On December 31st, 2008, Bo Ekman gave the traditional year-ending message at the New Year's Eve Concert at Stockholm Cathedral - looking at the world today from Beethoven's perspective.
The first LP we had in our family was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. It was in the early 1950’s. The soloist was Ruggiero Ricci. The very first symphony I heard live at the theatre in Gävle was Beethoven’s Fifth. Beethoven has since become a companion in my life.
Åke Holmqvist, Sweden’s foremost authority on Beethoven, has told me what a uniquely free artist Beethoven was. Early on he received a life annuity from three benefactors. It was completely unconditional – no strings attached. Imagine no charitable institution, no Swedish Arts Council, no donor, no sponsoring company, no royal endowments or princely gift, no festival whose status, power or brand had to be glorified.
Beethoven’s music is an expression of free visionary power.
The process of formulating, cultivating and revealing the reality he wanted to embrace the humankind, must have been a never ending flow of trials and tribulations: an unceasing struggle to bring out the truth about himself; to have the courage not to divert from or compromise aesthetic, philosophical or, of course, musical principles and ideals.
What form would Bethoven’s music have taken had he lived today? Would it have been possible. I don’t think so. His music carries faith in the ideals of truth, courage, beauty and joy: that the sublime would be possible. His music is carried by a non-religious faith that this is achievable.
Beethoven lived close to nature. He felt more at home in the forests and in the countryside than in Vienna. In the summers he would travel to some village with his various belongings and his heavy load of notes and musical scores. He found his inspiration during his country walks; his inner conversations with Nature. In 1803 he created the first sketches for the Pastoral Symphony. In 1808 he completed it in a crescendo. The Pastoral Symphony is a confirmation of man’s connection with Nature.
Had Beethoven been alive today I am convinced that he would have scolded us. Angry. Cross. He would be seething with rage. “What are you doing? My fellow human beings! You are completely mad. When I was alive the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was not more than 260 – 270 ppm. You have now let it reach 387, soon to be 450. The environment and the climate have been destabilised. When I composed the Pastoral Symphony, the population of the earth was only about one billion. Now you are almost seven billion. When I wrote the Sixth, we could still rely on nature’s predictability and its stable regularity.
You have not taken good care of the earth. I would not have been able to compose that nature symphony today. It would have struck a wrong chord. Today it would have been a cacophony. A “Scream”, like Edvard Munch’s. He foresaw the times to come. In a way it was lucky that the Sixth was written in order that you who live today can relive visions that were possible 200 years ago.”
“What’s more, fellow human beings”, continues Beethoven, “I must tell you that there are other aspects of the future which did not turn out in the way I had hoped. Today’s world does not possess the joy, harmony and steady tick tock, tick tock - the reliable pulse and rhythm of the Eighth Symphony. I hardly see the portrayal of the heroic, unselfish leadership of the Third Symphony in the reality of today. Napoleon’s hunger for power was just the beginning. My attempt in the Ninth Symphony to give an aesthetic, poetic and at the same time, magnificent guidance to man in his search for himself has become a political pop song for the European Union. The restlessness and heavenly sequences were a way for me to free myself from the fateful horror I expressed in the introduction – which you will hear very soon. “But”, says Beethoven, “I managed to end the Fifth with a triumphant victory over myself.”
In Beethoven’s time things were by no means easy, but our time is even more difficult. In his time the risks in society, economy, finance, and the environment were separate and local problems. Today, the local risks are tightly interconnected. The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers was transmitted at the speed of lightning to the Swedish credit market. GM’s crisis was also Saab’s misfortune. The risks have become global. The future did not become what we had foreseen in prognoses, calculations, promises to voters, customers and to members of society. There was no forewarning of a financial meltdown or the destabilising of the environment or the climate. Not one of the thousands of so-called analysts came anywhere near to predicting that year 2008 would become the worst year on the stock market for 100 years. The alarmists were far too few!
The collective risks we have taken have surpassed our ability to handle, control and pay for them. Governments cannot negotiate and compromise with the melting ice masses, only with each other. We cannot suddenly reconfigure state finances in order to cope with an unemployment rate of 15% and negative growth.
Finance ministers worldwide are attempting to rescue banks, consumption and growth by pumping in trillions. We have now reached approximately SEK 100 trillion in crisis packages and guarantees, which are outside the budget, in the hope that these will return us to the trends we had previously; in the hope that the future will continue as planned. But it is obvious that everything went wrong. Mistakes are not there to be repeated. Clocks are not there to be turned back. It is clear that we – at least collectively – have done the wrong things, although highly efficiently. Raising efficiency will not help. It is, in fact, better to do the right things wrong than to do the wrong things right.
Our biggest problem is that we have not cared for that which is most important of all in society: the sense of trust. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”. This is not quite what happened. Some did more than others. Trust in geopolitics has fallen to a low level: we did not get a free trade agreement, the Kyoto protocol became a failure. The destabilisation of the region stretching from Palestine to India continues.
Trust in the global financial system disappeared overnight and can result in the collapse of the world economy.
To rebuild trust on all levels will be a major future project for all of us and our joint responsibility. Our hope for the new year – and for the years to come. Rebuilding confidence calls for a different leadership – both politically and economically – from that which has contributed to the breakdown. Tragically done enough in good faith. The visions of our time have been characterised by naiveté and a fatal lack of a holistic view. Or as Albert Schweitzer expressed it: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall”.
In his summing up of the last meeting of ministers a few weeks ago, French President Sarkozy judged no less than twelve times that the EU’s new financial and climate agreements would be historic. It is probably safer to let history itself decide. Recently, Swedish Prime Minister Reinfeldt spoke negatively of the possibility of a strong climate agreement.
Barack Obama and his new ministers and advisors have realised that to get through the next few years can be compared to passing through the eye of a needle. We must struggle through a financial crisis, recession, environmental, social, ethnic and national conflicts – to transform a world of increasingly diverging interests to one of converging interests. The expectations are enormous. No-one can afford a failure on his part. The new leadership must deliver an offer we can’t refuse, which cuts through prejudices, ignorance, the shortsightedness of power interests, destructive hopelessness and naïve optimism. This is an offer which is capable of joining nations and factions in the task of making the world a safe place, where ecology and economy can develop in harmony: “Rework the World”, as we in all humility have named one of the Tällberg Foundation’s central projects.
When crises and despair are deepest, the human race faces its greatest challenges. 2009 must become the year of re-thinking. The year of new visions. Not a year of looking back, searching for the shores we have left for ever. 2009 will be the year of Beethoven. “Seid umschlungen Millionen, diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!”
The cruel irony of Beethoven was that he expressed the truth about himself and his world through music which he himself couldn’t hear. He relied on others to listen. And we still do.
In the same way, we must adapt our way of life on earth to care for the planet and lead the world towards a secure a future, beyond that future which we ourselves will see and experience; but rely on the fact that others will be able to do so. Will this happen? The answer lies within ourselves. We can only care for the world by daring to see the truth about ourselves. Beethoven dared to do this.
Let 2009 be the year when we understood that there is no truth without beauty. And that there is no beauty without truth.
Now for his Fifth Symphony.