Beethoven's Ninth: a political history, by Esteban Buch, trans Richard Miller

The colourful past of a contradictory anthem
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

U2'S Zooropa tour in the early 1990s opened with big-screen images from Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda, while a leather-clad Bono goose-stepped onstage to the accompaniment of the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. A couple of years earlier, the same music had celebrated the end of communism, in joyous concerts from Berlin. The symphony has a long, colourful and contradictory political past.

Beethoven's Ninth may well be the finest achievement of the symphonic repertoire. But from the brooding opening to its final shrill paean to universal brotherhood, it is also political music. Since the lyrics (from Schiller's "Ode to Joy") can't be boiled down to an instant manifesto, the symphony has been used for almost any political end. It has been claimed as a Masonic celebration, or an Enlightenment manifesto of peace and love. It has been used to invoke Germanness and (in South Africa and Ian Smith's Rhodesia) whiteness. In 1985, the finale's hymn-like melody was adopted as the European anthem.

Buch takes us through these variations on Beethoven's theme: a fascinating journey through revolutionary, Napoleonic and later France, and the yearnings of the 1850s towards German unity - a unity already achieved, its progenitors believed, in Austro-German music. In the 20th century, Europeanist and nationalist tendencies continued to compete. While detailing performance in Nazi concentration camps, Buch also notes the BBC's use of Beethoven's music as an anti-Nazi symbol.

In the past half-century, the contradictions (in Europe at least) were ironed out. German music was cleansed of Nazi taint. Classical music, harmless but beautiful, was lapped up by the pro-European élite in Salzburg, Vienna and Berlin, under the informal direction of the conductor (and sometime Nazi party member) Herbert von Karajan. The European anthem is, in fact, an arrangement of Beethoven's theme by Karajan himself, putting it on a par with Manuel de los Rios's Sixties pop hit "Ode to Joy", and the synthesised version in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

This reduction diminished and demystified the Ninth. In 1989, it was displaced from its perch on the penultimate night of the Proms (though now reinstated). At the same time the symphony reached beyond European politics into global cultural and economic development. In 1980, Philips-Sony unveiled the CD. The new medium (launched with the technophile Karajan's backing) saved the music business - for a couple of decades, anyway - by persuading us to buy albums we already had in the new format: a 12cm disc lasting a maximum of 74 minutes. The time was chosen, by the Sony executive and orchestral conductor Norio Ohga, to accommodate all of the Ninth on one disc. We listen in Beethoven's shadow.