Beethoven's Ninth: a political history
Esteban Buch (Translated by Richard Miller) University
A political history of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Surely the whole point about the Ninth is that its message rises above politics. "Alle Menschen werden Bruder" - all men will be brothers, says the key line from Schiller's "Ode to Joy", set in the stupendous final choral movement, which bursts the bounds of the symphony as conceived by Haydn and Mozart. The myth of the "universal" Ninth is part of the Beethoven myth, which portrays him as magically free of the social impediments that bound other composers. And the music bears out the idea of a creative spirit obedient to nothing but its own laws, which a whole industry of Beethoven analysis came into being to reveal.
Esteban Buch is part of a revisionist trend in Beethoven scholarship, which wants to put him firmly back in his time and place. He sets out by describing a tradition of Enlightenment and revolutionary "political music" to which Beet- hoven's Ninth Symphony has a vital if oblique relationship. "God Save the King", Haydn's "Austrian Hymn" and the "Marseillaise" were the three most notable antecedents for Beethoven's sturdy melody. But there were also antecedents in Beethoven's own music, particularly the cantata The Glorious Moment, written to celebrate the leisurely sojourn of the crowned heads of Europe in Vienna in 1814-15. It is a blatant piece of hack-work, which plays into the hands of people who say Beethoven's heart could not have been in it, because as we all know he was "apolitical". Against that cliche, Buch insists that "We do not apprehend the presence of politics in Beethoven's work . . . by dividing it into music that is 'ideological', and thus bad, and music that embodies the composer's true beliefs and is therefore good."
This sounds like the cue for a reductionist reading of the Ninth which sees it as a covert expression of sympathy for the French revolution, or the Austrian monarchy, or whatever. But refreshingly, Buch refuses to box the piece into a single, "correct" interpretation, and instead analyses the conflicting forces at work within it. There are plenty. He finds a nascent "European" sentiment, Ger-man nationalism, Austrian nationalism, Enlightenment "universalism" and revolutionary fervour ("Princes shall be beggars," said an early draft of Friedrich Schiller's poem).
All this prepares the ground for Buch's main task, which is to trace the ideological appropriations and misreadings of the Ninth Symphony from the first Beet-hoven jubilees in the 19th century to the more extreme perversions and distortions of the 20th century. By then it seemed the Ninth could mean anything you wanted. For Franz Werfel, Beethoven was the true revolutionary; for the Nazi Arthur Sanderberg he was the Fuhrer of the German people; for the first cultural commissar of the Soviet Union he was a composer "whose world vision coincides with the principal elements of the proletariat".
One problem with Buch's approach is that often we do not know whether he is making a point about the "Ode to Joy" in isolation, or the Ninth Symphony as a whole, or Beethoven in general. And like so many cultural critics who venture into music, his purely musical judgements often seem forced to fit a pre-set thesis. He thinks that the Austrian national anthem and the "Marseillaise" share a "dynamic musical code". But what strikes any unbiased listener is how clearly the two things belong to different worlds. The mere fact that Haydn's hymn repeats its first phrase note for note gives it a stability completely at odds with the urgent heroics of the "Marseillaise".
The book is also littered with errors. Cologne Cathedral was not built in 1842, the Columbia Recording Company was not British, the librettist of Haydn's Creation is certainly not unknown. More bothersome still are the bizarre neologisms and examples of jargon scattered through the text: "memorative", "archaistic", "sumptuosity", "phatic content". A cantata is referred to as being "fancied-up", which lends a whole new perspective to 18th-century musicality. Some of these can be blamed on the translation, which is generally execrable, though surely not Buch's mystifying remark that the British anthem "spread almost inorganically through both society and the state".
None the less, this is a thoughtful - and thought-provoking - book, full of fascinating material. Instead of ending on a conventionally upbeat note, Buch raises the heretical notion that the Ninth may, finally, be about to lose its meaning. He seems to agree with the philosopher Agnes Heller that the European Union's adoption of "Ode to Joy" as the EU anthem spells "the death of the Ninth Symphony", and rightly scorns the decision to adopt the melody without Schiller's all-important words.
Beethoven's Ninth can survive any amount of impassioned misappropriation; what may finally kill it is well- intentioned evasiveness.
Ivan Hewett writes on music for the Daily Telegraph