On Christmas day, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted an international orchestra and choir in Berlin to mark the fall of the Wall, in a historic concert. As some may know, I have a special obsession with Beethoven. One of my pieces here explored longtime Nation contributor Edward Said’s co-founding (with Daniel Barenboim) of the unique and valuable West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of musicians, mainly young, from nearly all Arab lands, Israel and Iran.

Now here’s a piece that I wrote with Kerry Candaele. It’s partly drawn from the book we’ve written, Journeys With Beethoven, which in turn is based partly on his new documentary, Following the Ninth, which I co-produced and is currently showing in Chicago and other cities.

On a personal note: my daughter, her husband and young son are moving from Nantes to Berlin this week.

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Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony may be the most popular and influential musical creation around the world, but it has a special place in the life of the New York Philharmonic. Four years after it was formed, the orchestra gave the opus its American premiere in 1846, to help raise funds for a permanent concert hall. The Philharmonic this week completes a cycle of performing the Ninth for five nights at Lincoln Center, but the high point of its history with the symphony took place twenty-four years ago this December.

After the Berlin Wall started to come down in November of 1989, Leonard Bernstein traveled to Germany to twice conduct Beethoven’s Ninth, with its choral shout out to the world to find our common humanity across all borders, Alle Menschen werden Bruder (“All men will be brothers”). Portions of the filmed concerts appear in Following The Ninth as well as the celebration in the streets as the wall fell, and interviews with a young East Berlin woman who joined in.

When Bernstein traveled to Berlin he was 72 years old, and in failing health. In ten months he would die of cancer. “Lenny” was a magnetic and enthusiastic advocate for the belief that music could transform lives and in the process transform the world in some small way.

His first concert in Berlin was timed to end at midnight on December 23, when the border dividing the two Berlins would be fully open for the first time in twenty-eight years. Then Bernstein conducted the Ninth at East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus on Christmas morning, with an orchestra that included members from the Dresden Statteskapelle and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as from orchestras from the four countries that technically still occupied Berlin—the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris and the Orchestra of the Kirov Theater, Leningrad. The chorus was made up of singers from both sides of Germany.

While more than a thousand gathered in the hall, hundreds more stood in the square in front to watch the performance on a giant television monitor. On the live TV broadcast, Bernstein declared, “I am experiencing a historical moment, incomparable with others in my long, long life.” Indeed, the concerts were historic, as Bernstein wrote to a friend: “I’ll be reworking Friedrich Schiller’s text of the ‘Ode To Joy’and substituting the word Freiheit (Freedom) for Freude (Joy) Because when the chorus sings Alle Menschen werden Bruder, it will make more sense with Freiheit won’t it?”

The concert was broadcast live to twenty countries, to over 100 million people, with a popular recording to follow, Ode to Freedom: Bernstein in Berlin.

Bernstein was America’s first conductor/celebrity, audacious and at times self-adoring, so his changes to Beethoven’s iconic Ninth was to some the equivalent of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. But those who had followed Bernstein’s career knew he was playing to the historic moment, to an audience of millions watching from across the globe. The massacre at Tiananmen Square (after Chinese students played the Ninth to rally their courage, also featured in the film) only five months earlier was horrifying. Unifying Berlin was a time for celebration and hope, words hardly worth uttering there only a few years before.

And Bernstein’s identification with Beethoven was long-lasting, and more than just musical. His social activism for liberal and left causes began in his youth, and was consistent throughout his life. Reflecting on the Ninth in one of his popular television broadcasts early in his career, Bernstein rightly insisted that this symphony “ranges from the mysterious, to the radiant, to the devout, to the ecstatic,” but the words of joy and peace are hollow and ineffective when “we have not yet found ways, short of murder, to act out our suppressed rages, hostilities, xenophobias, provincialism, mistrust and need for superiority.”

For Bernstein, Beethoven’s Ninth contains within it struggle, a “struggle for peace, for fulfillment of spirit, for serenity and triumphal joy. Somehow it must be possible to learn from his music by hearing it. No, not hearing it, but listening to it, with all our power of attention and concentration. Then, perhaps, we can grow into something worthy of being called the human race.”

And finally, “As despairing as we may be, we cannot listen to the Ninth Symphony without emerging from it changed, enriched, encouraged.”

Lenny certainly knew this man and his music. And more importantly, he understood that Beethoven’s music contained within it both a way of life and an ethics guided by the composer’s own personal and social affirmation of what is best in human beings.

Watch the trailer for Following the Ninth here.

Greg Mitchell tells the story of Beethoven and the Tiananmen Square massacre.