Guantanamo and Beethoven

Discouraged by current events, I found a surprising bit of inspiration in Beethoven, specifically in the story behind his celebrated Ninth Symphony.

Let me back up a bit. A few days ago on my Facebook page I posted a link to the disturbing video of Mos Def being force-fed by the same procedure used at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay. I wrote: “As of a week ago, 106 of the 166 Gitmo detainees are now on hunger strike, with 45 being force-fed. Not only have most of these men not been convicted of (or even charged with) crimes after more than 10 years in prison, but 86 of them have been cleared for release, sometimes years ago. Think about that. Even the US military acknowledges the innocence of nearly half the prison’s population, and has not bothered to prove the guilt of the other half (a handful have been convicted in military tribunals), yet we imprison them indefinitely in this American gulag, withholding from them even the right to end their own lives in protest.”

I try to limit the political content on my Facebook page, which is strictly for family and friends. I don’t want be that guy who’s always harping on his latest cause. But there are times when you have to wonder just what kind of country you’re living in. Ongoing revelations about the US government’s crimes, along with its obvious contempt for the Constitution and for international law, its persecution of Edward Snowden and others for revealing some of those crimes… it’s all pretty damned infuriating and depressing. Have we learned nothing from history?

And here I am with this blog about “curiosity, creativity, and discovery,” which I started as a way of sharpening my focus on some of life’s good stuff, and through which I share specific examples of a larger reality that in the long run is more important, I think, than the ephemera of politics and current events.

But current events have a way of intruding, don’t they? We still have to live in the world and take responsibility for it. And there are times when all the books, music, and art can seem like fancy ways of ignoring what’s going on around us. The creative people write and draw and sing, while the clever people work day and night to make themselves lords and the rest of us peasants. (And they’ve found this is easier to accomplish when we’re all afraid of each other.)

Which brings me back to Beethoven. Lately I’ve been reading Lewis Lockwood’s, Beethoven: The Music and the Life. Today I read the chapter about the legendary Ninth Symphony, best known for the “Ode to Joy” in the final movement. But until today I didn’t understand the political context in which Beethoven wrote this masterpiece.

Beethoven was a man of republican ideals who watched the old European monarchies and aristocracies return to power after the collapse of Napoleon’s empire. Fearful of lingering revolutionary ideas, the authorities cracked down, especially in Beethoven’s Vienna, where the government spied on its citizens, imposed censorship, and created an climate of fear and suspicion. “Venom and rancor raged in him,” one of the composer’s friends said. “He defies everything and is dissatisfied with everything, blaspheming against Austria and especially Vienna….” (p. 416).

Yeah, reading the news can have that effect.

But It is in this context, with his dreams of political freedom in tatters and with no solution in sight, that Beethoven chose to fulfill his old desire to set to music Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.” Lockwood writes:

“Beethoven, in this new symphony that would have Schiller’s ‘Ode’ as centerpiece, meant to leave to posterity a public monument of his liberal beliefs. His decision to fashion a great work that would convey the poet’s utopian vision of human brotherhood is a statement of support for the principles of democracy at a time when direct political action on behalf of such principles was difficult and dangerous. It enabled him to realize in his way what Shelley meant when he called poets the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world.'” (p. 417)

Beethoven, more than most of us today, had ample reason to feel politically powerless. He lived under a despotic government and even as a famous musician had to be careful about what he said. Still, he found a way to express his ideals in the way he knew best, creating something timeless and beautiful. “Be embraced, you millions!” the choir sings. “This kiss for the whole world!”

It’s true that Beethoven doesn’t show us how to make our governments more responsive to the needs of the people and less responsive to the ambitions of paranoia-profiteers and would-be tyrants. He offered no solutions. But he had hope, and he had music, and with the tools at hand he did what he could.


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