Film Review: Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven's Final Symphony

The reach of Beethoven's final great work extends way beyond the concert hall, as this stirring documentary attests. 
Reviews

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and its enduring, uplifting impact through the centuries is the focus of the documentary Following the Ninth. Written in 1824 when the composer was completely deaf, it was the first major symphony to incorporate human voices in its final movement, the famous chorale "Ode to Joy," its words taken from the poet Friedrich Schiller.

Director Kerry Candaele trains his camera on four events in different countries in which this music played a hugely supportive role, particularly Schiller's words "All men will be brothers." In 1989 at Tiananmen Square, the assembled students played the Ninth over loudspeakers as tanks rolled in to crush their protests for freedom. That same year, when the Berlin Wall came down, Leonard Bernstein performed the symphony as an "Ode to Freedom." Documentary footage and personal reminiscences by those who were there bring these world-changing events back to life vividly. Chinese dissident Feng Congde describes how he was ready to leave for the United States to pursue his degree, but his computer broke down and he wound up staying and becoming one of the main protest leaders.

In Chile, women under the Pinochet dictatorship sang it outside the torture prisons which held their loved ones, filling them with hope. The rare archival footage Candaele managed to dig up here wonderfully captures this stirring moment. In Japan each December, the symphony known as the "daiku" is performed hundreds of times by amateur groups who train for it for months. The music had a particularly special meaning in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which is shown in all of its terrifying magnitude. And in London, musician Billy Bragg performs his new specially commissioned and quite lovely English-language version of the "Ode."

The sequences are all moving and highly informative, fit reminders of the need for real human connection in this ever more crucially divided, technology-ridden, alienated world. In addition, music experts weigh in with enlightening observations about the Symphony, its history and impact.