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Beethoven’s Ninth at the G-20

The world leaders who had gathered in Hamburg, Germany, this summer for the twelfth G-20 summit on 7 July 2017 found an unusual item on their itinerary: a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. The concert was included, in part, to show off Hamburg’s brand-new concert hall, the Elbphilharmonie, perched dramatically on the city’s waterways, a giant glass-and-steel wave towering on top of a red-brick warehouse. In part, the choice of a concert also capitalized on Germany’s important cultural heritage with its many contributions to the symphonic repertoire, crystallized into the figure of Beethoven and his most monumental oeuvre. But beyond that, programming the Ninth was German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal choice, and commentators are unanimous that the message she wanted to convey was political.

Numerous commentators from the last twenty or so years have pointed out that the Ninth plays with an unpolitical kind of politics, and their comments have focused on the last movement, based on a version of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The evolution of the Ode, first in Schiller’s hands and then in Beethoven’s adaptation, can be told as a story of increasing depoliticization: Schiller’s first version, written in 1785 as a “convivial song”—that is, a drinking song—was brimming with the ideals of the French revolution, liberté – égalité – fraternité. We read politically explosive lines such as “Beggars become princes’ brothers” and calls for “freedom from tyrants’ chains.” But later in life, chastened by the Reign of Terror and disillusioned with the fallout of the French revolution, Schiller revised his poem in 1803 to include it in an anthology, and erased precisely those lines with less politically charged ones. This later version replaces the fraternization between brother and prince with a call for universal brotherhood: “All humans become brothers.” Beethoven’s symphony, first performed in 1824, carefully carves his words out of the first few stanzas of Schiller’s poem, and takes this line as his central message of his symphony.

Image credit: “Friedrich Schiller, portrait by Ludovice Simanoviz (1793/94)” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One can go further into musical and textual detail to show the intricacies, even contradictions, of Beethoven-Schiller’s message—and countless commentators have done that too. But this highly public event was less about subtle hermeneutics and much more about the diplomacy about conveying a clear message while leaving much unsaid. After all, the audience were not musicians and scholars but politicians. US president Donald Trump, for one, admitted in the 2004 book How To Get Rich that he did not know much classical music. Journalists reported gleefully how some world leaders had a hard time keeping their cell phones in their pockets, and how some were visibly challenged by the seventy-minute work of music.

Angela Merkel did not explain exactly, of course, what she had in mind but there is little doubt that she was thinking of two issues in particular. The theme of the Ode to Joy — arranged specifically by the conductor Herbert von Karajan — was adopted as the anthem of Europe in 1971, serving as the official melody of what is now the European Union. At a time when the unity of Europe had come under threat, most acutely by Britain’s resolve to leave the Union, and more diffusely by the rise of authoritarian forces in various member countries, this invocation of European institutions seemed more relevant than ever. And even more broadly, the global issues facing the G20 — the Paris climate accord and hunger in Africa chief among them — would seem to warrant a call for a universal brotherhood. ­

But it is typical of the Ninth that its message is difficult to contain. The main problem, as numerous commentators have observed, is that the invocation of “Alle Menschen,” all humans, is rarely all-inclusive. Even Schiller’s poem is curiously exclusive: the second stanza, also set by Beethoven, specifies that anyone who has not found a friend or spouse should “steal away in tears” from this happy community. (The nineteenth-century poet Jean Paul even felt moved to offer a correction of Schiller’s verse that extended an invitation to the excluded to “join in” with the revelers.) Perhaps it was a fitting counterpoint, given the complexities of Beethoven’s symphony, that anti-globalist protesters in the nearby Sternschanze area were rioting in the streets while the state heads were listening to this musical message of universal brotherhood.

Featured image credit: “Hamburg” by Reinhold Silbermann. CC0 via Pixabay.

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