“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”

Beethoven for the world?

Benjamin Zander
Ben's Blog — November 5, 2020
Everybody loves classical music, it’s just that many people haven’t found out about it yet.


In early 1999, I traveled to Cleveland to meet with the Executives of Telarc to clinch a deal to record all the Beethoven Symphonies. My business complete, I went back to the airport to discover that a snow-storm had delayed flights for several hours. I sat in the airport lounge and started to listen to music on my cassette machine, but before long I was in conversation with my neighbor, a lawyer from Washington. “What have you been up to in Cleveland?” he asked. “I have just signed a contract to record the complete cycle ofBeethoven symphonies,” I replied cheerily. “Oh”, he responded, “I thought classical music was dying.” “On the contrary!” I replied, perhaps a little carried away by my excitement at my first recording contract, especially at a time when most companies were canceling their already existing contracts with famous conductors. “Just look around this lounge”, I said, surveying the six hundred or so passengers seated in the terminal, “every single person in this room loves classical music, it’s just that many of them haven’t found out about it yet!”. “Oh, right!,” he said, “just tell that to my five sons. The only music they listen to is Heavy Metal and Rock.” “Listen to this”, I said, and placed on his head the huge Sony earphones that I invariably carry along to get the best possible sound out of my Professional Walkman tape deck. Now, before I go on, let me say a word about the Sony Professional Walkman. Sadly, this machine is not made any more, but it remains the single most impressive sound-reproduction system ever created. Since the music is heard through earphones, there are no aural distractions and since there is no volume control, the music can be heard at very high volume, creating an enormous impact. The effect of a well-recorded performance can be absolutely overwhelming, which is probably why they have discontinued its manufacture!

Well, by chance the piece on my cassette was Beethoven’s 5th symphony, performed by my own Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He was clearly shaken by what he heard, but as he handed it back to me after listening for several minutes, he said, “Well, I love it, but I don’t really count, because I studied the piano when I was a kid.” “Watch me!”, I said, now thoroughly aroused by the challenge he had set me. For the next hour and a half I wandered around the United Airlines terminal in Cleveland Airport putting my earphones on random people. Each time the reaction was identical. A moment of shock, then the inevitable stunned look, invariably including a sudden glint in the eyes. “What IS this?” was often the response – an astonishing fact, given that they were listening to the opening bars of the single most famous piece of classical music ever composed. If the person recognized the Beethoven, it was invariably “Where can I get this?” Not one person appeared to be indifferent and the emotional reaction remained constant: namely, amazement, disbelief and that unmistakable thrill that is evidenced by shining eyes. After my lawyer friend had witnessed this ritual being enacted some sixty times, he said he had to admit defeat. “Astonishing!” he exclaimed. “Give this to your five sons”, I said, handing him the cassette. “I’ll do more than that”, he replied,”I’ll play it for every person I know.” Suddenly an idea was born.

How could we get everybody on the planet to experience Beethoven’s 5th at Beethoven’s tempo? It was a preposterous question, but it has haunted me for years and it is not so silly as it might seem. Even more than the Joy theme from the Ninth symphony and surely more than any other piece, the Fifth Symphony represents classical music. Is there anyone who doesn’t know Da Da Da Daaa? Is there anyone alive who wouldn’t respond to the power of that opening-especially delivered, as it should be, like the proverbial shot out of a canon.

Now, how to make it happen? I spoke to the Presidents of Nike, Pizza Hut and Starbucks and topExecutives at MacDonald’s and Ford. It was a regular topic of discussion with corporate heads as I traveled the world giving lectures on Leadership. The interest was always there, but it never seemed to quite gel as an idea. Then on my second visit to Davos to the World Economic Forum, I was invited to a party hosted by the Coca-Cola Company. When my turn came to meet CEO Doug Iverson on the reception line, instead of grasping his proffered hand, I clamped my earphones on his head and blasted the opening of Beethoven’sFifth Symphony into his ears.

“How would it be”, I asked, “if we made Beethoven’s Fifth, which describes the journey from darkness to light, from struggle to triumph, the symbol for our entry into the twenty-first century, with Coca-Cola, the one truly global entity, as the conduit.” I wish I could say that Doug Iverson’s face shone with radiant excitement, but he smiled and introduced me to Charles Watkins, his second in command, with the suggestion that we discuss the possibility. Charles, himself a passionate classical music buff, wouldn’t take off the earphones until the whole first movement was over. We discussed the matter for a few minutes and then he uttered the following amazing words: “I think we can do this. We could put a CD in every twelve-pack of Coca-Cola that we sell next year.” “How many would that be” I asked. “Around eight and a half billion” was the reply.

For a brief moment the most extraordinary idea in classical music marketing history hovered in the air. There were to be several further discussions and long conference calls, but in the end the idea foundered on an astonishing fact. The Coca-Cola Company makes only 1c profit on each can of Coke and therefore, even though I was not interested in making any money from the venture, it would not be possible for them to recover the cost, even at 29c per CD.

So for now, the only ongoing conversation is with the Ford Motor Company, who are considering to put a CD in the CD player of each new Ford car, which would then strike up the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth when the ignition is turned on. I think they are concerned that their insurance company may have something to say about possible accidents as a result of the fast tempo! Whatever happens I won’t give up! Recently, I got go ahead to put a video performance of the Fifth on MTV if I could come up with a way of doing it that would be appealing to the MTV audience. Any ideas?

November 2002

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