Last October 15, mass protests took place around the world, organized by the burgeoning Occupy movement and other groups protesting income inequality, attacks on workers’ rights, unfair austerity plans, and similar issues. In this country, for example, Times Square was flooded with thousands of demonstrators. But by far the largest turnout took place in Madrid, where a crowd estimated at half a million gathered in the Puerta del Sol after dark.
From afar it was hard to judge all that happened that evening, but videos posted on YouTube a few hours after the event suggested that the high point of the world’s biggest protest was not a speech by a political icon or a mini-concert by a famous pop star. Instead, it was a performance of part of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—the “Ode to Joy” segment and then the finale—by a small, ragtag, amateur orchestra. While the volume of the orchestra was small, it was amplified out to the massive audience throughout the square, along with the words proclaiming all humans as “brothers.”
Videos captured it from numerous angles. Astounding was an elevated shot that showed the entirety of the crowd, as the hundreds of thousands erupted as one at the close of the eight-minute rendition. Even more affecting: a camera from just behind the orchestra (see below) found the local conductor directing the mere handful of musicians as young dancers on a platform nearby moved in ecstasy. Many near the orchestra wept openly, before exploding in screams and chants (vowing peaceful resistance) when it was over. You can watch it all here:
Never in my experience was the image of Beethoven as the “universal composer,” and one with abiding global political influence, more moving, and undeniable. We heard his "Ode to Joy" once again this week on May Day at many protests abroad.
Kerry Candaele, has documented Beethoven’s global impact in his upcoming ninety-minute documentary titled Following the Ninth. Now I have written a book and e-book with him, Journeys With Beethoven , that in part does the same thing, based on Kerry’s travels to twelve countries around the world, and my own America-centric reporting and research. The result is a Beethoven for our time, charting his incredible musical, cultural and political influence today—and his ability to change lives, maybe even countries.
Yes, many know that the “Ode to Joy” has been transformed into the anthem of the European Union. Or that Leonard Bernstein assembled a massive orchestra to perform the Ninth in Berlin to mark the shattering of the Berlin Wall, with “Ode to Joy” changed to “Ode to Freedom.” Or that, before that, movements from other Beethoven symphonies were used at public ceremonies to mark the deaths of everyone from Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy, and other iconic leaders around the world.
—In Chile, women under the Pinochet dictatorship sang the “Ode To Joy” outside torture prisons to offer hope to those inside.
—In China, student leader, Feng Congde, played the Ninth over a loudspeaker in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as troops moved in to crush the movement for democracy.
—In England, the folk/punk singer, Billy Bragg, wrote a new libretto for the Ninth in English—and his version was performed before the Queen by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
—In Japan, the Ninth is performed hundreds of times each December, often with 5000 or 10,000 singers in the chorus, transmitting a message of solidarity among all people. As Journeys With Beethoven reveals, the Ninth turns worlds inside out and upside down.
Pro-Palestinian protesters in London recently rewrote the “Ode to Joy” this way: Israel, end your occupation/ There’s no peace on stolen land./ We’ll sing out for liberation/ ’till you hear and understand.
Quoted often in the book are famed pianist Daniel Barenboim and American writer and intellectual Edward Said—who teamed together to found the unprecedented union of Israeli and Palestinian and other Arab musicians in the West-East Divan Orchestra. (The two men deserved to share a Nobel Peace Prize for this effort.) Said, a pianist in his own right, wrote many columns about Beethoven for The Nation—including his final column before his death. Now, in the coming season, the West-East Divan with Barenboim will come to Carnegie Hall to perform all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies—a fitting legacy for the work of Said and, of course, the composer himself.
We quote from a Said interview with NPR: “Beethoven in the first place really transcends the time and place of which he was a part. I mean, he’s an Austro-Germanic composer who speaks to anyone who likes music, no matter whether that person is African or Middle Eastern or American or European. And that extraordinary accomplishment is entirely due to this music of striving and development and of somehow expressing the highest human ideals: ideals of brotherhood, of community, of yearning; perhaps in many instances, unfulfilled yearning. But these are universal experiences. And part of its great appeal is that it’s wordless, you know, so you can in a sense formulate what you want to go into it.”
Greg Mitchell has written more than a dozen books, most recently Journeys With Beethoven  and Atomic Cover-up  and, on Occupy, 40 Days That Shook the World . His new daily blog is Roll Over, Beethoven.