi Party, Buch notes.

For some, all this Puts questioning humanistic aspirations of this piece of music.

Philosophers such as German Theodor Adorno, for example, considered that if music can be used to celebrate what is «no evil question,» «what exactly does music do and how can we believe in it as a force for moral and spiritual advancement?»

«I’d like to think that music has some kind of resistance,» replies Professor Alexander Rehding of Harvard University.» but that cannot be protected from being used in any kind of context.»

Beethoven «digital»

Nor can it be protected from overuse.

«It has been incorporated into advertising and Jingles. It has become the generic music we use on any occasion, and there is a danger that it will become too commercial,» says Rehding.

«While that doesn’t just happen to the ‘Ninth’, it’s a phenomenon of our time, only beethoven’s piece is emblematic of the process.»

But its representation has had an interesting metamorphosis in the social media, says Harvard professor, particularly on YouTube.

On the platform you can hear in several flash mob, a typical style of these platforms in which a small musical incident, apparently «improvised» in a public place, grows to involve countless participants and all observers, at levels that can really be poignant.

«To some extent, the flash mob reflects what happens musically with the ‘Ode to Joy’,» Rehding explains.

«The melody played by one instrument begins and then others come together. Then a simple harmonization of the tune and then begins the choir and then the whole orchestra. It attracts more and more people, who listen, then start participating. Forge your own community.»

That’s what the lyrics of the ode are talking about, Rehding says.

In a way, it’s a macrocosmos of what Beethoven intended.

Original source in Spanish

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