For me, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be forever linked to my life as a Bosnian refugee. In a time of great suffering, this music brought me hope. No amount of ideological nonsense will destroy its inherent beauty and its constant call for the restoration of humanity’s greatness.
Western civilization and culture have been under attack for quite some time now, primarily thanks to one form or another of political correctness and identity politics. These two ideological forces have not only been rejecting the riches of Western civilization, they have also been actively trying to erase the history of art, literature, and music.
The most recent example of this attack comes from an absurd essay published in The Toronto Star, in which John Terauds attacks Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He specifically attacks the last, choral movement of the symphony—which sets Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”—claiming that the libretto is essentially a political message and that “calls to world brotherhood” can often times result in tyranny. As much as he hates the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, Mr. Terauds is not really that much impressed with the rest of the symphony either, especially since Hitler apparently liked it too.
Mr. Terauds writes that the “Ode to Joy” is taunting and not inspiring, and that we should “stash Beethoven’s musical rant down back up in the pantheon of musical treasures and give other works some ear time instead.” Mr. Terauds is certainly free to stop listening to Beethoven, and indeed any other composer he deems inadequate by his standards. But these standards and criteria are not aesthetic and, at the same time, he is not interested in simply stepping away from the music. Rather, his intent is to dismantle Beethoven’s symphony and impose a political meaning onto its ontological status as a musical composition.
The central problem with Mr. Terauds’ reasoning and calls to abandon Beethoven is his relation to music in general. Any work of art, be it music, literature, painting, or sculpture, has a life of its own. Naturally, the mind of an artist is and always will be present in the work of art, but just as an artist has to transcend the possibility of possessing his work, the audience too has to challenge itself to not hold the work of art in captivity. By imposing not only a contemporary political meaning on the Ninth but also pretentious control over it, Mr. Terauds in effect imprisons the music. Mr. Terauds would like it to appear that his interpretation is the final and most truthful musical exegesis that we should conform to.
Another problem in the essay is that Mr. Terauds offers no indication of what aesthetic criteria he might be using as he evaluates Beethoven’s work in such a dismissive way. What started as a political act of writing becomes ultimately a question of mere personal taste in music. To impose any evaluation on art is a difficult task already, but it ought to be done with some level of disinterestedness. In other words, a critic has to divorce himself from the critique entirely. In his evaluation, Mr. Terauds does not do any of this, and thus, his argument falls flat. Instead, he sees music purely from a utilitarian point of view.
Mr. Terauds may not be explicitly using the language of identity politics, but his motivation is ideological. Ideology tends to reduce the diversity of humanity into a pile of abstractions, and this has been a big part of anti-Western sentiment. The progression is simple: Choose a piece of art, purposely misinterpret it, dismantle its inherent meaning, and finally, attempt the annihilation of it. By calling on his readers to stop listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mr. Terauds tells us to forget the past, especially the cultural riches that have remained with us.
Any music that has transcended its time (and this is especially true of most classical music) has also succeeded in reaching the innermost crevices of the human soul. For whatever reason, Mr. Terauds’ weak commentary completely leaves out Beethoven’s impact on the individual human being. We rarely listen to music collectively, except of course, when we go to a concert. But for the most part, people experience music alone. For each individual, Beethoven may mean something different, and it may take him on a path toward a particular memory.
I started to listen to classical music when I was a teenager. I had immediately developed an affinity for Beethoven, and my experience of his music has always been nuanced, while each listening experience was slightly different from the previous one. For me, Beethoven’s Ninth will be forever linked to my life as a refugee. After surviving the war in Bosnia, I lived in a refugee camp in the Czech Republic for almost four years before immigrating to the United States. Life in the camp was certainly difficult and filled with many moments of darkness but it was also punctuated by many singular and unique moments of joy. One of them was actually listening to Beethoven’s Ninth—a tape of the recording that was made for me by a German woman who was visiting the camp in an effort to help Bosnian refugees. I was very grateful and I still have the tape, all these years later.
The last movement of the symphony, which Mr. Terauds so vehemently hates, is what would always bring me to tears. For a moment, it would truly uplift me, invite me to experience a feeling of pure joy, and help me lift the thick veil of alienation, anxiety, and uncertainty that is part of being a refugee. In a time of great suffering, this music brought hope, however fragmented it may have been. My teenage mind did not care about political or aesthetic interpretations of Beethoven’s music. My mind and heart were one because the music was an invitation to a possibility of being.
As Hannah Arendt astutely wrote, “Ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being.”* They are not interested in the nuances and range of human emotion, or in the individual and collective joys that human beings experience through art. Whatever Mr. Terauds may say against the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s music has stood the test of time. No amount of ideological nonsense will destroy its inherent beauty and its constant call for the restoration of humanity’s greatness.
This essay originally appeared here in July 2018. It is part of a series commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.
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*The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, (Harcourt, 1985), p. 469.
The featured image is a portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven by Ferdinand Schimon (1797-1852) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.