Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen how classical music interacts with the real world to represent the intricacies of a presidential visit or the struggles of a suppressed nation. Adversity is often adjacent to the process of composing great classical music, and composers have found the source of musical gold out of disunity.
But while great classical music is frequently borne out of great destruction, despair, and death, many composers have turned to the opposite for inspiration — out of the rubble of war comes a cry for hope, unity and humanity. Today we consider how composers manifest pleas for humanity in their music. From Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony to Krystof Penderecki’s haunting “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” classical music has long been a tool for war and politics, yet also an anthem for mankind’s universal claims to humanity.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, “Ode to Joy”
Perhaps the most famous piece in classical music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy” is magnificent and breathtaking, equally celebrated for its musical ingenuity as for its emotional significance. Since its premiere in 1824, Symphony No. 9 has gained a particular reputation steeped with historical and political meaning.
Beethoven’s ninth symphony is his most richly orchestrated and includes a full orchestra, vocal soloists and chorus. His orchestration is ambitious but well-conceived; Beethoven breaks with compositional tradition frequently, throwing off listeners and avid musicians by suddenly switching keys, purposefully refusing to return to themes and even making musical nods to previous melodies. While the Ninth is certainly impressive for its complex musicality, its inclusion as one of humanity’s greatest is due to the cultural significance it holds on our history and present day.
By 1824, the intrepid — and by then fully deaf — composer had long been contemplating composing a symphony with the musical magnitude to match Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 epic “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy), a popular poem-turned-drinking-song in the early 1800s. The poem’s message of mankind’s unanimity under one universe resonated with a young Beethoven; he was only in his twenties when he first became familiar with Schiller and the poem, and by his later years, he was itching to compose a work that would combine these humanistic themes into one symphonic masterwork.
And compose he did. After three movements of pure orchestral performance, a full choir and soloists charge in with Schiller’s poem; both choir and orchestra carry the “Ode to Joy'”s melody into a fourth-movement finale of triumphant, engaged exuberance — it ends as a unification of musical worlds that seems to parallel Schiller’s written hope for the unification of all mankind.
Indeed, it is the combination of exalted musicality and meaningful poetry that cements this symphony as an ode to humanity. “Your magic binds again / What custom strictly divided,” the choir sings, and “All people become brothers” under God’s watchful eye. It is Schiller’s insistent repetition of all men, all creatures, that fills the symphony with its thematic punch: every living being stands equal before its Creator, before its brethren.
Schiller’s poem certainly has a religious (and, presumably, Christian) undertone to it — one which Beethoven was not blind to, nor necessarily opposed to. But even if its origins are decidedly religious, the symphony’s importance has transcended religious, cultural and geopolitical distinctions to become a worldwide representation of humanity. Under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, it was performed to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall; the symphony was played in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests; Symphony No. 9 is often used to commemorate centennials of wars past or to ring in the new year.
Equally as such, the symphony has been misappropriated for political gain. Ian Smith, racist former leader of the Republic of Rhodesia, chose the symphony as the nation’s national anthem; it is often played alongside the entrance of movie villains; snippets of the Ninth were included in Hitler’s wartime propaganda, and it was said to be a birthday-time favorite of the Nazi leader.
For as much as the Ninth is joy incarnate, its meaning has been politically contorted so much so that its “humanity” is often played at odds with itself. While Hitler appropriated the symphony into his Nazi propaganda, it is said that the symphony was simultaneously played in concentration camp orchestras.
So what do we make of Beethoven’s Ninth and its tenuous link to humanity? A piece designed to inspire hope and spark brotherly love has often fulfilled its original intent but has similarly provided propagandistic fodder for opposing forces to justify their own twisted claims to “humanity.”
Schiller’s poem perhaps says it best: “All the Just, all the Evil / Follow [Joy’s] trail of roses.” But unity and humanity — achieved only after four achingly-long and musically tumultuous movements — is possible even in the face of ongoing evil.
Krystof Penderecki: “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima”
Krystof Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” is a deeply powerful and affecting experience if we listen with its title in mind. With screeching and wailing violins, siren-like string vibrato, and myriad chaotic plucking, tapping, and thumping noises, we are put in mind of the terror of the event, and the effect on the psyche of those who suffered it becomes slightly more imaginable.
The piece, however, was not written as a memorial. Originally titled “8’37”” (that’s how long the piece was supposed to last), the “Threnody” was written not to lament the victims of Hiroshima, but to develop a new musical language. Clusters of bleakly dissonant sound, techniques like playing the highest notes on the violin and playing on the wrong side of the bow or the string — these all were meant to explore new ways of creating sound. Only after hearing the piece performed did Penderecki decide to change the name of the piece. He recounts: “I was struck with the emotional charge of the work. I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity, to those ‘digits.’ I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate to the Hiroshima victims.”
The history of this piece provokes questions about the nature of memorial. Certainly the “emotional charge” evoked by the piece is terror rather than grief. And it was certainly this sense of horror that reminded Penderecki of Hiroshima when he searched for associations. But in a threnody, in a lament of a great tragedy, does it make sense to evoke horror?
Memorial has been on our minds due to Stanford’s renewed attention on the memorial garden for Chanel Miller, which, after the administration rejected Miller’s proposals for quotes, includes neither a plaque nor any other indication of the sexual assault that Miller suffered. Such a memorial does not evoke the terrible nature of the event that occurred: it goes entirely in the other direction and erases it.
A group of Stanford students recently developed an app that inserted into the memorial space an augmented-reality granite sign with the full quote that Miller proposed — creating an alternate reality where the sign exists. The exhibit arose out of a desire to honor Miller’s experience itself. The “Threnody,” in contrast, was written first and only later dedicated to an event as terrifying as the sounds it created. We echo music critic Paul Griffiths, who writes: “The ‘Threnody’ makes me uneasy by choosing to refer to an event too terrible for string orchestral screams.”
We have no present answer for what a great memorial should do. Perhaps it should not bring back the horror in full vivid detail, but neither does it seem appropriate to lighten the heaviness of tragedy. The “Threnody” and Miller’s memorial fall short in opposite directions. There are better ways to honor humanity.
- Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, “Ode to Joy”
- Krystof Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
- Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2
- Meredith Monk: Songs of Ascension
- Phillip Glass: “Anthem” from Powaqqatsi
- Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6
- Edward Elgar: “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations