Monday, August 10, 2020

The Revolutionary from Bonn

The Ninth Symphony by Beethoven was a revolutionary musical act in 1824, when it premiered in Vienna. Sections of Kerry Candaele’s Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony (2013) are stirring, but the various pieces aren’t always tied together thematically and the links between art and social act are too abstract. Your mind fills in with metaphors of brotherhood and liberation and exaltation lifted from the poet Schiller, whose “An die Freude” inspired Beethoven.

But the movie works on a more primordial emotional level. I think it’s a beautiful document of how art and politics can intermingle, throwing a blazing light on the turmoil and despair that keep various social systems locked in darkness. There’s a fervor and urgency in the film that magnify the dramatic news footage of social struggle in China, East Berlin, Chile, and Japan. 

Tiananmen Square.
This war-horse of a symphony has a long history of extramusical use and abuse — it’s widely known that Beethoven’s highest, most ennobling popular work has been co-opted for noxious political ends. Casting its extraordinary shadow across the nineteenth century, it has shepherded human mass movements. Each of the four movements of the Ninth corresponds to a section of the movie. On paper, that structure probably sounds programmatic and boring, but in practice it doesn’t mar the experience. For all I know, Following the Ninth could have started as a position paper — I know practically nothing about the filmmaker other than that he’s a political science professor — but it’s ultimately too ebullient for such doctrinaire, dispassionate nonsense. It generates its own narrative momentum illustrating how the contours of the symphony’s four movements, especially the final choral section that adapts Schiller’s verse, delineate the movement of various social and political acts around the world: revolution against tyranny, the struggle for political rights, and community response to natural disaster.

One of the young Chinese subjects in the movie, a student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, at one point says that Beethoven created an “ambience of hope for social and political change.” The movie doesn’t answer your every question (why this particular symphony, for example, and not any number of other staples of the repertoire?), but it certainly piques your interest in how culture and music and politics can get all jumbled up in an interpretive play of passion that fires entire movements across the globe. We don’t see that depth of response in movies all that often.

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