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An Ode to Magical Thinking

Editor’s note: Budapest Festival Orchestra performs Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on February 10, 2017. In this inaugural post for UMS, Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente, proposes something drastic with respect to Beethoven’s 9th.

Maybe we need to try something else. Something drastic.

Since the presidential election, I don’t know how it is over in your silo, but in my silo I can’t seem to drown out the partisan squabble bleeding in from the outside. Binge watching Netflix has lost its opioid effect and dinner with friends seems to inevitably funnel toward one topic. Engaging isn’t working and neither is disengaging. It might take a miracle for us to step out of our respective trenches.

Hang on to that thought for a second.

My two-year-old can sing the “Ode to Joy.” I mean, he’s not all, “Freude, schöner Götterfunken…,” or anything, but he’s solid on the melody because Beethoven, at the apex of his genius, throws down a fully scalar melody to deliver perhaps his most poignant message to his generation (in Europe, anyway) and to all future generations (of the classical persuasion). And because there’s an incredible Muppets sketch of Beaker multi-tracking the tune before characteristically electrocuting himself.


What is the message? It certainly can’t be reduced to “Come on, let’s all get happy.” Joy, says Beethoven…well, Friedrich Schiller… “Your magics join again what custom strictly divided.” These flags, these gods, these bumper stickers — their divisiveness dissolves at the arrival of this splendid Daughter of Elysium (a.k.a. Joy). And then the clincher:

“Every man becomes a brother, where thy gentle wings abide.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Consider the cable news pundit that makes you want to Clorox your ears when you hear them sermonize. Then consider a world in which you greet each other like one of those dog-seeing-its-enlisted-owner-after-a-tour-of-duty videos. It sounds absurd, but what, other than something radical, do we have left to try at this point?

Having waited a full three movements before introducing the chorus, Beethoven dishes us a snippet of each before the bass soloist admonishes, “O friends, not these sounds…” The creation of life from the primordial ooze that is the “Allegro ma non troppo,” the haymaker of the “Molto vivace,” and the soothing allure of the “Adagio molto e cantabile” are not enough. If we’re going to stop screaming at each other, stop twitching for our holsters — in the composer’s Vienna or in our own republic — it’s going to take “songs full of joy.” Beethoven is even going to do a Jefferson Bible number on Schiller’s poem, cutting out politically-charged lines like “Safety from the tyrant’s power” to make sure we don’t get distracted by politics from the humanist utopia he’s pitching.

It’s aspirational, for sure, but not so naïve, it turns out. In his stirring documentary, Following the Ninth, filmmaker Kerry Candaele traces the symphony’s reverberations in situations far more desperate than ours. In Chile, General Pinochet locks up and tortures political dissidents — in this case, socialists whose elected government he had overthrown in a military coup — and how did wives and partners of these captives respond? By singing the “Ode to Joy” at the prison walls, infiltrating a dark despair with hope. Or what about the standoff at Tiananmen Square? There, the “An die Freude” was pumped like a pirate radio signal through loudspeakers to revitalize protesters in an impossible stalemate.

Beethoven’s score did not, of course, resolve these conflicts. What it achieved was to reveal hope where hope seemed inconceivable.

HoffIf sentient in 1989, your memories of the teardown of the Berlin Wall may revolve around David Hasselhoff singing at the Brandenburg Gate, sporting a particularly unfortunate scarf. You may also recall, though, a rousing performance of the Ninth by Leonard Bernstein in which the conductor would make the provocative switcheroo of “Freiheit” (“freedom”) for the original “Freude” (“joy”). It was the Cold War, so perhaps allowances must be made, but the visual of a city — literally split by polarized political ideologies — reclaiming its brotherhood is no less powerful for it.

Now back to our shores. There was a fair amount of talk about “walls” in the recent election season, but the one that actually materialized is the one currently carving us up into teams for the world’s least amusing game of dodge ball. We can’t seem to count on mutual respect or zesty, fact-based debate any longer. It’s time for something unusual, absurd even. Something that will make you look over at that gentleman in the row in front of you, the one taking five full minutes to unwrap his butterscotch candy, and think affectionately, “My brother.” It’s going to take a leap of faith, and it’s going to require a killer soundtrack.

Maybe you’re thinking about going to see the Budapest Festival Orchestra because you read something in the New Yorker about the Budapest Festival Orchestra sounding pretty phenomenal with Richard Goode on the keys. Maybe Beethoven is your jam. Maybe your date is, like, the LeBron James of planning a night out. Whatever the case, since this is probably not your first time experiencing the Ninth Symphony, may I suggest that if you go, you consider Beethoven’s 9 beyond its entertainment value.

What if we choose to buy into Beethoven’s magical thinking — that there is a joy so profound that it might just bring us back together? You know, in the spirit of trying something drastic.

This post is written by Doyle Armbrusta Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

See Budapest Festival Orchestra on February 10, 2017.