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Editor's Note

Volume 12• Number 1

Spring 2005


 

 

The Promise of Nothing:
The Dialectic of Freedom in Adorno's Beethoven

by Daniel K. L. Chua

"Beethoven and freedom" is a cultural trope that has dominated the reception history of Beethoven's music. We need only recall the numerous occasions on which the Ninth Symphony has been used to mark moments when human freedom has been threatened, anticipated, or celebrated—from Wagner's performances in Dresden prior to the 1848 revolutions to the atrocities of September 11, when the finale was performed in a hastily reprogrammed "Last Night of the Proms" in London under Leonard Slatkin. Yet the nature of this freedom has been ambiguous, with opposing political and philosophical ideologies adopting Beethoven's music as their mouthpiece. In the early nineteenth century, for example, the Parisian audiences heard the victorious finale of the Fifth Symphony as their revolution, whereas a hundred years later the National Socialists in Germany heard it as their Führer. How can this be? On the face of it, the answer seems relatively simple; as David Dennis points out, it was "Beethoven the man, not his music, [that] is the focus" of the propaganda in German politics. The volatile nature of Beethoven's political identity—as "a supporter of enlightened despotism . . . a revolutionary idealist . . . an admirer of Napoleon . . . [and] an enemy of Napoleon . . ."—enabled political commentators of all persuasions to indulge in a form of "selective scavenging and reinterpretation," writes Dennis, in order to produce the Beethoven they wanted to hear. The idea of freedom, then, is a matter of discourse and biography. It has nothing to do with the music. Indeed, music's only contribution, according to Dennis, is its inability to specify freedom. It is conceptually mute; the "abstract nature" of its empty signs allows the politicians to fill the void with their ideological rhetoric. So the Ninth Symphony, for example, which does not explicitly speak of freedom in its choral finale, has freedom imposed upon it from the outside; hence Leonard Bernstein could replace "Freude" with "Freiheit" in his 1989 performance of the Ninth at the Schauspielhaus to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Beethoven's music, it appears, is merely an arbitrary vessel in the discourses of history, or to adopt Scott Burnham's phrase, a tune "wav[ing] in the winds of the Western world as a blank flag awaiting the colors of a cause."

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