The great paintings and sculptures that were liberated near the end of World War II from their intended destination in a “Führermuseum,” as depicted in the current movie The Monuments Men, were not the only iconic works of art that Adolf Hitler wanted to appropriate for himself. He also tried very hard to turn the masterpieces of classical music by German-born composers into theme songs for his ideology of Aryan supremacy. With Richard Wagner, an enthusiastic anti-Semite in his lifetime, the Nazis’ success was lasting: Many cultured people – Jews particularly – still find Wagner’s works difficult to listen to today.
But Ludwig van Beethoven was another story. He had been a bit of a rebel in his youth, influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment and particularly by the French Revolution. And Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which Beethoven adapted into the transcendent finale of his Ninth Symphony, contains lines like “All men shall become brothers” and “This kiss is for the whole world!” Those hardly qualify as fascist sentiments.
There was no way that the world was going to let Hitler redefine Beethoven or keep the glorious Ninth to himself. People around the globe have stolen that masterpiece back, embraced it and put it to use in ways that would make the reviled dictator squirm in his grave, if he had one. Kerry Candaele’s documentary Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony tells the stories of some of the ways in which that music has inspired solidarity, courage and political resistance, often in surprising places. The film will be screened on Thursday, February 27 at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, with co-producer Greg Mitchell on hand for a discussion.
Everyone knows the story about Leonard Bernstein conducting a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth amidst the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1989, soon after its dismantling. Less familiar are some of the other applications of the work depicted in the film. That same year, Chinese student protestors in Tienanmen Square blasted the Ninth over loudspeakers to drown out a political speech by premier Li Peng. South Africans adopted the “Ode to Joy” as their theme song for the Olympics, replacing an earlier pro-Apartheid anthem. British punk/folk iconoclast Billy Bragg wrote some new verses in English and sang them to Queen Elizabeth II.
The Japanese people especially have taken the “Ode” to their hearts, learning the lyrics in German so that they can sing it in mass performances to celebrate the New Year – kind of like American church congregations doing Messiah sing-ins, but sometimes on a scale of thousands. The film shows us footage of a performance that filled an entire sports stadium with a huge chorus of amateurs in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Perhaps the most heartrending segment of Following the Ninth consists of grainy footage of crowds of women in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, risking arrest by singing the “Ode to Joy” in Spanish (“Himno a la Alegría”) outside the walls of detention centers where political prisoners were being held. Their intent was to give the desaparecidos a message that they had not been forgotten; and the message got through. Both a woman who was among the singers and a man who heard them while enduring imprisonment and torture are interviewed in the film, testifying to the power of that song in keeping hope alive in dark times.
The filmmakers collected footage from 12 countries in all, documenting the ways in which this career-capping work by a 19th-century Flemish/German composer has gone on to transform thousands if not millions of lives in modern times. The full screening and discussion will commence at 8 p.m. on February 27. While you wait, you can catch enticing snippets of Following the Ninth in an extended trailer at www.youtube.com/watch?v=I90_deaEFus.
Following the Ninth screening with co-producer Greg Mitchell, Thursday, February 27, 8 p.m., $10/$6, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck; (845) 876-2515, https://upstatefilms.org.