Ben Zander: Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 the Most Optimistic Music Ever
“Beethoven was the greatest teacher we ever had writing the single most optimistic, positive piece of music ever written."
So said Ben Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra speaking about Beethoven's Symphony Number 9 in conversation with Diane Brady, Assistant Editor at Forbes.
Benjamin Zander has spoken about optimism on several occasions. In a conversation with Doug Goldstein, he said:
"Optimism is a discipline. It’s not just a good feeling. That’s something else, and people get very confused about it. To be optimistic is always to look on the bright side, as they say. I consider optimism to be a very rigorous discipline. It’s the discipline of distinguishing between the language that we use which pulls us down and the language we use which creates a new opening, a new awareness, and a new set of options and possibilities. It’s a discipline that we all can master, but few of us do master it.
"The classic story that I always love to tell is of two shoe salesmen who went to Africa in the 1900s to see if they could sell shoes. They both sent telegrams back to Manchester. One of them writes, “Situation hopeless. They don’t wear shoes,” and the other one sent a telegram back saying, “Glorious opportunity. They don’t have any shoes yet.”
"Now, both of them are looking at the same circumstances, but what is different is what they say about it. It’s a very disciplined way of looking at the world, which looks for glorious opportunity. That doesn’t mean one is silly about it and simply says everything is lovely, because clearly that’s not the case, and when you say there are limits, there’s no limit to the possibility that one can see.
"There’s a really lovely story, which is my favorite example of this. My father was a victim of the Holocaust. He lost everything he had, including eight members of his family and his mother, in the Holocaust, in Auschwitz. He came to England having lost his home, his belongings, his money, and his profession. He was a lawyer in Germany, but he couldn’t practice that in England. He came to England with four children and a wife - I was born in England - and he had to support all of them, and then he was interned. They were interned what they called “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man. He was with 2,000 men in similar circumstances. They had devastating losses in their lives and had tremendous fear. Hitler was in Paris, and the sense of fear and anxiety must have been absolutely overwhelming. In fact, he said that some of the inmates of that internment camp would just stare at the barbed wire fence all day in a kind of catatonic state.
"He looked around and he said, “There are a lot of intelligent people here. We should have a university.” So they started a university in that camp with 40 classes running regularly with no books, pencils or chalkboards, or any means other than human beings talking to each other. I call that the “rigorous discipline of possibility.” In other words, it’s very easy to fall into this state of mind of looking at how black and hopeless and terrible things are, and that’s very different from positive thinking. If he’d gone around telling everybody how wonderful it was, they would have smashed him in the face. He said, “let’s have a university,” and that became a reality and a possibility for people to live into to a very high degree and the fact was there were 40 classes and that they were running regularly. They weren’t stopped by the fact that there were no books to refer to and no pencils to write on. They were just talking to each other. Now do you see what I mean about a rigorous discipline?"