Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: On the use of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in Australian advertisements

Chris Palazzolo wonders why Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is used in so many ads.

    

I’ve lost count of the number of ads, it seems any product is worthy of its endorsement, from hamburgers to car tires and car polish, it’s the same piece time and time again, the glorious tutti from the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th, a paean to tumbling slow-motion bunches of chopped lettuce and tomato, gleaming oily blisterpopping hamburger patties and frying eggs, or joyous sensual suds hurled, slow-motion, on gleaming car bonnets by joyous families. If it had been one or two, or even three ads over the last year that used this piece I probably wouldn’t have remarked on it. But it seems every couple of months or so it’s used to for an entirely different piece of crap. I suppose it’s fair enough; the music is in the public realm so it’s cheap to use and no one’s going to sue you. But there are many other equally triumphal pieces of classical music available too; Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or one of the choruses from Verdi’s operas (I remember, back in the 1980s, an ad for breakfast cereal that used the 2nd movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony). Not that I approve of the use of any of these pieces for this purpose; but can’t advertisers at least spread the burden?

The 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is an orchestral and choral setting of Ode to Joy by the German poet Friedrich Schiller. It is a secular hymn to universal brotherhood, and a rather provocative choice of text given that at the time Beethoven composed the symphony (1824) Europe was ruled by a coalition of monarchies and governments, formed after the defeat of Napoleon, called The Holy Alliance, whose secret police sought to eradicate all traces of democratic and republican activism from Europe. But Beethoven was successful and eccentric enough to be allowed to do anything he wanted and not lose any of his patrons (one of which was the Hapsburg court). Furthermore the symphony was a product of Beethoven’s late career and many of his other works were becoming worryingly experimental (some of them anticipating jazz and serial music of the 20th century); the relief that Beethoven’s last symphony was so emphatically tonal was such that the democratic sentiments of its text were overlooked.

190 years later, Australian advertisers use this piece to advertise their wares. I would hazard a guess that none of them know anything about the music, nor for that matter could they care less about it. Probably the main recognition factor for them is that it’s the music from Die Hard, or at least they hope their viewers associate it with Bruce Willis blowing away a bunch of dirty krauts. It’s come to the point that its use has moved beyond crassness to something more grotesque. Every advertiser must be aware their images of disposable junk mock the music, make its unambiguous and unguarded joy sound ridiculous and overblown. It’s as if Australian commercial culture is bullying it, or ganging up on it, piling in, like some ignorant slob farting around something beautiful, sensitive and rare. I think the German Government should find a way to slap a heritage order on it so that every time it’s used royalties have to be paid – how many grease balls would advertisers have to sell before they could afford to use it then?

But perhaps there’s another way of looking at this problem. Perhaps there is something about the symphony’s shiny-eyed full-throated call to bring together what fashion has sternly divided necessarily attracts dubious things to it. In A Clockwork Orange (both novel and film) Alex, a sociopathic teenager, loves Beethoven’s 9th as much as he loves bashing and raping. Furthermore the music doesn’t soothe or civilise him in any way (supposedly one of High Culture’s great virtues) but in fact glorifies all his sadistic impulses, usually attended by ecstatic visions of mass destruction and religious profanation. When Alex’s ability to listen to the piece is inadvertently erased by the aversion treatment he volunteers to undergo, he is reduced to a shambling wreck, unable to function or defend himself. The choice of Beethoven’s 9th is not accidental. Alex loses his freedom to listen to the music and indulge his impulses. But the music calls for the freedom and equality of all men, for indeed if all men will be brothers, then that must include sadistic monsters like Alex; if the levelling brings together high and low, some very low and depraved things are going to be mixing around with everything else. Looked at this way one has to conclude that the music is not desecrated by its use in advertisements, because in a sense it’s like a great piece of public work for a new democratic society, like a beautiful bridge, or a fantastic train line built where no one imagined it could be; a glorious piece of civil engineering for the benefit of all humanity, of equal use to the most evil psychopath and the most noble of Nobel Prize recipients. That’s why, for those thrown into ecstasy by images of flipping burgers and foaming car washes, there’s room in the Elysium of Universal Brotherhood too.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

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