Opinion | Daniel Barenboim: What Beethoven’s Ninth teaches us

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was first performed exactly 200 years ago on Tuesday and has since become the work most likely to be adopted for political purposes.

It was played at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games; it was performed again in that city at Christmas 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Leonard Bernstein replaced the word “Joy” in the choral finale with “Freedom”; The European Union has adopted the symphony’s Ode to Joy theme as its anthem. (These days the Ninth is played in concert halls around the world to commemorate the premiere. The classical music world loves anniversaries.)

Beethoven may have been surprised by the political appeal of his masterpiece.

He was interested in politics, but only because he was deeply interested in humanity. The story goes that he initially wanted to dedicate his “Eroica” symphony to Napoleon – it was to be called “Bonaparte” – but changed his mind after Napoleon abandoned the ideals of the French Revolution and was crowned emperor.

However, I don’t think Beethoven was interested in everyday politics. He was not an activist.

Instead, he was a profoundly political man, in the broadest sense of the term. He was interested in moral behavior and the broader questions of right and wrong that affected all of society. Particularly significant for him was freedom of thought and personal expression, which he associated with the rights and responsibilities of the individual. He would have had no sympathy for the now widely held view of freedom as essentially economic, necessary for the functioning of markets.

The closest thing to a political statement in the Ninth is a phrase in the middle of the last movement, in which voices are heard in a symphony for the first time: “All men become brothers.” We understand it now more as an expression of hope than a confident statement, given the many exceptions to this sentiment, including Jews under Nazism and members of minorities in many parts of the world. The quantity and scale of the crises humanity is facing puts this hope to the test. We have already seen many crises, but we don’t seem to learn any lessons from them.

I see the Ninth in another way too. Music alone represents nothing but itself. The greatness of the music, and of the Ninth Symphony, lies in the richness of its contrasts. Music never just laughs or cries; always laughs and cries at the same time. Creating unity out of contradictions: this is Beethoven for me.

Music, if studied well, is a lesson for life. There is a lot we can learn from Beethoven, who was, of course, one of the strongest personalities in the history of music. He is the master of bringing emotion and intellect together. With Beethoven you have to be able to structure your feelings and perceive their structure on an emotional level – a fantastic lesson for life! When we are in love, we lose all sense of discipline. Music doesn’t allow it.

But music means different things to different people and sometimes even different things to the same person at different times. It could be poetic, philosophical, sensual or mathematical, but it must have something to do with the soul.

Metaphysical therefore, but the expressive means is purely and exclusively physical: sound. It is precisely this permanent coexistence of the metaphysical message through physical means that is the strength of music. It’s also the reason why when we try to describe music with words, all we can do is articulate our reactions to it and not grasp the music itself.

The Ninth Symphony is one of the most important works of art in Western culture. Some experts call it the greatest symphony ever written and many commentators praise its visionary message. It is also one of the most revolutionary works by a composer characterized primarily by the revolutionary nature of his works. Beethoven freed music from the prevailing conventions of harmony and structure. Sometimes I feel in his latest works the desire to break every sign of continuity.

The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci said a wonderful thing in 1929, when Benito Mussolini had Italy under his control. “My mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic,” he wrote to a friend from prison. I think you meant that as long as we are alive, we have hope. I still try to treasure Gramsci’s words today, even if not always successfully.

By all accounts, Beethoven was courageous, and I find courage to be an essential quality for understanding, let alone performing, the Ninth. One could paraphrase much of Beethoven’s work in the spirit of Gramsci by saying that suffering is inevitable, but the courage to overcome it makes life worth living.

Daniel Barenboim is a pianist and conductor, co-founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and founder of the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin.

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