What follows is short chapter for a book I never finished. But in a world of liberal capitalist exploitation and the rise of strongmen in every corner of the planet, I think it may be of some use after all.
In 1824, humanity has been defeated. It has been 30 years now since the French Revolution has been suppressed and betrayed by Napoleon, and nine years since Napoleon himself and his army, the seemingly last vestige of the revolution spreading across Europe by force of arms was defeated on the battlefields of Waterloo.
It has been two years since Denmark Vesey’s magnificent and international plan for a slave revolt to take place on Bastille Day has been broken up and its conspirators executed. It is 5 years since the Peterloo Massacre of workers, and two years since Percy Shelley, its poet, has died at sea. “Was not the world a vast prison” Mary Wollstonecraft had asked years before, and indeed to many, to slaves, workers, farmers, their hopes for freedom dashed, and little prospect on the horizon for a renewed struggle for freedom, it must have appeared so.
It will be six years before the July Revolution in France again challenges the Monarchy and seven before Nat Turner raises an army of enslaved African-Americans against slavery, Jamaican enslaved workers carry out a general strike and William Lloyd Garrison founds the Liberator newspaper.
The revolutions of 1848, the first Women’s Rights conference the same year, and the writing of the Communist Manifesto are a long way away. Karl Marx is only six years old. In 1824 none of these future events are even conceived of, and some might not even happen if something, someone, somewhere does not give the people some hope that all is not yet lost, that freedom may still win, humanity still be vindicated, in the end.
One lonely, ill, shabbily-dressed, impoverished and half-forgotten genius provides humanity with what it needs in one of its darkest hours, in the very midnight of reaction and repression. A deaf man writes and performs on the stage of Vienna’s Carinthian Gate Theater the greatest piece of music ever created, to vindicate the revolutionary hopes of democracy and freedom and human happiness.
Beethoven has not appeared on stage in 12 years, and the now-restored ruling classes of Europe are comfortable in listening to the soothing strains of Rossini and other Italian composers whose music dominates the Vienna music halls. His last great work lasts a full hour, much longer than any other symphony ever composed, and involves the largest musical forces ever to play together up to that time. The musicians nearly rebel against the piece, they can’t play what they can’t understand they protest at the unprecedented revolutionary symphony. “You aren’t supposed to understand it” the bedraggled genius replies, “this music is for the future.” Beethoven conducts himself, gesticulating wildly, hearing only his own orchestra in his own inner ear – Beethoven is deaf now, and his timing varies from that played by the real orchestra in the theater. To witnesses, he seems to be playing every single instrument in the house himself in his conducting, which goes on even after the orchestra has finished playing, a deaf man conducting in silence a masterpiece he hears only in his mind. At the end of the symphony, after storms of revolution break up every tranquil movement and remind us of the crises of capitalism, of the wars, of the impossibility of sitting still or finding security in the world of today, the voices of the people break free and speak for themselves en masse:
“You bow down millions?…Endure courageously millions, endure for the better world!,” goes Schillers “Ode to Joy”, “Give the crowns to those who earn them, defeat for the pack of liars…delivery from tyrants’ chains, generosity also toward the villain” it continues, thinly veiling its call for change and justice with religious language, its revolutionary energy will be put to song by Beethoven and give the final burst of energy to an explosion of sound that will trouble the comfortable sleep of aristocrats and bourgeois. “What custom strictly divided, All men become brothers” Beethoven has added.
The audience breaks out in thunderous applause. The deaf conductor needs to be turned around so he can see the public applaud his work, since he cannot hear them. Five ovations. Five. The custom is that the imperial family is greeted with three ovations, and so five ovations for Beethoven’s 9thsymphony is a mass act of civil disobedience. The police are called in to break up the gathering, in a prefiguring of future police repression of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll concerts.
The song will be used by the European Union as its anthem in our time. It will be played to celebrate another revolution betrayed, the overthrow of the Berlin Wall and the Communist Party regimes that have oppressed the workers of Eastern Europe until 1989. So the “ode to joy” in its real form as the “ode to freedom” will be sung as Beethoven intended, to celebrate a moment of unity and freedom from tyranny. And it will be expropriated by a smug, liberal ruling class, confident that in expropriating the revolutions of 1989 and using them as a founding event for their own global orgy of wealth concentration, they have finally put Beethoven’s revolutionary threat to rest. But we have not finished using the 9thsymphony. The working people of Europe, and the world, will inherit Beethoven’s 9thSymphony and make it their own, when they retake Europe and the world from the ruling classes. In 1824 Beethoven reminded an enslaved humanity that they were not alone. Someday soon we will remind him that he never was either.