It’s not every day that you hear musicologists speaking on radio talk shows.
NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook did a show on Beethoven’s Ninth yesterday afternoon (with guest music historian Harvey Sachs) that is well worth checking out. Sachs recently published a new book on Beethoven’s controversial masterpiece that goes into some social detail about the 1824 debut of the work and what it meant in the context of the composer’s Vienna, a place that was rapidly turning into, as Sachs puts it, the “first modern police state.” Although Beethoven doesn’t have a lot to say on politics, it’s hard to discuss the “brotherly union” of the Ode to Joy without looking into the political and philosophical underpinnings of the composer’s massive symphony. The work has simply been used for too many purposes over the years to ignore it, a fact highlighted by audio clips from both Hitler’s birthday in 1942 and Bernstein conducting the Berlin phil on the occasion of the destruction of the Wall in 1990. Indeed, the Ninth is a Protean piece that can used to “mean” just about anything.
For all of its canonical power, Beethoven’s final symphony is a deeply ambiguous work. As Maynard Solomon points out in his 1986 article “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: A Search for Order,” the composer wanted us to search for grand meanings in his music; however, the codes he employs are simply too heterogeneous to be read in any one way. (This is evinced by the sheer number of explanations provided for the work over the years. It reminds me of what James Joyce said about Finnegans Wake – “I’ve written a book that will keep the scholars guessing for generations.”) The one thing people can agree on is the symphony’s unprecedented scope and extremity of expression, what Solomon calls its “profoundly modernist perspective.” Solomon adds that “Beethoven’s music sought to disrupt,” concluding that the disruptive force of the symphony and its irreconcilable ambiguities have allowed it to mean vastly different things to different people over the years.
Taruskin weighs in on Solomon’s argument in his 1989 article “Resisting the Ninth.” (This unique piece – well, not unique to RT – begins as a record review and spirals into a provocative meditation on the 9th symphony, only to return to the record in question at the end. It’s a tour de force of critical/scholarly amalgamation in the style of his Berkeley colleague Joseph Kerman.) Building on Solomon, RT argues that the “disruption” at the heart of the symphony presents us with something fundamentally dangerous – it promises sublimity and universal brotherhood, and if you believe yourself to be on the side of such Big Ideas (as did Hitler), then it can be used to justify anything. However, neuter the work of this potent danger and you risk neutering everything powerful (and historical) about it. Indeed, some modern conductors white wash the uncomfortable elements of the Ninth by eschewing the fundamental (and subversive) vagueness of the work by specifying every detail. This, in effect, “defangs the beast.” (It also destroys it.)