The Music And Morality Of Beethoven's Mighty Ninth

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Ever since Beethoven's iconic Ninth Symphony premiered May 7, 1824 at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, it has remained arguably the most popular composition in the classical music canon, thanks largely to its final movement, the "Ode to Joy," with a text by poet Friedrich Schiller.

But Beethoven's music has become something much more than popular. With its expansive length, mold-busting design, and the inclusion of solo singers and chorus, he was proposing nothing less than a philosophy for humanity.

Beethoven, the composer-philosopher, was a man who suffered more than we can imagine and yet he retained optimism and a sense of hope that we can admire and even envy. He believed wholeheartedly in the goodness of humanity, the power of love, joy, unity, tolerance and peace to overcome and endure.

I am convinced that we inherently know and feel these aspirations when we hear Beethoven's Ninth and are drawn to it both musically and morally.

Beethoven's Ninth has become synonymous with many important political and social events over the course of the last century. In 1972, the Council of Europe adopted the prelude to the "Ode to Joy" as the Anthem of Europe to celebrate the shared values of the member states and express the ideals of a united Europe: freedom, peace, and solidarity. In 1985, European Union leaders chose it as the official anthem of the E.U.

Outside Europe, the "Ode" has been tapped as a protest anthem from demonstrators in Chile, who sang a version of the famous tune during protests against the Pinochet dictatorship, to the more recent Occupy Wall Street–driven gatherings in Madrid.

During the 1989 Christmas holiday, my teacher and mentor, Leonard Bernstein, conducted a version of Beethoven's Ninth at the Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall where he changed Schiller's word "freude" (joy) to "freiheit" (freedom).

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These important adoptions and adaptations of Beethoven's Ninth inspired me to create a new project, "All Together: A Global Ode to Joy," marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth in 2020.

The fact that this unique composition has inspired the imagination, hopes and aspirations of so many people from such diverse backgrounds led me to imagine a 21st-century rendering of the symphony – one that could bring to life the journey of the entire piece and capture the essence of the specific community where it is performed.

In partnership with Carnegie Hall, I will bring this project to six continents over the next year. We'll bring new texts to each location, plus added music – as preludes and interludes – reflective of that particular region to connect and amplify the narrative.

In Baltimore, the new text has been created by rap artist, Wordsmith. For our final performance at Carnegie Hall, former U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracey K. Smith will do the honors. In Africa, the new text will be in Zulu; in New Zealand in the te reo Māori language but, above all, Beethoven's (and Schiller's) themes of unity, tolerance, equality, love and joy will shine through to touch new generations.

It is exactly this universality makes the "Ode to Joy" so special in expressing our desire for happiness and brotherhood. From the Americas to Europe, Asia and the rest of the world, Beethoven's music and Schiller's words have been the carriers of a universal message that transcends the boundaries of time and culture.

This message, filled with optimism and a fundamental faith in what is best in humanity, could not be more relevant today, when we see far too much disorder, misunderstanding and extremism.

"All Together: A Global Ode to Joy" begins Dec. 12 in São Paulo, Brazil and concludes Dec. 19, 2020 at Carnegie Hall.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Anticipation builds as the world is just a year away from the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO, UN POCO MAESTOSO PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO.9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 - CHORAL")

SIMON: And boy, will maestra Marin Alsop will be busy. She'll be leading 10 concerts on six continents in a series called "All Together: A Global Ode to Joy." First up, this coming Thursday, she'll lead the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the translation of "Ode To Joy" into Brazilian Portuguese.

The maestra joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Thanks so much for being back with us, Marin.

MARIN ALSOP: Oh, it's great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And before we get to the year ahead - firstly, you might want a nap.

ALSOP: (Laughter).

SIMON: But in addition to this - look, you've been music director of the Baltimore Symphony since 2007. They're going to participate in this new series. You'll lead them again in June. But we have to acknowledge there was a pretty serious labor dispute. Musicians were locked out before finally signing a one-year contract. What's the situation like now?

ALSOP: Well, you know, I think from adversity comes true resolution or revelation at least. And what's happening now, which is really very encouraging, is that all the parties are involved in working together to try to set forth some goals. And I have great hope for the future. So stay tuned. It's an amazing orchestra. It's a beautiful city, and the city needs us. We need the city. So let's see if we can make it work.

SIMON: OK. To Beethoven now, if you could - let's begin - if you could take us through the music.

ALSOP: Well, you have to think about this. So Beethoven writes eight symphonies in 12 years. And everybody's waiting, OK, so where's this Ninth Symphony? Nothing. He doesn't write a single symphony for 12 more years. He's absolutely silent on the symphonic front. And then he comes out with this symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO, UN POCO MAESTOSO PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO.9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 - CHORAL")

ALSOP: Pretty ominous stuff, huh?

SIMON: My gosh. That's overwhelming, yeah.

ALSOP: And you have to remember that this is a guy that now is profoundly deaf. I mean, he can't even hear what he's written. I mean, it's so revolutionary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO, UN POCO MAESTOSO PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO.9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 - CHORAL")

ALSOP: And from this rather ominous opening, you know, that unison, OK, slam the door shut - comes one of the most iconic and recognizable scherzos.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO, UN POCO MAESTOSO PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO.9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 - CHORAL")

ALSOP: It's the hook. It's, you know, right to the point - bum-pa-dum, bum-pa-dum (ph). Then twice - bum-pa-dum, bum-pa-dum. You know, he just knows how to get his point across in the most succinct and direct way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLTO VIVACE PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO.9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 - CHORAL")

ALSOP: Beethoven actually invented the scherzo. It used to be a sort of obligatory dance movement, but he coined the term scherzo for this movement. And it's a movement that's been used for television programs, for commercials, for all kinds of things. I think you'll recognize it as soon as you hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLTO VIVACE PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO.9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 - CHORAL")

SIMON: Really makes you sit up in your seat. The third movement is...

ALSOP: Yeah, this is a different planet altogether. And maybe that's what this piece is about, just exploring all kinds of emotions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADAGIO MOLTO E CANTABILE PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO.9 IN D MINOR, OP. 125 - CHORAL")

ALSOP: It's just like a prayer.

SIMON: Exactly. Yes, it invites you to look inward.

ALSOP: Exactly. I mean, and Beethoven was a man who believed so much in the goodness of humankind. And he was a very spiritual person, deeply connected to nature. I think you can feel that exponentially in this movement.

SIMON: And, of course, it works its way up to "Ode To Joy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO JOY")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in non-English language).

SIMON: By the time you get there, I think, you feel you've gotten almost a history of what music can do. This reminds you of the ultimate power to uplift us.

ALSOP: Yes. To me, this is really the ultimate statement on the possibility that we hold in our hands for unity, for tolerance, for peace, for joy. This is a piece that my mentor Leonard Bernstein - he really went to this piece at important political moments in history. When the Berlin Wall came down, Bernstein was there playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, changing the word freude - joy - to freiheit - freedom. This is what really inspired me to look at Beethoven 9 in a 21st-century context. So all of the texts that we have, beginning in Brazil next week, are reimagining these themes of unity and tolerance and the goodness of humanity. So next week when we do it in Portuguese, it's really looking at the issues of slavery in the early days of Brazil and how we can come together today as a very diverse peoples and really try to join hands and arms together to create a better world.

SIMON: And will this bring to a close your tenure there in Sao Paulo?

ALSOP: Yes, this is my final concert as music director in Sao Paulo, although I'm going to continue as - they made this beautiful title conductor of honor. So I'll go every year and do at least one or two projects with them.

SIMON: Maestra Marin Alsop, thanks so much.

ALSOP: Oh, my pleasure, Scott. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.