Listening to Jill Stein and Margaret Flowers, I come away with admiration for their ability to remain joyful in their defiance, as if imbued with a spirit that comes from some indefinable place of hope and resilience. Which is why I’m even more eager to recommend to you a small gem of a movie that’s just been released. It’s about perhaps the greatest piece of music ever written, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in which the composer took Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” and transformed what essentially was a drinking song into what has been called a universal human anthem.
Resolute in the face of his own deafness and failing health, Beethoven was able to express something immortal and sublime, so revealing of our deepest feelings, that we know it is saying for us what we cannot say on our own.
Consider how it travels from culture to culture. The Japanese now play the Ninth over and again during their New Year celebrations. Ironically, they first heard of the 9th from German prisoners during World War One. But it grew in popularity, especially following World War Two, when a devastated and defeated people set out to build a new society on the ruins of the old. And in the months after the earthquake and tidal wave that struck Japan three years ago, killing more than 15,000 and unleashing the silent terror of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant that Margaret Flowers and Jill Stein just discussed, the triumphant “Ode to Joy” helped the healing of a nation literally broken apart.
The music’s produced that effect on people ever since 1824, when it was first performed in Vienna. This new film, “Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony,” produced and directed by Kerry Candaele and a book he has written with Greg Mitchell tell the story of its political and social impact in one country after another. Here’s a preview:
GEORGE MATTHEW in Following the Ninth:
The whole thing is a kind of creation story, or an evolution story. The first thing, is not a thing. It’s a nothing. What on earth is that? And then when it starts to move, the spirit of god hovering over the waters, what you get is:
And then you have this cataclysmic event. It’s pure violence. That is primordial violence. That is the big bang.
This piece enters your bloodstream and then changes who you are. The entire blueprint of everything, all the way from subatomic particles to galactic clusters, it’s all here.
FENGE CONGDE in Following the Ninth:
We demanded the government to hold a direct dialog with us students. To push political reform. The government refused. And finally, 3000 students went down to the Tiananmen Square, hunger striking. I set up the first broadcast station. I put in the cassette of Beethoven’s Ninth to cover the voice of the government system.
There was real transformation. It gave us a sense of hope, solidarity, all people become brothers. We just feel that we were free at last. We regain our dignity as human beings. For me that was a movement for hope. And the tanks and machine guns killed that hope.
BENJAMIN ZANDER in Following the Ninth:
If given a chance to meet one person in history, for me it would be Beethoven. The question I would ask him, if I only had one question, would be the Ninth Symphony.
The Ninth Symphony seems to express most completely what human beings are struggling for. It is a battle cry for humanity, a hymn of possibility.
ISABEL LIPTHAY in Following the Ninth:
In 1973 begins a very dark time. Pinochet took the power and made one of the worst military coups. This dream from socialism from equality was gone.
RENATO VIDAL in Following the Ninth:
Music was banished. Happiness was banished. I was in a room, with a window, an iron grid. And one day I heard the music, only the music.
ISABEL LIPTHAY in Following the Ninth:
The Ninth was like a shield for us, against the fear, the pain, against the darkness.
RENATA VIDAL in Following the Ninth:
When you are in the deepest darkest hole, that music was hope.
BILLY BRAGG in Following the Ninth:
The thing about punk that was really important was the DIY aspect of it. You can do this yourself. Technically, I not even sure I’m a musician. I’m a guitar player. But there is no reason why that should stop me from writing the lyrics of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
You don’t have to wait until the London Symphony Orchestra gives you permission or asks you. The fact that I’ve written the two verses is all the validation I need. There they are. And if I can make those verses singable by the kids, then great, I’ll d do that as well - ok, man of destiny, here we go-
Music is something that is mood enhancing and mind bending. You can change or enhance that melancholy feeling or that joyous feeling. And Beethoven obviously felt that deeply.
You can imagine if he heard his favorite song in the supermarket, it would stop him dead and mess up his day.
TAIJIRO IIOMORI in Following the Ninth:
I think Japanese people need, just need this Beethoven’s message.
There you have it, Beethoven’s final symphony moves, inspires and mystifies. The composer and writer Jan Swafford once probed the mystery of it for Slate magazine, helping me for one, to see how Beethoven forged elements from military and funeral marches , and that “dissonant shriek” that Richard Wagner saw as a “terror fanfare,” how he took all of that and created “a great ceremonial work that doesn’t just preach freedom and the unity of peoples but attempts however strangely to foster them.” Composed by a tortured man who during the bloody Napoleonic Wars wrote: “what a destructive, disorderly life I see and hear around me, nothing but drums, cannons and human misery in every form.”
So those of you who despair of the collapse of civilization, those of us who report it, and all of you trying to repair it can take heart from what emerged out of hard and bitter times – take heart from how Beethoven “erected," in Jan Swafford's words," a movement of epic scope on a humble little tune that anybody can sing.” Mysterious, yes. As mysterious as hope in a broken world.