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‘Following the Ninth’: The ideological legacy of Beethoven’s masterpiece


Ocule Films presents a documentary written and directed by Kerry Candaele. Running time: 78 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Symphony No. 9 in D minor by Ludwig van Beethoven received five ovations at its 1824 premiere in Vienna. A police commissioner reportedly interrupted this outpouring, since Austria’s emperor typically got three.

“Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony” is one more bravo for the iconic masterpiece.

Writer-director Kerry Candaele incisively documents the ideological legacy of opus 125 in Chile, China and Germany. For his chorus, Beethoven changed the line “Rescue from the chains of tyrants” in Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 Enlightenment paean to “All men will be brothers.”

When Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he renamed the “Ode to Joy” movement “Ode to Freedom” and quipped, “This could become a career, just playing Beethoven’s Ninth in newly freed countries.”

Earlier that year in Tiananmen Square, student dissident Feng Congde played a cassette of the Ninth over loudspeakers to drown out Premier Li Peng’s pronouncements. Under dictator Augusto Pinochet, Chilean women sang the chorus outside prisons where comrades were tortured. Other political uses include performances dedicated to Adolf Hitler’s 53rd birthday and Nelson Mandela’s 90th.

Curiously, Japan embraces Beethoven for an end-of-the-year custom of spiritual renewal. Mass choirs perform the symphony during the Christmas season. Candaele films a sumo hall concert with 5,000 vocalists.

In interviews, impassioned experts call the Ninth “a battle cry for humanity” that “enters your bloodstream and changes who you are.” One challenge for Candaele is to illustrate the overpowering music with imagery. “Following the Ninth” cannot match Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” or Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” films that respectively evoked the genesis of life and the death of Earth on screen using Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner on their scores.

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