The Music Plays On — Beethoven’s 250th Birthday

Leonard Bernstein at the Berlin Wall in 1989

Probably born on this day in Bonn, Germany, in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sestercentennial is being celebrated around the world for his music and accomplishment, and justifiably so. His music had an incalculable impact on not only how music would be composed after him, but how music would be played. For really the first time we see in Beethoven a musical artist who takes political and philosophical stances and risks, bringing the artform and the musician into a relevance neither had really had until this point. And, there only a few in all of history who have overcome something so profound. For a composer to confront and conquer deafness in the way that Beethoven did is a feat that really has no equal.

For today I’d like to focus on a performance that was probably the last time Beethoven’s music reached a global audience, joining a joyous moment that had been completely unforeseen by all of the political leaders at the time. When the Berlin Wall was breached and began to be demolished on November 9, 1989, Leonard Bernstein lept into action. Bringing together musicians from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, Leningrad Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Orchestre de Paris as well as the Bavarian Radio Chorus, members of the Radio Chorus of what had been East Berlin, and the Children’s Choir of the Dresden Philharmonie, and the soloists June Anderson, Sarah Walker, Klaus König, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Bernstein created an ensemble worthy of the momentous event.

Bernstein changed the Schiller text from “Freude” to “Freiheit,” saying wryly at the time, “I’m sure that Beethoven would have given us his blessing.”

On Christmas Eve, 1989, there was a performance in West Berlin at the Berlin Philharmonie (the home of the Berlin Philharmonic), but it was the performance on Christmas Day in East Berlin’s Schauspielhaus, now the Konzerthaus, that was broadcast to the world. Over 100 million people (myself included) watched this incredible event, many never having seen live pictures of East Berlin. I personally will never forget the excitement I felt while watching this concert.

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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