Bernstein, Beethoven, and the Berlin Wall

Aug 25, 2017

When I listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, I wonder if he had any idea how the central words of the chorus would be taken up as a rallying cry, right at the apex of history, more than a hundred years after he set them to music.

Freude! Freude! … Alle Menschen warden Brüder. / Joy! Joy! … All men shall become brothers.

On December 23, 1989, only a month and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein led a concert in West Berlin. Two days later, on Christmas Day, he led an identical concert across the border, in what was previously East Germany. The multinational orchestra featured musicians from New York, London, Paris, Leningrad, and both East and West Germany. The music, of course, was Beethoven’s 9th.

Bernstein made one change to Beethoven’s masterpiece for this two-concert series: he directed the choir to sing “Freiheit” (freedom) instead of “Freude” (joy), making the finale a true “Ode to Freedom.” As a former resident of East Germany said, “Given the current situation here, nothing could be more appropriate than changing the text. It’s a gesture that fits in perfectly with the current times.”

To the 20,000 people who heard the concert via huge 5-by-10-meter screens along one of the busiest streets in Berlin, this represented more than an evening of beautiful music. One listener told the Los Angeles Times that it was “about freedom, peace and justice in the entire world.”

Indeed, the December 23 concert coincided with two important regulations being lifted from the border between East and West Germany. Visitors no longer needed a visa to travel between the two countries, and there was no more mandatory money exchange. Excited citizens continued to chip away at the wall itself, the last vestige of of separation in a divided city. 

And Bernstein, who was no stranger to demonstrations of peace and solidarity (he had, after all, conducted in Warsaw and Hiroshima in years prior), presided joyfully over it all. 

“I’m sure that Beethoven would have given his blessing,” he said. “This is the happiest Christmas of my life.” And then, when asked about his inspiration for the Berlin concerts, he exclaimed, “Schiller! Beethoven! Freude (joy)! Bruder (brother)! Freiheit (freedom)!”

In honor of Bernstein’s 99th birthday today, we remember his commitment to joy, brotherhood, and freedom – and no concert he conducted exemplified this dedication more so than at the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Here is that concert: