The 'Ode To Joy' As A Call To Action : Deceptive Cadence Melissa Block talks with Kerry Candaele, director of the documentary Following the Ninth. The film explores how Beethoven's Ninth Symphony continues to "offer hope in an unhappy world."

The 'Ode To Joy' As A Call To Action

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.


BLOCK: Kerry Candaele remembers exactly where he was when he first heard Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony." He was 20-something at the time, in the 1970s, driving up the California coast. He'd borrowed a friend's car and popped in a cassette he found. What he heard both shocked him and transported him.

KERRY CANDALE: I think it was the third movement, the slow movement, the adagio of the "Ninth Symphony" that really appealed to me. And, as the 20s was a bad decade for me, so I was probably in some kind of angst-ridden melancholia at the time, so it appealed to me very deeply and touched me in a way that no other music had, just that third movement.


BLOCK: Now, Kerry Candaele has turned his obsession with Beethoven's "Ninth" into a documentary film, titled "Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven's Final Symphony." He follows the "Ninth" around the world to Chile and China, where it became an empowering anthem of solidarity. And he goes to Japan, where performances of Daiku - the Great Nine - are a cherished annual tradition.

CANDALE: The Japanese identified with Beethoven, for one thing. You know, the quintessential romantic figure of Beethoven as this man who's tortured and struggles and overcomes, and finally reaches this pinnacle of artistic creation with the "Ninth Symphony," his final symphony, three years before he dies. So that appeals to the Japanese.

But then it became this yearly event where sometimes 5,000 people, sometimes 10,000 people, who have practiced singing in German for six months, stand together in December and sing the "Ode to Joy."

CHORUS: (Singing in Foreign language)

BLOCK: It's an amazing thing to see. We see one of these gigantic performances, 5,000 singers in what looks like a stadium or arena gathered around the orchestra, singing the final movement of Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony." And you talk to one of those singers, Iwanaga Yuji. And he describes the actual physical effect that having this group experience brings. Let's take a listen.

CHORUS: (Singing in Foreign Language)

IWANAGA YUJI: You need to sing Daiku, in order to understand how the singers feel after the concert. I don't know. Even after we finished, we still we have Daiku song in our body, in our mind, in our soul.

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

BLOCK: And someone describes it to you as sort of a way to sort of bring good things into the New Year. It's a healing kind of thing.

CANDALE: Yes, that's true. Some people carry notes to themselves when they step onto the platforms to sing. Sort of dedications - dedications to what they want to achieve, what they value, what they want to accomplish the next 12 months.

BLOCK: Kerry, your movie also goes to Chile where the same piece of music, the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's "Ninth," was used in a very different way during the protests in the 1970s against the Chilean military dictatorship. And we actually hear crowds of women, protesters, singing the "Ode to Joy," the "Himno a la Alegria."

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

CANDALE: That was the most touching story for me in the film, these women who, at the risk of their lives, essentially, came out to places where they knew people were being tortured. And of all the songs that would choose, the "Ninth Symphony" was the song that they ended up singing in front of these torture prisons to men inside. And I was so lucky to have found both women who had sung the song but also a man who was inside who heard it.

And it was such a moving thing for me because if you can imagine having been tortured and sitting in a prison, and over the wall you hear people out there singing on your behalf, waiting for you to be released, if you are, being ready to welcome you back into the world, back into their open arms and back into a musical community.

BLOCK: And there's remarkable tape from a man who was a political prisoner. He was tortured under Pinochet. This is Renato Alvarado, who describes being in detention, having been tortured and hearing this music sung by the women outside.

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

RENATO ALVARADO: And one day, I heard the music. It was as having the colorful butterfly in our hearts. It was fantastic. It was hope.

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

BLOCK: That's such an image of this music being a colorful butterfly, able to get in behind those walls.

CANDALE: Yes, he's such an interesting man. He knew about the symphony and about how it was translated in the version that was sung in Chile, because it was part of - came out of the church, then it was translated into more political movements. So he knew that song very well. And he knew that it connected to people that he would be welcomed by when he was released, if he was released.

BLOCK: So that former prisoner, talking about hearing the song and hearing hope, that same idea comes through in a conversation that you have in your movie with a former student leader from the Tiananmen uprising in China, back in 1989. This is Feng Congde. And he tells you this amazing story about rigging makeshift loudspeaker system, a broadcast system around Tiananmen Square, and playing Beethoven's "Ninth" to drown out the government messages that were being broadcast at the same time. He calls it this battle of voices.


FEN CONGDE: And that was why used Beethoven's "Ninth." It gave us a sense of solidarity. All people become brothers and a new, better future.


CONGDE: It transformed us over one night.

BLOCK: Was this piece of music a really deliberate choice on his part? I mean, was he sending a specific message?

CANDALE: Well, of course, the key line in the "Ninth Symphony" choral part is - (speaking foreign langauge): All men will become brothers. Or translated into contemporary language, all people will be connected. It resonated on that square with all those people who came there, not expecting to risk their lives but essentially did as the movement went forward.

BLOCK: How do you come to terms with the other ways that Beethoven's "Ninth" has been used? I mean, it was famously appropriated by the Third Reich. Hitler had it played on his birthday.


BLOCK: It became a triumphalist German anthem.

CANDALE: Part of making this film was trying to reclaim what I think was Beethoven's intentions; a revisiting of his idealism of his youth, when the French Revolution broke out and there was that incredible enthusiasm and hope for a new transformed world. And I think Beethoven is revisiting that in the "Ninth Symphony" at a time when he's very sick and understands and confronts his own mortality and comes back to that place where, yes, this is a symphony of hope.

It is a symphony of connection. It is a symphony of brotherhood and sisterhood. And it is a kiss for all the world. He doesn't say just Germans. He doesn't say Aryans. He says, all the world. And I think he meant it.

BLOCK: That's Kerry Candale. His documentary is "Following The Ninth: In The Footsteps Of Beethoven's Final Symphony." Kerry, thanks so much.

CANDALE: Thank you very much.

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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