Beethoven’s Ninth, a symbol for good and ill throughout two centuries

By David Fleshler

Locked in a desperate war with a totalitarian enemy, a nation’s leaders gathered to seek inspiration from one of the greatest works of Western music.

It’s impossible to know exactly what Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels or the bandaged Wehrmacht officers were thinking as they listened to Wilhelm Furtwangler lead the Berlin Philharmonic in this 1942 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (Furtwangler can be seen surreptitiously wiping his hand with a handkerchief after shaking hands with Goebbels.)

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which is to be performed Oct. 24 and 25 at the Arsht Center by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony, has inspired heroes and villains throughout its 185-year history. No piece of classical music has been enlisted on behalf of so many wildly opposed causes, from European unity to democracy in China to the maintenance of white supremacy in Rhodesia.

 And for many lovers of Beethoven’s work, the use of the symphony—whether for good or for evil—amounts to a vulgarization of a complex, profound work that was never intended for rigid political interpretation. Its most famous modern performance came after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the American conductor Leonard Bernstein performed it in the former East Berlin, replacing the word freude (joy) with freiheit (freedom).

“It was this kind of gloating moment, one of the more egregious examples of the sense of the symphony being distorted,” said Robert Winter, a Beethoven scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles. “‘Freiheit’ as Beethoven would have understood it wasn’t Western capitalism with a Walgreens on every corner. It was brotherhood and community.”

 Years before beginning work on the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven had decided to set to music Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem An die Freude, usually translated as Ode to Joy, a poem that appealed to Beethoven’s Enlightenment ideas of political freedom and human decency. In 1817 when the Philharmonic Society of London commissioned a new symphony, he decided to incorporate the song setting into the work’s finale.

 The new symphony was premiered May 7, 1824 in Vienna, with Beethoven on stage to beat time along with the conductor. By now completely deaf, the composer ended up many bars behind the orchestra and was still waving the baton had after the orchestra played the last note. The contralto Caroline Unger was forced to turn him around to see the audience cheering and applauding.

  The work opens quietly and mysteriously, plunges into dark and dramatic passages, and seesaws for four movements between darkness and light before reaching the jubilant finale. Composed on a vast scale, the symphony inspired and intimidated later composers. Brahms held off until he was in his 40s to complete his first symphony, saying ‘You have no idea what it feels like to hear the tramp of a giant like Beethoven behind you.” Bruckner and Mahler took the Ninth’s expansiveness as permission to expand the symphonic form to gigantic proportions.

 “The ambition of it is undeniable, and you absolutely can’t deny the sheer force of will that went into it,” Winter said. “Any performance in a German town or European town in the past 100 years was considered an epic event.”

 In Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History, the musicologist Esteban Buch shows the vast number of causes that have enlisted the composer from Bonn as an ally. In the 1970s, Rhodesia selected the Ode to Joy theme as its national anthem, although Rise O Voices of Rhodesia used different words (presumably Schiller’s line about all men being brothers wouldn’t work in a country where a white population of 4 percent was clinging to power.).

 The Ode was performed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, an event intended to be a showcase of Teutonic culture. And during the war, Nazi authorities had the Ninth programmed as an antidote to the Allies’ appropriation of the Fifth Symphony. But the rest of the world never surrendered the Ninth, and Beethoven’s reputation, unlike Wagner’s, emerged from the Third Reich undamaged. “The anti-Nazis,” Buch wrote, “had always heard in Beethoven’s music the expression of their own yearnings for freedom.”

 The Ode to Joy opened NATO headquarters in 1967, where Buch tells us the American general on the scene thought it was the Belgian national anthem. Chinese students blared it from speakers during their tragic pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. The European Community selected a wordless version of the Ode as its anthem. The symphony has been used to mark the opening of the Olympic games.

Tilson Thomas, artistic director of the New World Symphony, will have none of this. Asked to comment on the historical uses to which the Ninth has been put and whether its employment as a quasi-official anthem of Western culture has created difficulties for performers or listeners, he said, “For me, none of that has any meaning or significance at all.”

 “I’m very involved in what the piece does. It’s a return to the scenario of the Fifth Symphony, a piece that starts stormily in minor and proceeds to a radiant conclusion in major. The whole design of the piece is a reproduction of the journey he takes. It’s an experience that so clearly mimics the way life really is.”

Joshua Habermann, artistic director of the Master Chorale of South Florida, who will lead that group and the University of Miami Frost Chorale in the performances, said the work’s greatness and the public’s familiarity with it inspire the singers to do their best—despite the high tessitura in which the vocal parts fall. “Beethoven wasn’t very nice to singers,” he said.

 “Because people know it so well we strive for the highest quality and clarity with the text,” he said. “We know the audience is going to be excited to hear it, so that gets us excited. I have either sung it or prepared it 25 or 30 times. I’ve always found it to be rewarding and thrilling. The noble spirit of the text speaks so much of what we know of Beethoven and his ideals.”

Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and selections from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio with soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo-soprano Kendall Gladen, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and bass Luca Pisaroni Saturday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 25, at 2 p.m. at the Adrienne Arsht Center/Knight Concert Hall.; 800-597-3331.

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Sat Oct 17, 2009
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