The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: A new movie traces the many political and cultural uses around the world of Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony.

January 24, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Beethoven (below) would have approved.

And no doubt he would have been very, very happy.

Beethoven big

In his famous Ninth Symphony, Beethoven quoted a poem by German writer Friedrich Schiller to announce his solidarity with the revolutionary ideals of universal brotherhood and universal freedom.

And sure enough, all around the world, in many different cultures, Beethoven’s Ninth has found a place as an emblem of those aspirations. During the Pinochet Years, it was sung by Chilean women outside the walls of prisons where political activists were being tortured — the men could hear them and took heart from their singing,

Of course Hitler also appropriated the Ninth too. But then Leonard Bernstein used it to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of East Germany. And protesting Chinese students (below) in the Tiananmen Square uprising where they rebelled to strains of the Ninth coming out of loudspeakers.

The Ear wonders if it was played anywhere in the Mideast or Northern Africa during the Arab Spring?

Beethoven and Tiananmen Square

I particularly like the way the Japanese sing it out loud en masse – in German no less — as a rite of ushering in the coming New Year. (Below is a photo of 10,000 Japanese singing the “Ode to Joy” as a huge stadium choir that spent months studying and rehearsing the music and the German language.)

As a ritual, it is kind of like dancing waltzes in Vienna or watching the ball drop in Times Square in New York City, only a lot more soulful, beautiful and personal in the public’s involvement and its own cultural meaning. (You can hear for yourself the Japanese stadium concert of singing “Ode to Joy” finale of the last movement in a YouTube video at the bottom. It has had about 1.5 million hits and is pretty impressive and moving to experience even in a audio-video recording.)

10,000 Japanese sing Beethoven's  Ninth

Here is the story that I first heard about the movie documenting Beethoven’s Ninth — “Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony” — around the world on NPR. It moved The Ear and I hope it moves you. I also hope someone out there knows if or when it is scheduled to play in Madison and will let the rest of us know the dates.

The film also redeems all the baloney we hear about classical music being outdated and old-fashioned and elitist and so on ad nauseam. Other music would be damn lucky to get even close to this kind of universality, significance and appreciation.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/01/14/262481960/the-ode-to-joy-as-a-call-to-action

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