What Does Beethoven's Ninth Symphony Mean?

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Random House

Asking what a symphony means is a bit like asking what an eclipse means. One person says, "It's when the shadow of the moon passes over the sun." Another might say, "It means the cosmic energy has shifted and my horoscope's about to go haywire." Another says, "What eclipse?"

If this is true of any old symphony, it is many times more so with Beethoven's Ninth. A monument, an act of violence akin to being squeezed in a mop wringer, a work of art so eloquently and bombastically expressive of something that everyone from Protestant hymn-writers to Nazis to the makers of the video game Civilization II has insisted that yes, this is its true meaning, the Ninth is a sphinx to which every earnestly given answer is both right, and inadequate.

Harvey Sachs, a writer and faculty member at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, knows this fact very well. But he, like so many Beethoven-philes over the last 150 years (I'm one too) loves the Ninth, and so can't help developing a theory about its meaning. In his new book The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, Sachs circumspectly, and persuasively, describes Beethoven's only vocal symphony as a statement of freedom in the repressive political environment of Europe after the Congress of Vienna. Sachs argues for seeing it as a "declaration in favor of universal brotherhood."

At the time of its composition, the monarchs of Europe had restored power after the Napoleonic wars, shoring up regimes that had once seemed threatened with extinction. Beethoven, living in Vienna where Metternich and other statesmen re-cut Europe into a neat aristocratic pie, "had to camouflage his libertarian aspirations," Sachs writes. As a freelance musician, Beethoven had little choice but to "pay lip service to the rulers on whose patronage he depended and for whom expressions about universal brotherhood were only too reminiscent of the ideals bandied about by the French Revolution." Indeed, far from playing the subversive radical, Beethoven scribbled off some of his worst pieces (Wellington's Victory, Der glorreiche Augenblick) to please the blue-bloods in Vienna around 1814-15.

Sachs notes that while Beethoven was hammering out drafts of the symphony on his legless piano, other artists were toying with similar themes of individual striving—a strain of what eventually came to be identified as Romanticism. The works of Byron, Pushkin, and Beethoven, Sachs writes, were subtly linked by this "hidden thread" of expressing in art a "quest for freedom: political freedom, from the repressive conditions that then dominated Europe, and freedom of expression, certainly, but above all freedom of the mind and spirit."

The difference with Beethoven, of course, was that he was not composing with words. Our only clear guide to what Beethoven "meant" with the Ninth Symphony was his choice to adopt and slightly modify a poem by Schiller, the "Ode to Joy," for the choral finale. The poem is littered with allusions to Greek heaven, to wine and nature, to a loving God, and to the blessings of friendship and marriage. Perhaps the key line, in Sachs's reading, is one Beethoven modified to celebrate the moment when "All men become brothers." But the poem could easily permit interpretations of it as a secular hymn, or a religious exhortation, or a spur to heroism, or a classical bacchanalia.

And indeed it has. Decades later, Marxists heard a rallying-cry of proletarian unity. Nazis trumpeted it as a Wagnerian statement of Germanic strength. Americans nodded along to it in commercials for the Minnesota Twins or Nintendo Wii. Even the best musicologists haven't been able to agree on its meaning. Richard Taruskin called the choral finale "a mounting wave—or better, a spreading infection—of Elysian delirium." Maynard Solomon heard the herald of "a Deity who transcends any particularizations of religious creed...a fusion of Christian and Pagan beliefs, a marriage of Faust and Helen." Claude Debussy, a French composer of the early 20th century, made it out to be a "magnificent gesture of musical pride." All would perhaps agree with one thing: Taruskin's assertion that the symphony means something, but that nobody can "claim to have arrived at a definitive interpretation."

Which is at once a frightening and wonderful state of affairs. Unlike, say, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Beethoven's masterpiece authentically can and perhaps should mean something personal and different to everyone who approaches it, standing for whatever we view as the best, strongest, and most exalted about humanity. As Wilhelm Furtwängler—one of the best conductors of the symphony—once said, trying to nail down Beethoven's ideas any more precisely than that is like stabbing a butterfly to an entomologist's wall.

Sachs himself admits this prior to his admirable, "highly personal" analysis of the Ninth: "there is one inescapable fact": the symphony "belongs to each person who... attempts to listen to it attentively." We may never agree what it means, but, as with an eclipse, all we can do is approach it indirectly with caution, humility, and wonder.

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Benjamin F. Carlson is executive editor of The Atlantic Wire.

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