A 'vote for me' symphony

Beethoven's Ninth

May 14, 2004

Something as popular as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was always liable to arouse the interest of politicians. The idea is very simple, as most things in politics are. You are popular, therefore by allying myself with you, I will be popular, too. Some of your fans will become my fans. Recent history provides numerous examples. Harold Wilson hoped a little of the Beatles' lustre would rub off on him when he awarded them MBEs. Perhaps most egregiously, in the heady early days of his first administration, Tony Blair invited various famous pop stars to 10 Downing Street. When aged politicians ruefully reflect that all political careers end in failure, they usually mean that their ruses tend to get found out, and Blair's was rumbled with ease. The pose of a blokish social democrat could not fool even a bunch of befuddled pop stars, and most decided that in future they would stay at home.

Esteban Buch's Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History surveys the uses politicians have made of the Ninth Symphony over the years. It starts before the symphony was even thought of, when Beethoven was a fiery unkempt talent whom politicians wanted to line up with. Unlike other composers who did the struggling-in-a-garret thing and were flung into a pauper's grave to be raised to glory only by later generations, Beethoven was lionised in his lifetime and from time to time wrote works for official occasions.

Unsurprisingly, pieces such as the cantata The Glorious Moment , written for the Congress of Vienna in 1814, and the Battle Symphony , marking one of Wellington's victories over Napoleon, were not among his best. The money was useful, but Beethoven was not a bought man, however much Buch tries (albeit halfheartedly) to imply that Beethoven's revolutionary fervour was tepid and that "throughout almost his whole life, Beethoven was to contribute willingly to Hapsburg propaganda and aspire to a position in its institutions". Indeed, Beethoven was frequently casually rude about Austria's emperor and doubted the sincerity of his commitment to artistic patronage: "Music here in decline. The emperor does nothing for it..."

The Ninth Symphony was not, then, written to glorify the regime of the day, and indeed would not be the subject of this book were it not for its last movement, which sets part of Friedrich Schiller's poem An die Freude (To Joy). Musicologists may be able to discern political messages in modulations, but politicians need words to work on. The political implications of those words by Schiller are sufficiently ambiguous to have allowed regimes of widely varying stripes to have claimed allegiance with the composer who set such a text. Buch names "Prussian nationalists, German communists, French republicans, Wagnerites of every land, and apostles of love, and even theoreticians of pure music" - we will return to pure music - who "all came together in unison in a Ninth Symphony that had become the musical fetish of western metaphysics".

Just as the Ninth was subject to usurpation, Beethoven himself is a figure much squabbled over. With his one-time enthusiasm for Napoleon, was he an advocate of the "great-man" theory of history, and one of those great men himself? Or was he the romantic hero, or the isolated genius locked in a struggle with crippling deafness, an exemplary individualist or the avatar of universal brotherhood? At the time of the centenary of Beethoven's death in 19, Buch claims, "in New York Beethoven was held up as a democrat... in Moscow, he was hailed as a revolutionary". An American speaker at the 19 celebrations in Vienna decided he was simply "an apostle of liberty".

That ambiguous word "liberty" takes us back to 1989, when after the fall of the Berlin wall it was Beethoven's totemic Ninth Symphony that echoed around a reunified Germany. Or rather a version of Beethoven's Ninth , Leonard Bernstein repeating a common historical fallacy by substituting " Freiheit (freedom), schöner Götterfunken " for the less radical " Freude , schöner Götterfunken ".

Earlier in Germany, the presence of Beethoven's music at the death camps and in connection with Nazi official occasions could be seen as deeply ironical and is naturally shocking - but also entirely predictable.

Beethoven's promotion as a specifically German hero is another political turn of the screw - although Beethoven distressed the Nazis by being distinctly unAryan-looking, as indeed were many of the squat, dark Nazi leadership themselves.

The adoption in 1971 of Beethoven's Ode to Joy as a pan-European anthem reveals another way in which the work has been useful - by implying universality. As Buch puts it: "One of the arguments western culture employed to legitimise its quest for world hegemony [was] the purportedly universal nature of its cultural heroes." Today one might think of democracy, market economies, "liberty", and wonder if they are any more universal than Beethoven's music.

Buch's elliptical and opaque prose style can sometimes seem to make simple things complicated. Yet Beethoven's Ninth is by and large a stimulating read, full of surprising and interesting facts. What is absent, however, is almost any explanation of Beethoven's wide and enduring popularity in terms of music. Why should these notes have become immortal? Why do these chords strike a chord? When referring to "pure" music, Buch does so with sarcastic quote marks around the "pure", as if it would take a fool to believe in anything so naive. Of course, his subject is politics not music, but still I rather like the pithy (and probably disingenuous) comment of a spokesman on the occasion of the Ninth Symphony being played at the opening of Nato's headquarters in Brussels in 1967: "Nato likes this music."

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer specialising in music and film.

Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History

Author - Esteban Buch
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 3
Price - £19.50 and £12.00
ISBN - 0 226 07812 4 and 07824 8

Please Login or Register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments