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.