Unlike the case during World War I, Wagner’s works were performed throughout World War II in America as well as in the Third Reich. Hitler marketed Wagner’s operas as the artistic epitome of Nazi Germany, even though the composer had died in 1883, six years before Hitler was born. Beethoven was claimed by both the Allied and Axis powers. The opening of his Fifth Symphony became the musical motto of victory over the Germans who had claimed those very same four notes as another example of their über alles superiority.
When the Bayreuth Festival — an event founded by Wagner and devoted exclusively to his music — returned in 1951 after seven years of wartime silence, the program opened not with a Wagner opera but with something that was, at the time, politically neutral: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted, nonetheless, by Hitler’s favorite maestro, Wilhelm Furtwängler.
The emotion of the Bayreuth performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony can be summed up by listening to its last minute and a half and hearing the pandemonium of notes as the conductor and orchestra accelerate into warp speed and the chaotic world of The Unplayable — and yet somehow end together. And when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was Leonard Bernstein who led that same symphony, having replaced the word “joy” (Freude) in the work’s finale with “freedom” (Freiheit), thus transforming it into an overt “Ode to Freedom.”
Despite the vast number of people who claim to have no interest in or understanding of classical music, it’s clear that something very powerful is at work here. It is what the 20th-century American composer Charles Ives once described as “in-known” — something that we can sense profoundly even if we can’t fully grasp or explain it.
There are few who understand what Ukraine gave us in the last century. Much of the music we think of as American was composed by the children of Ukrainians who escaped another kind of terrorism — anti-Semitism. Our country was the safe harbor for many who escaped the pogroms that surely would have killed them. And who were some of their children, their American children? Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Elmer Bernstein, Alfred Newman, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.
Any time you hear the music of “West Side Story” or “Rhapsody in Blue,” or watch “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Psycho,” “The Ten Commandments” or “The Magnificent Seven,” you are hearing the sound that freedom gave back to us and to the world.