Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Alle Menschen werden Brüder

As the San Francisco Symphony cellos and basses began Beethoven's famous 'Ode to Joy' theme today in rehearsal, I turned and locked eyes with my dear friend and phenomenal soprano colleague, Kiera Duffy, both of us starting to tear up a bit.  Without needing to say a word, we both just silently communicated to each other: "We need this now."

With all the protesting of the past two weeks and the shockingly un-American executive orders from our President dictating that we build walls and ban refugees, purporting to protect and enforce our borders, I find it quite timely to perform Beethoven's 9th Symphony this week here in San Francisco.  The symphony, groundbreaking for its use of voices in the final movement (a first in the music history of the symphonic form), is a setting of excerpts of a poem by Friedrich Schiller with some extra text added by Beethoven himself at the beginning.  It is a call for unity and peace - for brotherhood and togetherness.  Thinking back to our President's angry and antagonistic inaugural speech just a couple of weeks ago, Beethoven's and Schiller's call for peace and brotherhood could not be more appropriate for our times.
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,
und freudenvollere.
Oh friends, not these sounds!
Let us instead strike up more pleasing
and more joyful ones!

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, burning with fervour,
heavenly being, your sanctuary!
Your magic brings together
what custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover.

Each time we started this music today in rehearsal, I just keep thinking how this was the piece that was performed in Berlin back in 1989 to celebrate the fall of a wall that symbolically divided the world, a physical representation of an iron curtain that held the world in a state of paranoia and fear, perilously close to the edge of doom for almost half a century.  It is heartbreaking to see how strongly the pendulum has swung back towards xenophobia and isolationism less than 30 years later.  It boggles the mind, leaving the sane among us wondering if humanity will ever learn the lessons of our violent human history that seems to take us closer and closer to the brink of armageddon.

The current mayor of Berlin implored our current president the other day: 
"Berlin, the city of the division of Europe, the city of freedom of Europe, cannot look without comment when a country plans to build a new wall. We Berliners know best how much suffering a division of a whole continent...I call to the American President: Think of your predecessor Ronald Reagan. Remember his words, 'Tear down this wall.' And so I say: Dear Mr. President, don't build this wall!"
In that same spirit, as I lift my voice amongst those of my colleagues and above and amidst the members of the San Francisco Symphony this week, I do so in a joyful protest against the divisive and xenophobic policies and agendas being pushed by the current administration, and as a prayer that people can learn to focus on what makes us alike rather than different, and begin to find some common ground.  It's a thought worth thinking about that the piece's message still reverberates with the same urgency nearly 200 years after its premiere performance.

Here is the performance of the piece celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, led by the late Leonard Bernstein: