"No matter what stories people tell you about what music means, forget them," Leonard Bernstein informs us in one of his lessons from the famed Young People's Concerts series. "Stories are not what the music means. Music is never about things. Music just is."
It's hard not to embrace the purity of Bernstein's statement. Music becomes a kind of ideal art form, one not sullied by narratives that might be forced upon it. Let language be language, and let music be. Although Bernstein said this in 1958, the faint ring of '60s idealism reverberates: music as Be-In, inviting a free association of feelings and soul and the cosmic.
Beethoven was certainly no hippie, but few works are as cosmic, as inspiring, as soul-expanding as his Symphony No. 9, and its exultant finale, the "Ode to Joy." What makes the music so revelatory is undoubtedly some of the stories surrounding it: it is Beethoven's last symphony; he is nearly completely deaf when he composes it. And there is the story of Beethoven conducting the work's premiere and: unable to hear the applause: having to be turned toward the audience to realize its thunderous appreciation. Beethoven's music often follows the pattern of a heroic journey: from despair to triumph; from sorrow to joy: and the composer himself embodies that spirit.
As the "Ode" makes use of Friederich von Schiller's poem "An die Freude" ("To Joy"): a kind of "Enlightenment manifesto" the musicologist Esteban Buch calls it: Beethoven moves beyond the purely orchestral to a choral statement of universal brotherhood: Alle Menschen werden Br‹der ("All mankind shall be brothers").
Music, perhaps, just is, but it sometimes is much more: and certainly much can be made of what that is is.
For example, in Buch's penetrating analysis, Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History, he offers a partial list of what the "Ode to Joy" has meant throughout history: romantic composers idolized it; the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin dreamed of destroying the bourgeoisie with it; German nationalists admired its heroic power; French republicans believed it expressed libert_, _galit_, fraternit_; communists thought it epitomized a classless world; Catholics heard the Gospel in it; democrats heard democracy; Hitler celebrated his birthday with it as those he oppressed in the concentration camps played it for their own solace and relief; it was the anthem of the apartheid republic of Rhodesia; Leonard Bernstein conducted it in Berlin to celebrate a united Germany after the Wall fell; it is now the anthem of the European Union.
Add to this the Anthony Burgess novel and Stanley Kubrick film adaptation A Clockwork Orange, in which the hooligan "droog" Alex enjoys sexual violence to the accompaniment of "Ludwig van." If this isn't perverse enough, when the State attempts to "cure" Alex of his propensity toward cruelty, he is forced to watch violent films under the influence of a drug that makes him physically ill. Moreover, when depictions of Nazi death camps appear on the screen, they are accompanied by a soundtrack: Beethoven's Ninth. "It's a sin!" Alex cries in horror. He is now programmed to become sickened not only by violent thoughts, but by the "Ode to Joy."
How can any work of art survive so much meaning? Or does the frequent use: or misuse: of Symphony No. 9 impact the work by de-meaning it? Throughout the 1960s and '70s, there was rarely a season in which the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra did not perform the Ninth. One veteran musician told me how the "joy" of the "Ode to Joy" was completely lost for him after playing it season after season. The Symphony No. 9 can become as obligatory as "Freebird," or worse, it becomes kitsch.
Perhaps an antidote to the Ninth's meaningfullness as well as its meaninglessness is to find ways to make the familiar music heard anew. To make us, as Bernstein proposes, forget the stories. We can't time-travel back to the early 19th century to some idealized historical moment, but we may hear the music in our present moment, in our present time.
As David Robertson and the SLSO present the Symphony No. 9 as the finale to the 2008 _09 season (May 8 _10, 2009) it is accompanied by "Asyla," a work by contemporary British composer Thomas Ads. If Beethoven was approaching a kind of cosmic ecstasy in his last symphony, a musical expression of one of the most inexpressible and fleeting emotions: joy: then Ads conveys the ecstatic in a very 21st-century mode. "Asyla" is the plural of "asylum," and to go on this "hero's journey" is to follow a fascinating, entertaining, and slightly menacing madman. The third movement, "Ecstasio," literally "ecstasy," gives us the rush and roar and thrill and danger of a London nightclub under the influence of the drug of the same name. The final movement, as New Yorker critic Alex Ross writes, is "like a drunken shout in an empty street: Stephen Dedalus making his way home at the end of Ulysses, his mind spinning with epiphanies that he will forget in the morning."
"Spinning with epiphanies," is an image that may indeed bring us back to the mind of the 19th-century composer: for who knows what was in his head, what roaring silence engulfed him as the chorus cried "Such' ihn ‹ber'm Sternenzelt!" ("Seek Him beyond the stars!")? Or the silence we hear before the applause rises, when we find (or lose) ourselves in a moment outside of politics or history, beyond meaning.
Beethoven Symphony No. 9 will receive 3 performances on May 8, 9 and 10. For tickets to this nearly sold out season finale, visit Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.