Clarity in Beethoven’s 9th
The headline for Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s piece in the Critic’s Notebook of the New York Times (July 9, 2017) claims: At G-20, Beethoven Sends a Mixed Message to Trump.
But I believe Beethoven’s 9th, when openly encountered, in fact sends a clear, powerful message to today’s leaders.
Each time the Ode to Joy recurs, it’s varied greatly. After several iterations, Beethoven presents the melody as a Turkish march—embracing music of Vienna’s most dogged adversary. Superimposed upon the march is the tenor’s heroic solo: “run, brother, your path as a hero to victory.” Then, in the ensuing fugue, each instrumental part fulfills its own destiny – a literal counterpoint of powerful multiculturalism at play.
At our peril we fixate on the finale, which is contextualized by three preceding movements, representing something of creation’s fierce indifference, bitter confrontation of mortality, and otherworldly communion. The 9th, then, is a mostly wordless, 70-minute cosmology—a miracle.
Interesting, though, that music, like any powerful human creation—like knowledge itself—has immense potentials to be a force for good or for destruction. Such potential is true even for any one work of art, it seems, as a microcosm.
So for those who care deeply for and about music, part of our responsibility, I believe, is to make sure music is only used for good, which should not mean “make it preachy.” Rather, in music we seek out an unbowdlerized, fully nuanced, and therefore most human expression. If our explorations are incurious, we have sapped music of its essence, and in this eviscerated state, music is ripe for being usurped by forces that would distort its ability to restore, and that could pervert music towards destructive ends. As a caution, after all, both Churchill and Hitler interpreted the 5th as optimistic.
Art can be a vital reflective and shaping force for our souls, but only if we allow it to be so, engaging with its fullness as deeply and honestly as possible.