Earlier this week, I posted a story here about how the music of Beethoven has inspired, and been used in, protests around the world for decades. Just last October, it took center stage at the largest demonstration in years, at an Occupy Wall Street–driven gathering of half a million in Madrid. This is one of the key themes in my new book and e-book with film director Kerry Candaele, on Beethoven’s musical, cultural and political influence today, Journeys With Beethoven.
Today, in part II, I will excerpt from a couple of sections in the book, penned by Candaele and based on his travels for his remarkable upcoming documentary, Following the Ninth.
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I first heard about Beethoven’s Ninth and its connection to contemporary Chilean history via an article by Ariel Dorfman. He is the author of many books about literature and history. His play Death and the Maiden investigates the physical and psychological terrain of torture and revenge under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who took power in a military coup, backed and supported by the United States, against the democratically elected Allende on September 11, 1973.
Dorfman had written about how a version of the “Ode to Joy“ called El Himno de la Alegria (A Song of Joy) was used in a similar way that “We Shall Overcome” served the civil rights struggles in the United States. The Himno was adapted to the Ninth’s tune by the Argentine composer Waldo de los Rios, then turned into a worldwide hit in 1970 by the Spanish singer Miguel Rios. Surprising for a pop song in Spanish, the single reached number one in Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and even reached the “easy listening” chart in the United States.
In the context of a South America dominated by gross forms of inequality between rich and poor, and with several countries ruled by brutal dictatorial regimes, the Himno appealed to a basic human desire for a better life, free of violence and the degradation of daily existence under a dictatorship. As resistance movements arose against the military juntas of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile during the 1970s, the song moved from an intimate and spiritual protest song within the Catholic Church to the streets where the song took on a more aggressive although nonviolent tone.
After the military coup in 1973, the Himno was gradually adopted by young dissidents, many of them in women’s organizations from all parts of Chilean civil society, who found both solace and purpose in what they considered lyrics of liberation. Often these women would march to the walls of a prison where they knew torture was taking place. They would sing over the walls with the hope that those inside would hear them, an offering, a gift of hope for physical and psychological survival. As cultural expression merged with social movements, as it always does, the Himno appeared on the streets of Santiago and other cities as a protest against the torture, against the killing and “disappearing” of those who opposed the regime.
In Chile under Pinochet, the weapons of defense against the arrests, the beatings, the tear gas, torture and water cannons were, in a minority of cases, the pistol and the rifle. But most often the weapons of resistance from the weak were familiar to those used the world over: bodies marching in unison with others to places of state authority, the banner and the placard, and voices raised in witness for all who cared to see. The Himno became a moral force.
And often these citizens in protest against military and police tyranny merely sang. As Dorfman describes the scene, “We sang, over and over, the ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the hope that a day would come when all men would be brothers.” Why were we singing? he asks. “To give ourselves courage, of course.”
Next: In Tiananmen Square. And more at my Roll Over, Beethoven blog.