25 years ago, in 1985, a melody widely known as „Ode to joy“ from the fourth movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, composed from 1815 to 1824, was adopted as the official anthem of the European Union. This was – and still is – an ambiguous choice. While the anthem is badly disfiguring the original music, it is however a very suitable symbol for the history and vision of Europe.
The main issue with the European anthem lies in the fact that it takes a short tune completely out of context and – even worse – re-arranges it into a syrupy, self-contained, instrumental piece of music to be played either by solo piano, wind instruments, or a symphony orchestra. The fact that renowned Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan was put in charge of cutting it to size does not do much to alleviate the injustice to the original. Thankfully, however, he spared us a version for marching bands.
On its own, the melody is almost embarrassingly simple – which may indeed be one of the main reasons for its universal popularity. Musicologists have speculated whether Beethoven could actually have derived it from contemporary folk music. Yet it really develops its full force only in its role and place as a specific segment towards the end of the Ninth Symphony.
Depending on the conductor, the Ninth is approximately 70 minutes long, and the “Ode to joy” theme appears for the first time at roughly 50 minutes into the work. This is significant, because what frames this simple tune is a very complex musical piece of enormous proportions, designed for full symphony orchestra, big choir and four solo singers.
A political statement in music
Scholars have suggested that Beethoven’s masterpiece may very well constitute a political statement about the eventful times the composer was living in. The French Revolution, the wars all over Europe in its aftermath, and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars had plunged the continent into a state of permanent conflict and violence. As the Holy Roman Empire dissolved in the middle of Europe after almost 850 years, incumbent regional aristocrats stifled liberal and democratic movements by all available means.
At the risk of oversimplifying, one could say that the first 50 minutes of the soon-to-be world-famous piece that premiered in Vienna on 7 May 1824 takes stock of this historical predicament. They are wild, full of stark contrasts, and seem to evoke conflicts as well as the easing of tension during peaceful periods.
And then, only then, that simple melody happens. It heralds the grand and at times ominous finale of the symphony, where it will become everything but simple. The little tune builds up to a tempestuous and glorious choral, the lyrics of which are taken from a poem by Beethoven’s elder contemporary, Friedrich Schiller – a poem that was, in fact, called “To joy” (in German: An die Freude).
To call the poem exuberant would almost be an understatement; one might actually say that young Schiller got a bit carried away with, quite literally, a drunken vision of friendship, liberty, insouciance, and religious fervour. When he wrote the lines in 1785, Schiller had just fled from authoritarian oppression and financial worries, and found sanctuary with friends in a Dresden vineyard.
Separating reality and vision
Beethoven had pondered setting the poem to music for quite a while, but it was only in the Ninth Symphony that he finally saw the right occasion. The lyrics seem to have perfectly matched his intended conclusion of the composition. Yet contrary to popular belief, the final 20 minutes of the Ninth are not merely an expression of pure joy, but can be construed as a defiant assertion of a better world, an alternative proposition for a different life, however unattainable it may have appeared during the troubled early 19th century.
Upon listening closely to the symphony’s choral ending, it is noticeable that while it is clearly set apart from the rest of the piece, it nonetheless mirrors structural elements from before. There are still many abrupt twists and turns, and at one point Beethoven even quotes the sound of a military marching band. War is not so distant, after all. Rather, one could say that the finale signifies a desperate hope borne out of turmoil.
If you will, Beethoven uses the theme that now is the anthem of Europe as a kind of prop that, beside other elements, helps separate reality and vision, sets a new mood, provides a brief respite before it is time to contend with horrors and challenges again. Only a few minutes after it has been softly played instrumentally for the first time, the choir practically shouts Schiller’s words to the tune as if they were command and desire at the same time.
Seeing the historical as well as musical background, it would arguably be pretty difficult to come up with any piece of music more appropriate for a peacefully united, yet still struggling, Europe. And yet the European anthem is going for a popular, easy, seemingly innocuous and festive snippet ripped out of context. Bereft even of its original lyrics and, as a matter of fact, of any language at all, it constitutes a dubious compromise. Then again, that is also very European indeed.
Those able to read German find an emphatic recount of background and history of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the book by Dieter Hildebrandt: Die Neunte. Schiller, Beethoven und die Geschichte eines musikalischen Welterfolgs. München: Hanser, 2. Auflage 2005
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