An “Ode to Joy” in a Difficult Moment


For those searching for joy (and who isn’t), I offer a musical destination. For those searching for defiance — making a statement — I offer the same music, played differently. In both cases the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You’ve heard it before even if you don’t know it. TV admen for cars and toothpaste made sure.

In a lifetime of listening, the most joyous performance known to me was played by the Boston Symphony under the direction of Charles Munch on April 27, 1956. You might have been brought to tears or thrilled by this music before — and this rendition is thrilling — but, the combustible singers and players, “drunk with fire” in the words of Schiller used by Beethoven, generated an unexpected smile impossible to prevent even if someone paid me to be grim. I’ll give the source below, if you care to put your money where my grin is.


Unfortunately, not only admen and women turn musical art into a tool. Politicians do too. The Ninth was used in Hitler’s Nazi domain to celebrate his birthday, putting the requested performers in a dilemma: to play or not to play, that was the question. One man in particular gave a peculiar, but memorable response. He played the Ninth, especially the finale’s “Ode to Joy” — including heavenly words about a time when “all men become brothers” — as if to transform the celebration into something joyless, toxic, and dystopian. Indeed, until you experience it, you cannot think this piece could be played in this way. Of course, the conductor was already faced with something beyond imagining: the corruption of the most civilized nation of his time, one he called home.

Here is what Michael Tanner wrote about the concert in notes to a CD of the complete performance:

In April, 1942, (the conductor Wilhelm) Furtwängler was tricked by Goebbels into conducting this work on the eve of the Führer’s birthday in Berlin, something he had always managed to avoid before. Try as he would to insist that he was unwell, had commitments in Vienna, and so on, he was forced to take part and conduct it. … And in the last movement, after stupendous ecstasies and paens, the unspeakable happens: Furtwängler always accelerated wildly for the closing bars, suggesting a barely controlled excitement. But on this occasion the last bars are a nightmare of nihilism, a stampede towards the abyss, such as I have never heard in any other music. It is as if Furtwängler is doing what Thomas Mann’s fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn says he will do in Dr Faustus: take back the Ninth Symphony, because all the hope and aspirations of the noble side of humanity have come to naught. But instead of writing a new piece to negate the Ninth, Furtwängler does the unthinkable and revokes the work by the way he plays its own ending.

Tanner is not the only person with this opinion. Lynn Rene Bayley wrote in Fanfare Magazine, “Even if he was not really trying to hurl Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the face of Hitler, one definitely gets the feeling that, in his mind on that day, this “Ode to Joy” had become an act of defiance, almost distorting the music (and words) to produce an almost apocalyptic vision of the score. In short, one gets the feeling that Furtwängler was not certain whether he, or German art, would survive the Nazi horror, the war, and the Holocaust.”

Hyperbolic? You can be the judge, since the last four minutes of the performance are preserved below. But do find a way to listen to the piece in some other performance, too. The abyss is not a friendly place.

The top photos are of Charles Munch, the second being the cover art for the joyous performance I lead with. The recording of the Munch/Boston Symphony performance is produced by the St. Laurent Studio, catalogue #YSL T-315. The CD includes a rendition of Roussel’s Piano Concerto and only the finale of the Beethoven. Trust me, you won’t feel shorted by the absence of the first three movements. It can be obtained directly from St. Laurent Studios. Note that prices are in Canadian currency. It is also available here.

What Does Music Tell You About Someone New?

When you meet someone new, you probably don’t begin the conversation by asking “What is the meaning of life?” Nor is it likely that you will inquire about anything “personal” or probe for skeletons in his family’s closet.

Instead, you are more likely to talk about things like music.

We get to know each other by testing the waters and discovering whether we share interests, a sense of humor, a style of living. Usually, it is only later that questions of values are raised. Until then, if the new person seems attractive, intelligent, funny; and roots for our sports team and likes our music, that is enough.

We make assumptions. In effect, we say to ourselves, “If you’re a Cubs fan, then your heart must be in the same place as mine because I’m a Cubs fan. If you like the same music I do, then you must share the same sentiments — the same taste.” From data such as this we predict our potential friend or lover to have an acceptable “sense and sensibility” — one that is close enough to match our own.

But, we don’t always get this right, do we? It turns out that just because Person X likes the same music and roots for the same team, he might not be a good match for us at all.

Here is a very dramatic example that illustrates the point.

Let’s say you like the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And, even if your new friend hasn’t heard it, he probably would agree with its vision of a world in which “alle Menschen werden Brüder,” which means “all men become brothers.” Better still if he actually has heard it and enjoys both the music and the sentiment of universal brotherhood. The shared affinity between you and this person might suggest that you will get along well together.

Not so fast. The video link will take you to a performance of the closing four minutes of that symphony that will teach you otherwise: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Hieronymus Bosch: “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (right panel)

The place is Berlin. The date is April 19, 1942. And the audience is filled with Nazis (the film will show you this), all listening intently to the words “all men become brothers.” OK, they aren’t uniformly crazy about Beethoven. The concert, after all, is celebrating Hitler’s birthday (which would occur the next day), so some listeners are there for the celebration if not the symphony. But, I doubt that many of the Nazi Party Beethoven fans were troubled by the contradiction between those words and their day job: murdering people, including the groups they considered “Untermenschen” (subhumans), comprised of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and Homosexuals.

Just in case you are wondering how anyone in the audience could actually applaud the idea that “alle Menschen werden Brüder,” the answer is to be found in the peculiar Nazi conscience. Simply put, since the Nazis had defined the groups I mentioned as less than human, those who believed in Nazi ideology saw themselves as doing a positive good for Germany by eradicating those same groups. And, since the “Untermenschen” were not thought to be “human,” they couldn’t be the “brothers” to any of those people in the audience who thought of themselves as the very best of the human race. Thus, the words of the poet Schiller which Beethoven used in his 9th Symphony seemed to them perfectly consistent with the Nazi view of the world.

No, I don’t think you will soon run into a Nazi who likes Beethoven or whatever other music might be your favorite. But, if you are looking for internal consistency in people, you are likely to be disappointed. Some “great men” cheat on their wives. Some brilliant writers are terribly troubled. Some good-looking and delightful people don’t know how to handle money.

The moral to the story is this: the next time you meet someone new, don’t assume that superficial things tell you everything you need to know. The way he dresses, the place he lives, or the car he drives might actually be irrelevant. And don’t assume that his love for the same music that you love tells you anything about his generosity, his kindness, or his morality.

Even the beautifully harmonized syllables “alle Menschen werden Brüder” are, after all, just words.

The top image is called Female Musicians at Aurangzeb’s Wedding, 1636, posted to Wikimedia Commons, as was the Bosch painting.