The ultimate in orchestral music – Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. I listened to this last night again. It was played by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and conducted by well-known Argentine-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim.
Beethoven was a genius. He was almost completely deaf when composing this, which is extraordinary if you think about it. He couldn’t hear his final masterpiece played on stage, he could only have heard the melodies in his head. The incredible moments of extreme stillness moving into climax, from dark moving into light, from minor moving into major. Even the beginning of this symphony is according to those with knowledge utterly different from all the other eight symphonies Beethoven composed. And I quote: “Never before had a symphony begun with pure atmosphere and suspense, in which the composer obscures and then teases with all three basic elements of music – tonality, rhythm and melody – which he deliberately leaves receptive to all possibility. An open fifth, the most ancient and mysterious interval of music”.
There are many stories surrounding this composer when the Ninth was premiered in 1824. Apparently Beethoven shared the stage with the theatre’s official conductor, Michael Umlauf. Umlauf had instructed the orchestra members and singers to ignore Beethoven, seeing that he had made a mess of conducting the dress rehearsal of his opera Fidelio because of his deafness. So when the audience applauded, Beethoven was still conducting and couldn’t hear. One of the soloist walked over and turned Beethoven around to accept the audience applause. They applauded him through standing ovations no less than five times, raised hats and handkerchiefs in the air. This way Beethoven, who could hear no applause, could at least see their praise and appreciation.
Apparently many famous composers, like Haydn and Shostakovich, have also composed ninth symphonies, but there is only one simply known as The Ninth Symphony.
And then Beethoven’s adding the chorus in the final movement with Schiller’s Ode to Joy. It is not for nothing also known as the Choral Symphony. The Ninth has been performed during momentous occasions in the past, including with the fall of the Berlin Wall, to celebrate the country’s reunification, and nowadays it is also known as the anthem of the European Union.
But that is not the end. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra who performed this, also has a momentous story. On their website it explains that in 1999 Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian literary scholar, Edward Said, – by invitation of the Kunstfest Weimar – created a workshop for young musicians from Israel, Palestine and various Arab countries of the Middle East. This was to enable intercultural dialogue and to promote the experience of working together on something they all had an interest in – making music together!
They named the orchestra after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s collection of poems entitled ‘West-Eastern Divan’, a central work for the evolution of the concept of world culture.
The Orchestra is now based in Seville, Spain, after the first orchestra workshop was held in Weimar, Germany, in 1999 when they received over 200 applications from Arab music students.
Both Said and Barenboim’s CV’s are beyond impressive. They have also received the Príncipe de Asturias Prize for their peace efforts in the Spanish town of Oviedo in 2002.
Despite this Barenboim has said that the Divan Orchestra is not a love or a peace story. He has spoken of the ensemble during an interview with the Guardian as follows: “It (the Divan Orchestra) has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago – …create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”
Over the years the orchestra has performed around the world, including Israel and the Palestinian territories. It has an annual summer school in Seville and young musicians from Spain now also take part in the orchestra.
One can only hope that through music they will each realise the people from the ‘other side’ are also just humans enjoying the wonderful act of playing music, of making music together, of expressing the inexpressible.