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Culture

The 9 Lives of Beethoven's Ninth

On Sunday, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony will be named one of UNESCO's official cultural heritage treasures. It marks the end of a long journey for a manuscript that survived wars and was split by the Cold War.

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Beethoven's original score

Whether at the German reunification celebration, the Olympic Games or a TV gala, when things get festive, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is ubiquitous.

Now the classical favorite, with text from Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy," is being lauded by the world's top cultural leaders: the original score of the Ninth Symphony will be officially recorded at a UNESCO "Memory of the World" celebration on Sunday featuring the Philharmonic of the Nations conducted by Justus Frantz.

The nearly 200-page manuscript is one of the most important documents in the music department of Berlin's State Library, where other important originals by Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn Bartholdy are kept. For library Director Graham Jefcoate, the manuscript is a special treasure. No other symphonic work has had such a broad impact as Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 125 in D-Minor.

Nearly the entire work, as written by Beethoven between 1822 and 1824, is at the library on Unter den Linden. Just two pages from the second movement are housed at the Beethoven House, site of the composer's birth, in Bonn and three folios from the finale at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Because the manuscript is in raw form, with many corrections written in, it is difficult to read.


Beethoven Denkmal in Bonn

Ludwig van Beethoven Monument in Bonn.

As Beethoven's work debuted on May 7, 1824, in Vienna's Kärntnertortheater, the 53-year-old master stood at the conductor's side and helped keep the rhythm with a baton. A listener reported later how Beethoven, who was already suffering from increasing hearing loss, only noticed the applause after a little while and then gave an awkward thanks to his audience.

After the composer's death in 1827, the text fell into the hands of his biographer, Anton Schindler. And in 1846, parts of it went to the Royal Library in Berlin, which gave the donor a stipend. After the Viennese publishing family Ataria donated the final portion to the library in 1901, the original was mostly complete.

Divided by war and the Berlin Wall

In order to protect the manuscript during World War II, the Prussian State Library divided it into three parts and stored them in three different locations outside Berlin beginning in 1941. Their aim was to make the risk of a total loss of the document as small as possible.

Only after completing an odyssey that took pieces of the document as far away as the southern German city of Tübingen to the hamlet of Altmarrin in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, did the core pieces of the document reach the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in 1967 in what was then West Berlin. Seven years later, the Polish government returned the remaining pages to the then-East German government. Still, one of music history's most-important legacies remained divided by the Cold War for 40 years.

Ironically, after the fall of the Wall in 1989, when the manuscript was finally unified, restoration workers found that the pages of Beethoven's Ninth had been torn right between, of all places, the double fugue in the key movement in which Beethoven evokes universal joy and brotherhood.