Turks and Beethoven's Brotherhood

Published April 24, 2019 by Gracia Llorca-Llinares

Gracia Llorca-Llinares reflects on the meaning of the alla turca style in Beethoven's Ninth.

As a musicologist and devoted choir singer, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is one of my favourite music works to sing and listen to. Not just because of its musical magnificence and importance, but also because of the universal humanistic vision and the idea of brotherhood that it embodies.

Personally, I have always found that the variation in alla turca style of the main theme "Joy" (Bar 331) is perfectly introduced in the symphony and it gives a breath of fresh air to the variations. This is why I was completely astonished when during the Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe: Modern Challenges online course, I learned that this variation is seen by some as the exclusion of the Turks (specifically) and the non-European "Other" (generally) of the brotherhood sentiment that the music piece expresses.

Handwritten page of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, 4th movement

Slavoj Žižek states that the coexistence of the alla turca variation and the verse "But he who cannot rejoice, let him steal weeping away" (Und wer's nie gekonnt, der stehle weinend sich aus diesem Bund in the original German version) is actively excluding Turks of the brotherhood. His analysis is based on the assumption that Beethoven's Ninth is an "'empty signifier', a symbol that can stand for anything", and it is reinforced by the current relation between the EU and Turkey. Thus, he assumes that the EU's resistance to accept Turkey as a country member is a sign of the enmity between West and East that can be track down until the Hymn of the EU: the "Ode to Joy" (extracted from the Symphony).

But is this true at all? Is Beethoven's Ninth excluding Turks of the brotherhood? In order to find this out, we need to pay attention to the music and its historical context.

The alla turca style was born in the Vienna of the 18th century due to the influence of the Janissary band, the military band of the Ottoman Empire. The alla turca style is the result of an intercultural understanding between the West and the Ottoman Empire. In spite of the political enmity, Janissary musicians and instruments were sent to Western courts as, for example, is the case of Augustus II of Poland, who received a complete mehter (Janissary band) from Mehmed IV. In the middle of political, religious and cultural tensions, some musicians were able to leave aside their differences, play together and understand the music of each other. This intercultural exchange resulted in the creation of the alla turca style, a music style with which Western musicians could represent the "Other", the Turk.

Therefore, it is not arbitrary that Beethoven used the alla turca style when wanting to represent the non-European "Other". But, how can we establish if this use includes the Turks in the brotherhood or excludes them? One important clue is that the alla turca style is introduced as a variation of the theme "Joy", and not as an opposed or strange theme. That suggests that Turks, the non-European "Other", are also participating in the Joy and not excluded, as Zizek implies.

Furthermore, the variation is not the only moment in the Symphony where the alla turca style is used. It returns at the brilliant Prestissimo finale. At the very end, Beethoven decides to use this style once more; the orchestra plays alla turca while the choir sings "Be embraced, Millions! This kiss to all the world!" (Seid umschlungen, Millionen! Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!) and "Joy, beautiful spark of Divinity" (Freude, schöner Götterfunken). In this case, there is no doubt: the Turks are part of the brotherhood.

So, next time you listen or sing Beethoven's Ninth, pay attention to the alla turca passages; they remind us that we all are brothers and that, despite our differences, we can play together beautiful music.

This article is written by Gracia Llorca-Llinares, musicologist and translator. Gracia is an alumna of the Woolf Institute having undertaken the online course Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe: Modern Challenges.

Applications for Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe: Modern Challenges will open on 13 May 2019 for the course commencing 2 September 2019.

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