Beethoven's 'Hymn of Thanksgiving'
One of his greatest pieces, plus tributes by The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Billy Bragg.
Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including “Hiroshima in America,” “Atomic Cover-up,” and the recent award-winning “The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” His “Atomic Cover-up” just debuted on PBS and you can watch here. And “Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried" remains free on the PBS site. Both have companion books, which you can easily find at Amazon.
A couple years back, before I launched my fulltime, late-career shift to writer/director of documentary films (with three picked up at film festivals and PBS so far), I reached a kind of a milestone when, as the saying goes, I got to “play Carnegie Hall.” Well, kind of. Streaming at their site for two weeks was the film I co-produced a few years earlier for director Kerry Candaele, Following the Ninth, exploring the global/political influence of Beethoven’s final symphony, as part of Carnegie’s “Voices of Hope” series. The film has been shown in about 200 venues all over the world, but this seemed like “bringing it all back home.”
But how did this former rock ‘n roll editor (executive editor, Crawdaddy, 1971-1979) come to Beethoven and Carnegie Hall? You’ll have to read the book that I wrote with Candaele, Journeys With Beethoven. But for now, my annual posting for this week’s holiday of one of the greatest works of musical (or any) art, Beethoven’s “Heiliger Dankgesang” or “Hymn of Thanksgiving,” from his Quartet No. 15. He wrote this in his final years after he survived a grave illness. It’s performed here by perhaps the finest such grouping in the world right now, the Danish String Quartet.
Now here is Bill Moyers’ tribute to our Beethoven film as he introduced the lengthy trailer (included).
The film actually opens with punk/protest folkie Billy Bragg singing his new (English) lyrics for the Ninth’s "Ode to Joy.” Which he later performed not just for us but for the Queen.
What Beethoven shared with the greatest rock stars -- and this explains part of the attraction for me, no doubt -- was his constant drive to top himself, to keep pushing the envelope, to finish epic pieces with a universe-cracking chord or sustained grace note. He was the first "heroic" composer, a mantle later worn by the likes of John Lennon. I've come to believe that, with Shakespeare, he is the greatest artist the West has produced (feel free to argue with this in comments).
But there's another thing: After years of being among the oldest at rock concerts, it feels great to find myself a bit below the median age at most of the classical shows. And as the poet Ruth Padel put it not long ago, Beethoven, the master, “lives on,” whether we are aware of it or not, “dancing, dancing / in you, me, everyone.”
One of Joni Mitchell’s greatest songs back in the early 1970s, still the finest modern tribute to the artist. Did I even know it was about Beethoven back then?
Now consider perhaps the greatest single piano piece anyone ever wrote, which may even include the first passage of “boogie-woogie” a century before its time? And I’ve now seen Uchida (among others) execute it live in concert.
But younger people, as well, are getting into classical music, with popular "downtown" clubs opening in Berlin, New York and other cities. Maybe good old sex, drugs and baroque ‘n roll is in our future.
Song Pick of the Day
Chuck Berry wrote it, and here the Beatles play it, and George sings it. Roll Over, my man, and tell Top 40 the news!
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Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels (on escapes under the Berlin Wall), the current The Beginning or the End (on MGM’s wild atomic bomb movie), and The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s left-wing race for governor of California), which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. His new film, Atomic Cover-up, just had its world premiere and is drawing extraordinary acclaim. For nearly all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. Later he served as longtime editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. He recently co-produced a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.