Was the Crown Jewel of Beethoven the Right Choice for the Hamburg G-20 Concert?

Jul 11, 2017

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor "Choral" is one of the crown jewels of the symphonic repertoire, and has, from very early on, been recognized as such.

The crown jewel of Hamburg, Germany's cultural life at the moment is the newly opened Elbphilharmonie concert hall which, when you come to think of it, looks somewhat like a crown.

The recent G-20 summit of world leaders concluded with a special concert at the hall, featuring Beethoven's Choral Symphony with Friedrich Schiller's call for the universal brotherhood of mankind in the final movement.

This seems like it should be a good musical choice. You can read an interesting take on the concert and the reactions of its notable attendees, by Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times here.

In a recent blog post, I noted that the departing music director of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, is all set to become chief conductor of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, whose home is the glittering new concert hall.

I also recently wrote about the departing music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Kent Nagano, who has a Hamburg connection, too. Nagano is the director of the Hamburg State Opera, and he led the Elbphilharmonie orchestra, chorus and soloists in the performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Friday night.

The uses (and abuses) of Beethoven's Ninth since its first performance in Vienna in 1824 with its "Ode to Joy" finale have been well documented

Swed quotes Nagano's notes from the Montreal Symphony's recording of Beethoven's Choral Symphony to good effect, stating that Beethoven gave,"emphatic expression in this work to the conception of humanity and the notion of a progressive development of humankind toward a free and authentically better society." Noble things to aim for.

But Swed also warns, as much as we are moved by the positive ideas we think the music represents, "if Beethoven's Ninth could stop the killing, World War II would not have happened." Hitler and the Nazis loved Beethoven, too — but to them he just represented German cultural superiority.

Great music may lift our spirits, but its social meaning — as in the case of Beethoven's Ninth — can be manipulated and distorted beyond recognition for ideological and political purposes.

Swed wonders how much of Beethoven's intention got through to the various audience members highlighted in his review of the concert. But he also notes, referencing Nagano again, "that in the larger historical picture, the Ninth has just as often managed successfully to resist this sort of exploitation and abuse."

Indeed, it has continued to inspire hope for a better future. If we love Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the message of its finale, we must know in our heart of hearts it refers to all mankind without reservation.

If all of the G-20 attendees' motives are truly altruistic, then Beethoven's Choral Symphony was a good and appropriate choice for the music at that concert.

Does this set a seemingly impossible ideal? Maybe. But it's a good direction to travel in, rather than toward more separation and isolation.