Thursday, June 14, 2007

The power of “The Ninth”

Pacifists, fascists, religious, communists, Nazis, romantics, tyrants, humanists, revolutionaries, despots, freedom fighters. What do they have in common? They have felt inspired by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, particularly its fourth and last movement known as “Ode to Joy.”

What is it about “Ode to Joy” that movements and leaders who hold divergent beliefs and ideologies have claimed it to be the anthem that embodies their quest?

Last week the German Cultural Center held another screening of “Tne Ninth”, the award-winning documentary by Pierre-Henry Salfati. This was part of the long-running celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the present 27-member European Union. “Ode to Joy” is the EU’s anthem, by the way. It was re-arranged for the EU by Herbert von Karajan.

It’s a familiar tune, only many don’t know that it is from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor’s last movement, which ends with a rousing orchestral and choral climax that could set you aflame. Beethoven’s inspiration for the finale was Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode on die Freude”.

As a musical composition “The Ninth” has been analyzed and deconstructed so often that it has been likened to the Mona Lisa smile. Salfati’s documentary film steps over the flats and the sharps and moves on a different plane.

Yes, the film answers the question “who” (have been drawn to it?) which means presenting documentary evidence from different climes and times which are in themselves historically important. Indeed, a lot of archival research went into the making of this film. Great historical black-and-white footage from different eras where “Ode to Joy” figured made it to the film. There’s a lot, too, from vintage movies on Beethoven’s life.

As to the “what” of it, it could be anybody’s guess—yours, Salfati’s. Is it the total grandness, the simplicity of the melody, the lyrics, the message, each and all of the above? But is it really the “what”?

Or is it the “why”? And the “because”?

Because, methinks, there is a divinely infused ingredient there that even Beethoven himself wouldn’t have been able to pin down as the reason for it all.

Beethoven (1770-1827) was already totally deaf when he composed “The Ninth”. (He lost his hearing when he was 45 but continued to compose.) The symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824, and Beethoven, then 54, couldn’t hear a single note of it. The suffering German genius didn’t have the slightest idea then how encompassing the spirit of this work, which had its trips and falls on the way to immortality, would be.
“The Ninth” didn’t spring to life like the rest of Beethoven’s works. Beethoven had nurtured his own lofty longings and “The Ninth” was his desiderata on freedom. While creating it Beethoven is portrayed in the film as agitated sometimes, frustrated the next, and ecstatic at last when he has his eureka moment in Schiller’s poem that is to be the soul of his symphony’s splendorous peak.

In his dark night in a world that had fallen silent Beethoven harkened to music only he could hear and sat down to share it with the world. His cry to God: “Do you have to break the ones who get close to you?” Sounds like Teresa of Avila.

Salfati’s documentary starts off with the mundane—a London auction not too long ago when Beethoven’s manuscript, a yellowed sheaf, fetched a whopping 1.9 million pounds.

Salfati’s opus is a great tapestry. He has woven into his film elements of history, culture, sociology, anthropology, visual arts, music. The sacred, the mundane.

The Who’s Who in world history have indeed harkened to the strains of “Ode to Joy”. There is awesome footage from the Berlin Olympics with Hitler present and Jessie Owens winning the gold. If you’re a cinephile you might recognize some vintage Leni Riefenstahl. And yes, Hitler’s suicide was announced over the radio with “Ode” as background music and there is a film clip of it. They should have used Wagner’s soul wrenching “Liebestod” because Hitler was a Wagner fan.

Lenin had considered “Ode to Joy” as the working masses’ anthem and there is footage showing him with the music playing. He later decided on the “Internationale” which is quite riveting in itself.
Popes, too, basked in “Ode to Joy”.

Japanese soldiers prepared for war with “Ode to Joy” playing in the background. As Japanese war planes plummet into the sea Salfati ups the music of Beethoven to magnify what for the Japanese was a heroic end.

“Ode to Joy” was not meant to be an anthem for war but a hymn of freedom. Salfati made sure the tyrants and totalitarians did not have “Ode to Joy” all to themselves. Salfati shows proof aplenty that Beethoven’s joyous opus was and is also playing in far corners of the globe where freedom reigns and where there is a yearning for it.

Salfati shows a succession of great conductors who have given “The Ninth” a long, great life. People of all races and from most unlikely places are singing the hymn, the young, the old, the robust and the weary. In the film there is a portion where “Ode to Joy” is played as rock. The next frame shows Beethoven roused from his sleep and breaking into a sweat as if saying, “Mein Gott!” We had a good laugh there.
Freedom is a hunger. “Ode to Joy” is a symbol of our collective longing to be free and happy.

It’s playing now and I’m listening. Human voices one with the symphony and at once becoming the symphony.

“Be embraced, ye millions! This kiss for the whole world, Brothers beyond the star canopy, Must a loving God dwell…Joy, beautiful spark of the Gods, Daughter of Elysium, Joy, beautiful spark of the gods.”