“Education is something [students] must labor to give themselves. . . Education is up to them as it was up to Socrates, Milton, Locke, and Lincoln.” (Mark van Doren) “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” (Bob Marley)
The fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy,” was adopted as the anthem of the European Union in 1985, no doubt as much for the utopian vision of universal brotherhood presented in the text of the poem by Friedrich Schiller as for its rousing tune:
Joy, beautiful spark of God, Daughter of Elysium, We enter, fire-drunk, Heavenly, your holy sanctuary. Your magics bind again What custom has strictly parted. All men become brothers Where your tender wing lingers.
Nevertheless, at the opening of the EU Parliament in July 2019, the Brexit contingent from Great Britain turned their backs when it was played:
Brexiteer Nigel Farage defended the actions of his bloc against charges of “un-English” behavior. Do you think his justification is convincing? Why or why not?
Perhaps when he hears “Ode to Joy,” Farage is really hearing this version, sung by English comedian Rowan Atkinson.
This was hardly the first time Beethoven’s music has been harnessed in the cause of politics. In 1989, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein conducted a massive performance of the Ninth with musicians from both East and West Germany; the chorus changed the word “Freude” — Joy — to “Freiheit” — Freedom.
Hitler was a great fan of the Ninth Symphony; here is the great and controversial German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler leading it in a stunning performance celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 1942:
What in this music would have appealed, do you think, to Hitler?
It was also adapted by the brutal colonial governor, Ian Smith as the national anthem of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe):
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has also been invested with meaning in other, less-political realms. Alex, the sociopathic antihero of Anthony Burgess’s dystopian 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, has a particular fondness for Beethoven, whom he calls “the lovely Ludwig van.” In his 1971 film adaptation of the novel, Stanley Kubrick uses the Ninth Symphony as a soundtrack for the “ultraviolence” committed by Alex and his crew (WARNING: disturbing imagery):
The piece is also associated with the on-screen appearances of bad guy Hans Gruber (played by the late, lamented Alan Rickman) in Die Hard:
In 2000, the Ninth Symphony was performed at the site of Mathausen, an Austrian concentration camp where more than 100,000 Jews, gays, and Communists were put to death during World War II. The concert caused some controversy, because it was performed by the great Vienna Philharmonic, which had dismissed all its Jewish musicians in 1938; by the end of the war, half of the orchestra’s players were members of the Nazi party. The organizers, however, believed that the Ninth paid tribute to the musicians who had been victims of the Nazi regime. As one of them explained:
We wished to think of those members of the [Vienna] Philharmonic who were victims of the Nazis . . . They were our predecessors, royal and imperial court musicians, highly decorated professors and teachers at the academy, highly respected artists who were humiliated, driven to death or murdered. We want to pay our respects to them by performing a work that they often performed under the leading conductors of their times.
What is it about Beethoven’s work that makes it so appealing to proponents of such diverse viewpoints?
Put another way: What does Beethoven’s music mean?
Do you think that this meaning is intrinsic to the piece itself, or is it extrinsic, something with which various individuals and movements have chosen to invest it? What use would you use this music for?
The String Quartet no.14 begins with a fugue, which Richard Wagner later called “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes,” and which twentieth-century musicologist Joseph Kerman called the “most moving of all fugues.” Schubert said of the quartet, in despair, “After this, what is left for us to write?” And Schumann wrote that the quartet had a “grandeur . . .which no words can express. [It seems] to me to stand . . .on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.”
Why does Beethoven start with a fugue, breaking with the longstanding convention of writing a first movement in sonata form? Does a fugue contain the same spirit of conflict as sonata form? If not, what does it symbolize/suggest?
And the quartet has seven movements — unusual movements. What is going on here? How do the movements differ from each other? How do they carry forward a single unified idea?
Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
About 7 minutes
Allegro molto vivace
About 3 minutes
Allegro moderato – Adagio
About 45 seconds
Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto
About 14 minutes
about 51⁄2 minutes
Adagio quasi un poco andante
About 2 minutes
About 61⁄2 minutes
Is Beethoven perhaps playing with time and space again as he moves, in his last years and in failing health, to embrace the infinite?
In his long poem Four Quartets, completed in 1943, American-British poet T.S. Eliot consciously attempted to imitate the late quartets of Beethoven. He writes in the first of his poetic “quartets,” Burnt Norton:
Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction Remaining a perpetual possibility Only in a world of speculation. What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present. Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden. . . .
Time past and time future What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present.
Is this what Beethoven is getting at?
Christopher Walken, as a master cellist and master teacher, quotes Eliot as he introduces the op. 131 Quartet to his students:
Beethoven as a cultural icon crops up in some unexpected places.
But perhaps the Buddhists are on to something.
In this scene from the 1994 film Immortal Beloved, the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony becomes the soundtrack for the mystical experience of the traumatized composer finding healing in nature and truly becoming one with creation.
Nadine Gordimer laying a wreath in the black township of Alexandra, South Africa, where protesters were killed by police in 1986.
The South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) published a short story collection in 2007 entitled Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. The titles about a multiracial university professor in Johannesburg, thinking back over his life and his identity:
Speculations that Beethoven was of “Moorish” (i.e. African) ancestry date back to the composer’s own lifetime. Nineteenth-century biographers have described his dark complexion, “flat, thick nose,” and “thick, bristly [and] coal-black” hair. J.A. Rogers and others later suggested that Beethoven’s mother had transmitted African ancestry to her son by way of her Flemish forebears; the Low Countries had been under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, and Spain had been ruled by Muslims (or Moors) originally from North Africa off and on from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.
My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no.” It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.
This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This desperation, this need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.”
The Beethoven-was-black trope raises other questions as well:
If Beethoven’s “blackness” is based on rumor, rather than evidence, what does that say about what race is?
Is race something essential? Is it something defined by visible markers? Is it something defined by affinity?
Who gets to decide the racial identity of another? Of oneself?
Does the fact that Beethoven’s music expresses an ethos of struggle, and of triumph over struggle, make it black?
Why do you think it was important for black activists to assign a black identity to Beethoven?
The piece often used as a marker of Beethoven’s blackness is his last piano sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is in theme-and-variations form, and the variations become more abstract as the piece continues. Two of the variations are highly syncopated, which has led some to retrospectively credit Beethoven, in this sonata, with “inventing” ragtime, and even jazz.
Babatunde Olatunji demonstrates west African polyrhythms.
Daniel Barenboim demonstrates Beethovenian polyrhythms.
You will recall that, in the BBC film about the first rehearsal of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the second movement — the funeral march — causes general consternation among the listeners. The Princess Lobkowitz talks breathlessly about picturing the funeral cortège, with black horses; the Prince’s nay-saying cousin, the Count von Dietrichstein, who has earlier dismissed Beethoven, is truly moved, even disturbed, by the music; and the Princess’s maid weeps openly.
But . . . who has died?
On November 22, 1963, Erich Leinsdorf, the Vienna-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had come to the United States in the 1930s as a refugee from the Nazis, was preparing to lead his orchestra in a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov, when he got word of President Kennedy’s assassination. The orchestra’s music librarian, William Shisler, quickly pulled the parts for the second movement of the Eroica instead. Listen to Leinsdorf’s announcement from the podium of the assassination, the shock of the audience, and the way that the orchestra plays. Does this performance of the second movement sound different to you? How?
In 1944, when it was abundantly clear that Germany was losing World War II, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led the Vienna Philharmonic in a recorded performance of the Eroica. How is this orchestra’s performance of the second movement different? Do you have the sense that it is informed by the knowledge of what is going on outside the concert hall?
In fact, Wilhelm Furtwängler is a controversial figure in the light of history. Unlike many of his peers among the German artistic and intellectual classes, he did not go into exile during the Third Reich.
Nevertheless, it is hard not to see Furtwängler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for Hitler’s birthday in 1942 as, at best, a misunderstanding of “the message that Beethoven gave mankind in his works.”
Beethoven cannot choose his listeners, and so both the Allies and Axis in WWII thought he was on their side. For the Allies, the four-note motif that opens Symphony No. 5 meant V for Victory. But what did the Nazi party functionaries think when they heard Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic play the anti-tyrant Symphony No. 3 (Beethoven was a subversive, spied on by the secret police, and with public disdain for the aristocrats who had earned their privilege due to the merit of being born to the right parents), or when they heard the chorus in Symphony No. 9 sing about brotherhood? And why are the wartime broadcast recordings of those performances so full of poetry, so beautiful and emotionally intense? Those recordings are among the greatest Beethoven one will hear: does this mean fascists deserve Beethoven?
The sound of the French horn provides one of the most emblematically Romantic timbres in nineteenth-century music. Why is that?
The French horn derives its origin from the hunting horn (in German, waldhorn or forest horn) — a brass instrument played while hunting on horseback to call back the hounds from the hunt.
Some horns, like the alphorn, were used in mountain regions to communicate and signal across vast distances.
And horns were used in the Middle Ages to call troops to battle.
So the sound of the horn is associated with the pastoral, with nature, and with the simple folk, peasants and hunters, people steeped in forestcraft and woodlore, men and women who are close to the land, and also with centuries past. The idea that the simple folk are the inheritors of a unique knowledge and wisdom is an important Romantic trope, part of the culture of resistance to the advancing technological specialization and industrialization of the age.
The nineteenth-century Männerchor (men’s chorus) was meant to imitate the sonic ambience of the woodland horn, and to evoke a feeling of the pastoral and the out-of-doors.
Brahms wrote his Four Songs for women’s choir, harp, and two horns — including the “Song from Fingal” — to evoke both folk music and a sense of nostalgia for the past: the first song is self-referential, about the effect of hearing a harp played in the landscape; the second song is a setting of “Come away, death” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; the third song is about a gardener who loves a lady in vain, and anticipates his death from grief; and the fourth is a setting of a German translation of the Ossian verses.
Years later, Brahms would return to the pastoral sound of the horn to open his second piano concert on B-flat Major, op. 83. As Bill McGlaughlin has observed, this is more than music: it is a landscape in sound; the horn almost seems to call out of the mists, as if from one mountaintop to another.
And of course you remember Beethoven’s horns in his Symphony no. 3. What does Beethoven intend his horns to mean?