When Longfellow proclaimed “music is the universal language of mankind,” he may have been referring to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Or at least that’s what Kerry Candaele’s majestic sonic travelogue Following the Ninth sets out to prove, charting the inextricable relationship between music and the human experience. Her results are as moving as the piece of music that inspired them. You don’t have to be a musicologist to know it; whether the thunderous percussion from the fourth movement played in a car commercial or “Ode to Joy” sung during Christmas mass, it remains pervasive. The universality of this aural wonder is on full display here, and its effects inspire genuine awe.
Chinese revolutionaries set up covert speakers in Tiananmen Square to drown out the dictators with it; a grieving German woman tearfully recounts Leonard Bernstein’s celebratory conducting of the piece after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall; dissidents under Pinochet claimed it as a lullaby, serenading political prisoners in Chile; each December, Japan inaugurates the new year through huge choral arrangements and performances, using it as an “objective of well-being.” Each anecdote builds upon the next to create that rarest of films: a documentary as ineffable and transformative in its reach as it sets out to be.
It’s humbling to think that when he composed this, his final symphony, Beethoven was nearly deaf and unable to hear the beauty of what he’d created. The countless millions who haven’t suffered the same fate are greatly enriched as a result.