A historical oddity was one of the reasons why I wanted to write a book on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the year 1824 – the year in which this masterpiece was completed and premiered. This was the first symphony to include singing, and the words that the composer drew from, Friedrich von Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” are, among other things, a proclamation of universal brotherhood.
But Beethoven wrote the Ninth in Vienna, the same city in which Austria’s foreign minister, Prince Klemens von Metternich, was perfecting the first modern police state at the very same time. The Enlightenment, French Revolution, and Napoleonic wars had all come and gone; the old dynastic rulers – Romanovs, Hapsburgs, Bourbons, and others – had either held onto their shaky thrones or had been reseated on thrones they had lost, and they were determined to shore up and enforce, at any cost, the time-worn concept of Divine Right.
Beethoven’s negative views on absolute rulers were well known. He had even written to his patron and pupil Archduke Rudolph, brother of the Austrian emperor, that “benefactors of humanity have not been found… in the present world of monarchs.”
But he was considered too famous and too eccentric to be turned over to the regime for the sort of treatment – a long jail sentence or banishment – reserved for run-of-the-mill offenders. The Ninth Symphony was performed and acclaimed, and its message was ignored. Beethoven would be pleased to know that his creation is still performed and acclaimed today, and he would not be surprised to learn that its message is still ignored.
IMAGE: Facsimile from the author’s own collection
Harvey Sachs, author of The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 (released today, Random House), is also a music historian and the author or co-author of eight previous books, of which there have been more than fifty editions in fifteen languages. He has written for The New Yorker and many other publications, has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow of the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, and is currently on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He lives in New York City.