War, brotherhood, and the Ode to Joy in Odessa

Storm clouds continue to gather over Ukraine. A moment of great beauty tries to hold back the tide.

Sergei Poliakov/AP
Pro-Russian activists carry a huge Russian national flag during a rally against usurpation of power and political repression in Odessa, Ukraine, March 23, 2014.

The prospect of a broader Russian incursion into Ukraine remains on the table. Crimea has scarcely been digested, but worries remain that Russia may make a move on eastern Ukraine, home to large numbers of Russian speakers.

Estimates from the Pentagon and NATO allies put the number of Russian troops now along the border at around 50,000. While Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has insisted that they're on a routine training exercise, many members of NATO are disinclined to take him at his word, since President Vladimir Putin's is the decisive voice. 

Is war possible? It seems unlikely. But having gambled and won on Crimea, Putin might be inclined to roll the dice again. What he will do is pretty much unknowable at this point, and that's why this moment is so frightening to many across the continent. Devastating wars have a habit of starting incrementally.

Which brings us to Odessa, the Ukrainian cultural center on the Black Sea that is home to many Russian speakers. Last Saturday, the Odessa Philharmonic and the Odessa Opera Theater pulled off a flash mob in the city's Privoz fish market that was far more than "cool:" Amid fishmongers scaling their wares and shoppers looking for bargains, they produced a stirring rendition of the last movement from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with the words of Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy (scroll down to watch.)

Ninth Symphony's last movement has for more than 200 years been used as a call against war, particularly the line "All men will be brothers." At Tiananmen Square in 1989, the students blared the song and its uplifting notes over speakers as PLA tanks and soldiers moved in for the kill. It's also the official anthem for the European Union, played to ring in the new year in Japan, and sung outside prisons by Chileans protesting torture by the Pinochet dictatorship. WhenAnthony Burgess wanted to inject a sense of humanity and appreciation for beauty in Alex, the sadistic protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, he turned him onto "the glorious Ninth by Ludwig van."

Odessa Philharmonic conductor Henry Earle told the Kyiv Post he and his collaborators knew instantly which music they'd play in their antiwar performance. "There was no need to choose a piece of music: Beethoven’s 9th symphony and Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” are humankind’s hymns for freedom, peace and brotherhood – just like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is for love,” Earle told the paper.

And why not. The opening lines: "Oh friends, not these tones!/Let us raise our voices in more/pleasing and more joyful sounds!"

Hopefully, everyone is listening.

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