Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ode to joy

Recently we went to a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony by the Herzliya Chamber Orchestra. I thought this was an ambitious work for them to perform, but they carried it off extremely well. They had choirs from Holland and Jerusalem to sing the final "Ode to Joy." The conducter Harvey Bordowitz mentioned that the original poem by Friedrich Schiller had probably been named "Ode to freedom," but he was forced to change it by the censor.
What struck me, as it must have many others before, is the incredibly idealistic nature of this paean to brotherhood, "all men are brothers." Beethoven was known to be a great "liberal" and had several Jewish friends, but it is interesting to see the contrast between his words and music and those of Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was profound. It seems that both of these intensely German geniuses were completely opposite in their beliefs and their attitudes towards mankind.
In that case, we are forced to acknowledge that the liberal impetus in Germany that freed the Jews and allowed them to occupy many positions in the mid-nineteenth century was a strong positive influence. But, perhaps there is a trend that links these two opposites together, and that is the extremely idealistic nature of both these beliefs. It's as if the world had to be "black and white," and you either took the "black" or the "white," without any shades of gray in between. In France a similar set of attitudes prevailed, but in England and the English-speaking world, the more pragmatic approach accepted that there were shades of gray and that "live and let live" was better than "my way or the highway." As the British philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "beware of ideologues."
As we approach a visit to Berlin soon, I am thinking about these issues. Needless to say I do not look forward to being in Germany, but if I hark back to the words of Beethoven I must acknowledge that not all Germans were anti-Semites nor killers of Jews. However, I cannot escape the feeling that while the new generation is largely freed of this yoke of the past, it has not died out in German culture. "The Ode to Joy" has been adopted as the anthem of the EU, so we might say that Beethoven won over Wagner, just as Nazism was defeated by western democracies. But, the latest wave of anti-Semitism in Europe does not inspire confidence. So after our visit to Berlin, especially to see the sights of Jewish interest (the Jewish museum, the Holocaust memorial), we will quickly head south to Italy, for relief from the oppressive feelings of being in Germany.


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