So here I am once again gazing at the candle on the table beside me. Like the flame, memories are flickering in my consciousness. For this week it is 30 years since my first visit to Hungary. That was the planning trip for our first ever Drama Tour. And now I am planning for the last one next February. ‘In my end is my beginning’ as T.S.Eliot says in his poem ‘East Coker.’
It is also 30 years since we were rehearsing our first show on tour – ‘Julius Caesar’ – and I have just reminded one of the cast members of this by text. As I mentioned earlier this year, in one of my blogs (or meditations!) on that planning trip I was stumbling into history. For on the Tuesday of that week, the new Hungarian republic was declared and Soviet rule was ended. If you remember, I witnessed all this in the school we visited at Balatonalmadi, by the shores of Lake Balaton. It was in the Headmaster Sandor’s office in fact and there all the staff and ourselves watched the momentous events in Budapest on television.
Next month we shall be reminded of another thirtieth anniversary. For less than a month later, on November 9, the Soviet East German government also capitulated, allowing the free passage of citizens from East to West Germany. And so the Berlin Wall, which cruelly separated East from West Berlin for 28 years, began to be joyfully dismantled brick by brick by the people. Formal demolition took place between June 1990 and November 1991.
As I write this, I am listening to a cd which reminds me of the events in Berlin. It is a live concert performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its magnificent choral final movement, Beethoven’s hymn to universal brotherhood (and sisterhood).
The concert took place the following month, in December, twice – in both East and West Berlin, on both sides of the Wall. The concerts were therefore a huge symbolic gesture and who else to conduct them but the great Leonard Bernstein, conductor, pianist, composer of symphonies, ballets and ‘West Side Story’ and a passionately committed musician with deep political convictions.
It was decided that the soloists, orchestra and chorus would not only be from East and West Germany but also from London, Leningrad, New York and Paris, symbolising the allied powers that had defeated Germany in the Second World War. Therefore not only would East and West Germany be joined in music but also the former victors and the former defeated from East and West.
The choral piece in the final movement of the symphony is a setting of the ‘Ode to Joy’ – ‘An Die Freude’ – by the poet and dramatist Schiller (1759-1805). For this concert the words were changed to ‘An Die Freiheit’ – ‘Ode to Freedom’. There is a legend that Schiller had
written ‘Freedom’ rather than ‘Joy’ in an earlier draft of the poem. Clearly singing the ‘Ode to Freedom’ rather than Joy was another deeply felt symbolic gesture in the concert. Bernstein writes in the cd sleeve notes that ‘If ever there was an historic time to take an academic risk, this is it,’ and that he was sure Beethoven would have given his blessing.
What of the performance? Despite enlarged chorus and orchestra there is a warm intimacy about it, like two soldiers from opposing sides shaking hands over a barrier. There is also precision and clarity and it is clear that not just Bernstein and his four soloists, but also every individual orchestra player and chorus member is giving their heart to this performance. As did the recording team – it’s an amazing recording even after all these years. Needless to say, the performance has been re-issued on cd, DVD, blue ray and streaming prior to the celebrations next month. Do take a listen.
Even though the words of the final poem were changed from ‘joy’ to ‘freedom’, there is a pervading infectious joyousness about the performance especially in the final ensemble moments. The performance is not only a deeply felt expression of Beethoven’s vision for humanity but also a reflection of the buoyant mood of the time of the performance. As Justus Frantz, the organiser of the concert, said at the time: it was a ‘festival of jubilation.’ After so many years, East and West Germany was reunited. Already Poland and Hungary had received their freedom again, and soon, with the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, so were the other nations that formed it. I remember it being a heady time and in its positive sense, anything seemed possible. In my childhood and youth, the Soviet Union seemed impregnable. It was impossible to believe then that it was disintegrating or that several years later, those newly free nations would seek and be granted membership of the European Community.
It is therefore tragically ironic that at this time of remembering the collapse of the Berlin Wall, my own country should be seeking to leave the European community. Hopefully we will not create another wall between us and the EU but will maintain a friendly, respectful and healthy relationship in the future. But that barrier, however small, is being created. Furthermore we must not let the aggressive use of language create a wall between us, as has been evident in our own parliament in recent months. As we will no doubt view those events of 1989 in Berlin being re-run in the media in the coming weeks, we should remember that the people of East Germany were truly celebrating freedom from an oppressive and totalitarian state. Our exit from the EU bears no comparison as the EU is not an oppressive and totalitarian regime, though there those, including some of our politicians in their colourful rhetoric, who would have us believe so. Creating walls, real of metaphorical, is not an expression of power but of fear.
As might be imagined, those Berlin concerts were a media event at the time. I can remember watching the East Berlin concert (which took place appropriately on Christmas Day) on the television and there was a documentary accompanying it. I revisited the documentary a few years ago on YouTube. There was Lenny slowly walking through the Brandenburg Gate (which was only officially opened three days earlier) from the West to the concert hall in the East. He strode confidently with an overcoat over his shoulders and white scarf casually hanging from his neck and his mane of white hair held high. In his hand was his customary long cigarette. He was an inveterate chain smoker and would succumb to emphysema ten months later at the age of 72.
This was not to be his final concert however. That took place in the summer at the Tanglewood Festival near Boston. But it might as well have been because it was the ultimate expression of who he was. Yes: he was a showman (as his critics labelled him), but a showman devoted to humanity. He used his talents and media power to further humanitarian causes. It was so appropriate that he was conducting Beethoven’s final symphony because he tried to live up to the vision expressed in its final movement: as should we all. ‘Alle Menshen werden Bruder’: ‘All men shall become brothers’. The 18th century language of Schiller’s poem is not inclusive but the sentiment is. It is more that inclusive: it is universal. If we treat each other as brothers and sisters then we become so.
So there was Lenny strolling through the Brandenburg Gate, head held high: a dignified citizen of the world with our without the Berlin Wall. We too are citizens of the world and with or without Brexit, we are certainly citizens of Europe.
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Also – you can now WATCH Meditations of Neilus Aurelius on YouTube HERE