Barenboim: What Beethoven’s Ninth Teaches Us

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

It was played at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin; it was performed in that city again on 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 adopted the symphony’s “Ode to Joy” theme as its anthem. (These days the Ninth is being played in concert halls worldwide in commemoration of the premiere. The classical music world loves anniversaries.)

Beethoven might have been surprised at the political allure of his masterpiece.

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

I don’t believe, however, that Beethoven was interested in everyday politics. He was not an activist.

Instead, he was a deeply political man in the broadest sense of the word. He was concerned with moral behavior and the larger questions of right and wrong affecting all of society. Especially significant for him was freedom of thought and of personal expression, which he associated with the rights and responsibilities of the individual. He would have had no sympathy with the now widely held view of freedom as essentially economic, necessary for the workings of the markets.

The closest he comes to a political statement in the Ninth is a sentence at the heart of the last movement, in which voices were heard for the first time in a symphony: “All men become brothers.” We understand that now more as an expression of hope than a confident statement, given the many exceptions to the sentiment, including the Jews under the Nazis and members of minorities in many parts of the world. The quantity and scope of the crises facing humankind severely test that hope. We have seen many crises before, but we do not appear to learn any lessons from them.

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