Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1824, at “a time of great repression, of ultra-conservative nationalism” as the old orders fought back against the revolutions of the previous century. But it’s difficult to imagine the composer having any nationalist intent, what with his well-known hatred of authority, particularly imperialist authority (and particularly of Napoleon). Even less obvious is the imputation of nationalist tendencies to Friedrich Schiller, whose poem, “Ode to Joy” Beethoven adapts to a glorious chorus in the fourth movement. Schiller’s poem, writes Scott Horton in Harper’s, “envisions a world without monarchs” in which universal friendship “is essential if humankind is to overcome its darker moments.” And in his take on the ubiquitous piece of music, contrarian theorist Slavoj Žižek acknowledges in the clip above from his latest film, A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, that the Ninth is generally taken for granted “as a kind of an ode to humanity as such, to the brotherhood and freedom of all people.”
And yet Žižek , being Žižek, draws our attention to the Ninth Symphony as a perfect ideological container, by reference to its unforgettable use in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, as unsparing a look at humanity’s “darker moments” as one might find on film (excerpt above). Kubrick (and composer Wendy Carlos) drew on a long, dark history of associations with the Ninth. As evidence of its “universal adaptability,” Žižek points to its well-known use by the Nazis as a nationalist anthem, as well as by the Soviet Union as a communist song; in China during the Cultural Revolution, when almost all other Western music was prohibited; and at the extreme Apartheid right in South Rhodesia. “At the opposite end,” Žižek says, the Ninth Symphony was the favorite of ultra-leftist Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, and in 1972, it became the unofficial “Anthem of Europe” (now of the European Union). The towering piece of music, Žižek claims, enables us to imagine a “perverse scene of universal fraternity” in which the world’s dictators, arch-terrorists, and war criminals all embrace each other. It’s a deeply disturbing image, to say the least. Watch the full excerpt for more of Žižek’s examination of the ideological weight Beethoven carries.