More than any other work of classical music, Beethoven᾽s Ninth Symphony was “instrumentalised” for political purposes by both German states in the Cold War between 1949 and 1989. The Ninth held an exceptional position in both the old German Federal Republic and the German Democratic Republic, yet its social and political mobilisation was based on images of Beethoven that could hardly have been more different. However, it would be wrong to say that the whole symphony was popular while Germany was divided. It was the final movement with its “Ode to Joy” that made the composition as a whole an “instrument” to be used and exploited on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But despite all the exploitation from 1949 to 1989 and beyond, Beethoven᾽s Ninth has survived the last few decades relatively unscathed. So well in fact, that we, if the current German government has its way, are likely to have to address the “issue of national importance” of making fitting preparations for the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven᾽s birth. After all, in the words of the ruling coalition, it offers “outstanding opportunities for the Kulturnation Germany both at home and abroad”.

No further details have been made available, although specifying these “outstanding opportunities” would greatly simplify the preparations. Borrowing from the history of how the work was received in both Germanys during the period of its division could, however, be problematic: At that time, Beethoven and his Ninth were used by both East and West like a “weapon” against their political opponents. Even the biography of the composer lent itself to differing interpretations: Based on the early, Bonn Beethoven, he could be seen – linking in with how he was viewed in the socialist GDR – as a champion for all future revolutionary upheavals. Or he could be viewed from the perspective of the musical titan᾽s later works, as fostered by the young German Federal Republic, and develop the Romantic, heroic image of Beethoven.

Popular mass involvement

In any case, today᾽s “all-German” Federal Republic could present itself both at “home and abroad” with the Ninth Symphony in 2020 – just as both German states did more than 850 times when they were divided. With its idealistic text on the one hand and its music – in particular its folk-like, 16-bar “Ode to Joy” melody – on the other, the work offers every opportunity for popular mass involvement. Its sublimeness is ultimately revealed in its simplicity. Particularly the passages “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” (Be embraced, you millions) and “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” (All men shall become brothers) come to mind: As early as 1952, the Kulturbund zur demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands, the cultural association of the GDR, suggested in its material for the design of commemorations transforming the concept of Schiller᾽s fraternity into an idea of socialist brotherly love, something which was noted in the West not without scorn: Despite mantra-like repetition, this was not something they were willing to accept. In 1977, for example, Peter Boenisch wrote in a major German tabloid: “Beethoven, the genius with human weaknesses, hoped together with Schiller that ‘All men shall become brothers!ʼ Sorry, comrades, but ‘All men shall become comradesʼ is not what is meant. The Creator is to be found above the starry firmament and not under the red star.”

To exploit the work for political purposes in 2020 would be to venture out onto rather thin ice. It seems just bizarre when extra-musical elements are imposed too directly: “The imperialist Bonn State, which is only too happy to use Beethoven᾽s birthday [1970] to gild its historically obsolete, late-bourgeois existence with the aura of Beethoven, has absolutely no right to lay claim to Beethoven᾽s legacy.” The pursuit of nuclear weapons in particular stood in stark contrast to Beethoven᾽s world of ideas which he, in the “Ode to Joy” in the Ninth, set to music a “world-wide symbol of the brotherhood of mankind”. Only in the GDR, the German anti-imperialist peace state, did the social conditions exist which could be considered the spiritual home of Beethoven, according to Willi Stoph, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the GDR.

Revolutionary pioneer or romantic hero

Perhaps the idea could be built on of using the “Ode to Joy” melody as the national anthem; something which has a positive precedent: At the Olympic Winter Games in Oslo in February 1952 (in which an all-German team took part because the IOC had not recognised the National Olympic Committee of the GDR), extracts from the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony were played for the German Olympic medallists. At that time it was still a temporary solution; the Ninth took over from the popular hit song “Wir sind die Eingeborenen von Trizonesien” (We are the natives of Trizonesia) which had been used to honour German athletic successes since the end of the war. For a new text, one could look at the suggestions proposed in the files of the Office of the German Federal President before a decision was made on the third verse of the German national anthem – for example:

“Deutschland, dir bin ich ergeben
denn du bist mein Vaterland;
Alles Sinnen, Schaffen, Streben
ist dir innig zugewandt.”
(Germany, I devote myself to you
For you are my mother country
All my thoughts, deeds and aspirations
are directed towards you.)

An only seemingly grotesque suggestion, for it shows that the melody was attributed a character which calls for the reuniting of the people. And it is also not totally incongruous, for with political unification, the autograph score – which had been split up in the confusion of the war – was also able to be reassembled after being divided for 40 years, just like Germany: The demarcation line ran right through the contrapuntal interweaving of the phrases “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” (Joy, beautiful spark of divinity) and “Seid umschlungen Millionen” (Be embraced, you millions) – exactly at the point where the altos sing “Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt” (This kiss is for the whole world) (fourth movement, bars 697-700).

Arms race of editions

However, 2020 will probably be reduced to the commemorative culture that has taken hold in the West since the 1970s – a pervasive “popularisation” of the composer, which could even perhaps end up with Charles M Schulz᾽s Peanuts singing “Happy Birthday, Beethoven II”. In 1970, Deutsche Grammophon sold their Beethoven Edition all over the world (75 LPs for 975 DM), but lost in this particular “arms race” to the East, whose record label VEB Deutsche Schallplatten released 80 Beethoven LPs. In Bonn, a Beethoven Festival was celebrated at that time which cost a total of 1.3 million DM. The German Foreign Office sent ten tons of Beethoven memorabilia abroad, and in every Goethe Institute all over the world, visitors were able to visit exhibitions about the musical genius. With his “Song of Joy”, the Spanish singer Miguel Rios stayed in the West German singles chart for 24 weeks, including seven weeks at number one – but not at Sender Freies Berlin (Radio Free Berlin), which imposed a temporary broadcasting ban so as not to scare off Beethoven lovers.

“Schöner Götterfunke” – a humanistic message

The 1977 Beethoven-extravaganza commemorating the 200th anniversary of the composer᾽s death came to a close with a “radiophonic experiment”: an international youth orchestra, which consisted of young West German, British, Japanese and Russian musicians (the newly-founded East German Free German Youth orchestra was not permitted to play), performed the Ninth in Bonn᾽s market square. The performance was broadcast live on the radio station WDR. The town council issued a call to the local citizens to “tune in to the broadcast and place their radios at an open window”. The scathing comment in the German weekly “Der Spiegel” about the GDR festivities, that the use of multimedia had won the day for the worker and farmer state, could equally have applied to the celebrations in the old Federal capital, Bonn.

Even then, although the Beethoven tribute was not prepared well in advance, it was planned at the highest levels. Minutes from a meeting at the German Federal Ministry of the Interior state: “The participants in the discussion agreed that the 150th anniversary of the death of this major German composer should be commemorated with appropriate events and with the participation of public authorities, so that the population of the Federal Republic of Germany is also made aware in a fitting manner of the life and work of Beethoven.” Wording may change...

After 40 years of less than joyful hostilities, it was again the Ninth which was to unite East and West in a concert under the direction of Leonard Bernstein on 25 December 1989. He changed the words to “Freiheit, schöner Götterfunken” – but in doing so, he once more attracted the attention of the ideologues who complained that “[he] degraded the otherwise excellent performance to the pseudo-current propaganda of the US sponsors”. So perhaps there is really only one outstanding opportunity for the Kulturnation Germany at home and abroad: A “de-ideologisation” of the composer and his Ninth Symphony with its system-wide, humanistic message.

This essay was written for and first published in 128 - Das Magazin der Berliner Philharmoniker, Issue 03/2014.