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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Beethoven, politics and 'a musical utopia'

By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter

Hitler chose it for his birthday party, the European Union still uses it and it rang out from loudspeakers as the tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square.

Beethoven was inspired by the French revolution

Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is not only one of the most-celebrated classical works, it is also one of the most politicised.

Not only that, but those moved by the work - particularly the last movement, Ode to Joy, include some strange bedfellows.

In addition to being played for Adolf Hitler on his birthday, it was the most widely performed symphony in Germany in 1941.

Hitler is said to have regarded Beethoven as one of the three greatest composers along with Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner.

But the music has also inspired French republicans, Catholics and communists. Indeed, Beethoven, an admirer of the French revolution, is said to have been inspired by the revolution to write the Ninth Symphony.

More recently, it was played at a concert to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall, but was also chosen as Rhodesia's national anthem by Ian Smith.

The European Council adopted it as its anthem in 1972.

Hitler regarded Beethoven as one of the greatest composers

It featured in Stanley Kubrick's controversial film A Clockwork Orange. It was played at Francois Mitterrand's investiture.

And students in Tiananmen Square played the symphony through loudspeakers in defiance at the Chinese authorities.

Now a new book has examined the political history of Beethoven's ninth symphony - and why it has been used by so many different people for different causes.

Author Esteban Buch says he believes Beethoven intended to build "a musical utopia" through the symphony, which was written between 1817 and 1823.

"The melody itself is like a symbol for something like an ideal state," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He said there was a sense of community embedded in the music, with a simple melody building up from the fourth movement "like a symbol for this utopia".

Mr Buch says the "contradictory functions projected on the music" had troubled some people.


"There were people who complained about Ian Smith using it," he said.

The ninth symphony was adopted as Rhodesia's anthem by Ian Smith

"The answer of the European council (having recently adopted Ode to Joy as its anthem) was that everybody should be able to do with that music whatever he pleases."

Such is the importance of the work that last year the earliest-known draft of the symphony sold for a record-breaking 1.3m at auction.

It had been expected to fetch up to 200,000.

The work was first performed in Vienna and has been credited with influencing other great composers including Schubert, Brahms and Wagner.

But what would Beethoven himself have made of the way the music has inspired so many different people - and shades of opinions - in the years since his death?

A concert marking the fall of the Berlin Wall included the work

"One of the critics of the Rhodesian anthem said that in one way Beethoven would have been proud of seeing that his music was being used in so many important ways," said Mr Buch.

"But on the other hand, he would have said 'why wouldn't they look for a melody themselves?'"

And how does the author feel about the work which inspired his book?

"I am still moved by it," he said. "It's not exhausted for me."



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