An introduction to music research
An introduction to music research

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An introduction to music research

4.4 Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was subject to some particularly interesting interpretations in Nazi Germany. Its closing choral section was performed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and it was heard in its entirety in a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler for Hitler’s birthday in 1937. This was at the specific request of Joseph Goebbels and, as the newspaper Der Angriff noted, the symphony was regarded as a perfect choice because “with its fighting and struggling” the work denoted the Führer’s capacity for “triumph and joyous victory” (Dennis, 1996, p. 162).

In the Nazi propaganda film Schlußakkord (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1936), a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony broadcast on the radio reaches the ears of an ill German woman living in the United States. By the time the finale has finished, she has miraculously revived and has resolved to return to Germany to take up her duties as a mother (Winters 2014, p. 99). The music, it seems, has inspired her to re-join a group from which she has been separated—which is precisely how the Nazis hoped music would operate, drawing together Aryan Germans and separating them out antagonistically from the other races, with whom they had long lived peaceably.

What did the Nazis hear in Beethoven’s Ninth? Evidently, the triumphant and celebratory tone of its final movement, and the immense struggle apparent in the first movement easily map on to an idea of German victory after a period of conflict; however, that is equally true of many nineteenth-century symphonies. The Ninth also has a text, though, that makes it particularly susceptible to appropriation. Below, I’ve reproduced some of Schiller’s text from the choral section of the symphony. At first glance, there is little in this that might seem to support the ideological premise of Nazism.

Friedrich Schiller, An die Freude (extract)

…Seid umschlungen, Millionen!

Deisen Kuß der ganzen Welt!

Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt

Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.

Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?

Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?

Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!

Űber Sternen muss er wohnen….

…Be embraced, millions!

This kiss for the whole world!

Brothers, above the starry canopy

Must a loving Father dwell.

Do you bow down, millions?

Do you sense the Creator, world?

Seek Him beyond the starry canopy!

Beyond the stars must He dwell…

Hans Joachim Moser, though, who was part of the Reich-Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, noted of Schiller’s text that the “kiss for the whole world” was a “glowing devotion to the notion, the dream, the simple idea of a humanity conceived in as German terms as possible” (Dennis, 1996, p. 152).

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