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Beethovenfest Director Talks Ninth Symphony Politics

Beethovenfest Director Ilona Schmiel spoke with Deutsche Welle about the power of Beethoven's famous Ninth Symphony, and why the month-long event focuses on the influential work.

A facsimile of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has been used by both left and right wing politicians

The motto of this year's Beethovenfest is "Macht.Musik," which in German can mean both "power.music" and "make.music." The play on words reflects the turbulent history of the Ninth Symphony: its repeated exploitation by powerful figures, as well as its withstanding power to move people.

Deutsche Welle: Ms Schmiel, how did you choose the motto "Macht.Musik"?

Ilona Schmiel: The Ninth Symphony was of course the impetus to ask how this work can be used to represent a whole program. And that was the reason to hold the festival under the motto "Macht.Musik" and to follow the path of the Ninth Symphony from its premiere in 1824 to today.

Ilona Schmiel

Ilona Schmiel has directed the Beethovenfest since 2004

Beethoven's political commitment, this utopia -- the "Ode to Joy" by Friedrich Schiller, which he set to music, is a utopia -- hasn't lost any of its relevance. We are still living in an age of war, suppression, hunger and many other injustices. Back in his time -- the work was completed in 1824 -- Beethoven probably thought things would improve. And that alone is a reason the Ninth Symphony can be made a focal point.

The question of how the reception of this piece continues in 2008 has always moved me because, as far as I know, there is no other work in the world that is played so often and deliberately chosen for so many different occasions.

The piece has not only been a part of triumphs, but also of many mistakes that have been made by governments, rulers and leaders, where the symphony was totally appropriated by politics and exploited for political purposes and dictatorial statements.

Relatively speaking, Beethoven had a lot of contact with the powerful figures of his time, and if you look back on his work -- for example the "Eroica," "Wellington's Victory" or "Egmont" -- he often expressed himself politically through his music. But he did so quite differently in each case.

Kurt Masur

Kurt Masur will conduct the Ninth at this year's festival

The issue of how he surrounded himself with powerful figures, but at the same time also left them hanging, was a central theme in his life, I think. And it begs the question of where Beethoven's development through the symphonies leads -- past a rejection of the powers that be, to a civil society.

On the one hand it is really a path beyond the worship of powerful figures -- such as Napoleon -- but, on the other hand, he is using the civil society, which finances the music and supports the composer.

That's is why I think this music is still so relevant and moving today. Questions about how to deal with works of music today, how music is used, what demands are placed on it, how much it needs to align with the state to be performed on certain occasions, and how music is twisted or the text is rewritten, for example, so that it fits a particular regime -- the Ninth Symphony has already been through all of that.

Who else then has used Beethoven's music to serve their own ends?

Mao Tse Tung

The Ninth Symphony has echoed both East and West

Goebbels always had the Ninth Symphony played for Hitler's birthday. The GDR (communist East Germany) chose it as their national anthem, albeit with a different text. It has been played constantly both in the East and the West.

It has become the European anthem, and since the Olympic Games it has also been mentioned that Mao used the Symphony to motivate workers in the fields. Kamikaze pilots listened to this music -- I'm jumping through time a bit -- and it was also the national anthem of Rhodesia.

I think no other work has ever been so globalized. Nevertheless this human message, this commitment to human kindness has survived -- and you could almost say this message is indestructible.

How would you judge Beethoven's music today? What is the situation with "power" and "music"?

For me personally, the power of music is at the forefront because I'd like to keep believing in the utopia that music can change a lot.

In 2006, we had a guest youth orchestra from South Africa, where musicians with different backgrounds performed together, for example. Music can also be a social instrument. And this power can't be burned onto a CD. The reproduction of music in a concert is something exclusive. There you can really feel the power of music -- and I don't think you can get away from it.

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