Beethoven's "Ninth" is 200 years old: on Arte, a look back at a highly politicized symphony

It was self-evident that Arte, a Franco-German channel, would honor the Symphony No

Beethoven's "Ninth" is 200 years old: on Arte, a look back at a highly politicized symphony

It was self-evident that Arte, a Franco-German channel, would honor the Symphony No. 9 of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), premiered exactly two centuries ago, on May 7, 1824: the German composer had believed in the promises of Enlightenment and the French Revolution before becoming – beyond good and evil – a German and then European national symbol.

To do this, the channel offers, in the first part of the evening – something extremely rare when it comes to classical music – a rich eighty-minute documentary, Beethoven's “Ninth”. 200th anniversary, during which Carmen Traudes, its director, looks back on the genesis of this masterpiece and its extremely famous concluding “Ode to Joy”, to a text by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805).

The second part of the evening offers a performance of the four movements of the Ninth shared by four European groups: the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons; the Orchester de Paris and Klaus Mäkelä; the Scala Theater Orchestra of Milan and Riccardo Chailly; the Choir of the Vienna Singing Academy, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Petr Popelka (he replaces Joana Mallwitz, forced to cancel for health reasons).

“Ride the wave”

Conductors appear in the film, as well as academics, musicologists and historians. During this very in-depth (but accessible) documentary, they recall numerous historical facts and correct certain myths associated with the composer and his last symphony. For example: how Beethoven, despite his revolutionary ideals, remained a musician from the court and financially dependent on the nobility; how the composer “rides the wave”, as the musicologist Ulrich Konrad says, when he chooses a famous poem already set to music many times by others…

His colleague Mathieu Schneider affirms that this apparently innovative work in fact functions according to codes known to the public of the time, which explains why the Ninth was immediately adopted by them. Schneider adds that, according to him, the Beethovenian myth was forged at the moment when Richard Wagner, with equally revolutionary ideals, made it the “human gospel of the art of the future”. At the opening of the Bayreuth Festival Hall in 1876, Wagner conducted the Ninth – it remained the only work to be performed there apart from those by the author of the Tetralogy.

If Mathieu Schneider affirms that it is less a question of "a political symphony [than] the symphony of joy", it is undeniable that the politician has recovered the work for his profit, making the Ninth the object of a jumble of multiple and imaginary identifications – to parody Jacques Lacan. What the film sets out to demonstrate at length.

European anthem

With music that “produces this collective force, there is a great risk that it will be misused,” says conductor Joana Mallwitz. Indeed, things got worse with the arrival of the Nazis to power: the finale of the symphony of the "great hero of the German people", according to Adolf Hitler (to whom it mattered little that said hero had advocated friendship and equality of Peoples), served as the Olympic anthem at the 1936 Berlin Games.

The Soviets considered the “Ode to Joy” sufficiently galvanizing to prescribe its use ad nauseam. It should be noted that if Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) dared to exceed the fateful number of nine symphonies (he wrote fifteen), he made his own Ninth (1945), tight and light, a sort of snub to Beethoven and to Stalin. To the great displeasure of the Vojd (the equivalent of “führer” in Russian), who expected a “Beethovenian” tribute to his person…

Recovered by ultra-left movements as well as by far-right regimes, desecrated by protest artists (like Mauricio Kagel) at the time of the bicentenary of Beethoven's birth, the "Ode to Joy" finds its disinterested neutrality when the Council of Europe, in 1972, made it the European anthem. Except: the leader Herbert von Karajan, a former member of the Nazi party, had imposed royalties on his “arrangement”…

Finally – another arrangement, symbolic this time – it is recalled that Leonard Bernstein, leading the Ninth to salute the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, had substituted the word “Freiheit” (“Freedom”) for “Freude” ( " Joy "). But the American was only following in the footsteps of Beethoven, who had himself carved and transformed the text of the “poet of joy”…