From the Die Hard films to the Proms, via Rhodesia and Tiananmen Square, Ode to Joy has been one of the most malleable pieces of music ever written. SOPHIA DEBOICK traces its varied history back to its year of creation
As MPs passed through the division lobbies for the Article 50 bill vote in February 2016, signing the UK’s European suicide note, a fleeting moment of dissent briefly lifted the gloom. SNP members began to whistle the Ode to Joy, the EU anthem. Others joined in, humming and singing, and Patricia Gibson, Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, began to conduct, before Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle roundly told them all off.
It was a mischievous yet powerful moment, showing the ability of a nearly 200-year-old piece of music to unite voices of protest at a crucial moment in the fate of a nation. On the first night of the Proms five months later pianist Igor Levit sported an EU badge as he played the Ode as an encore, sending Jacob Rees-Mogg and the right-wing press into fits of indignation at alleged BBC impartiality, while Prom-goers were told to put their EU flags away during conductor Xian Zhang’s later scheduled performance of the piece.
That Boris Johnson sang the first line in the original German during the Leave campaign in a pantomimic demonstration of his pro-European values showed how music can be parodied, abused and its meaning inverted, taking on new nuances with each performer and performance. Indeed, since the year it was debuted, the Ode has proven itself the most politically malleable piece of music in modern European history.
When an aging Beethoven set Schiller’s 1786 poem Ode to Joy (An die Freude) to music it would be as the fourth movement to his Ninth Symphony; his last and greatest. By then completely deaf, the composer was nonetheless still innovating. Debuting the piece in his adopted home of Vienna in May 1824, he took risks by using the largest orchestra he had ever assembled and performing a piece over an hour in length.
Yet it got a rapturous reception (legend says contralto Caroline Unger turned Beethoven from his conducting position to see the applauding audience that he could no longer hear), and was the crowning of his development of the symphonic form as the ultimate, most majestic, expression of the composer’s genius. But this hymn to the essential unity of humanity, where ‘All people become brothers’, was tinged with bitterness in a Europe where absolutist monarchy and dynastic autocracy was reasserting itself.
Beethoven’s third symphony, Eroica (1803-04) had originally been dedicated to his near contemporary and fellow self-made man, Napoleon. To Beethoven, as to many in the arts, Napoleon was a hero, but his dedication was retracted with extreme prejudice when Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor of France in December 1804. Beethoven apparently exclaimed “he will tread under foot all the rights of man… now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”
Simón Bolívar may have liberated Peru from the Spanish in this year, but by 1824 the European revolutionary dream was dead, its ideals turning bitter with the bloodshed of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The latter conflict had claimed an estimated four million lives. The Congress of Vienna that had followed Napoleon’s 1814 deposition had seen Prussia, Austria and Russia aggrandising themselves with a carve-up of smaller states, and spelt suffocation for liberal values of self-determination after 25 years of revolutionary fervour in Europe.
In France, the Bourbon Restoration meant a return to conservatism, and Louis XVIII died and was succeeded by Charles X in September 1824. The Ode can be read as a response to this atmosphere but, despite his republican sympathies, Beethoven was no radical. He later softened his views of Napoleon the autocrat and dedicated the Ode to Frederick William III of Prussia. This has never been a piece with a clear intent.
In the twentieth century, the Ode to Joy has been a truly multipurpose composition, claimed by disparate groups. In January 1972 the Council of Europe adopted it as the European anthem and in the same year, after three successive Olympics competing as the United Team of Germany with the Ode as their anthem, East and West German athletes finally broke into separate teams under their own music and symbols.
Japan’s December tradition of singing the ‘Big Nine’ (daiku) – the national nickname for the Ninth Symphony – is also about unity, never more so than with the dedication of the annual performance of Osaka’s 10,000-strong Number Nine Chorus to the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in December 2011.
The Ode has also been a hymn to freedom; Chilean demonstrators sang it under Pinochet, students broadcast it at Tiananmen Square and on Christmas Day 1989 Leonard Bernstein performed the Ninth Symphony in Berlin as the wall was still being pulled down, poignantly substituting ‘joy’ from ‘freedom’ in the chorus. But the Ode has also been embraced by oppressive regimes, with Beethoven a rare example of sanctioned Western culture in Mao’s China, the Nazis finding him a useful example of German genius, and the leader of the Peruvian Maoist group Shining Path, Abimael Guzman, claiming the Ode as a favourite. The unrecognised state of Rhodesia, one of white minority rule, adopted it as its national anthem in the mid-1970s.
The Ode’s adaptability is perhaps unsurprising. Its mood is movingly euphoric, but it easily takes on a triumphalist feel, and even a fascistic smugness in the right context. In popular culture too the piece has had a chequered history. In The Beatles’ Help! a tiger is dissuaded from attacking Ringo by the rest of the group singing the Ode to it (“He was a gift from the Berlin zoo. He was reared on the classics”). The Ode is woven through the Die Hard franchise soundtrack and Wendy Carlos’ pioneering electronic version for A Clockwork Orange, with its early use of a vocoder to render the vocal disconcertingly otherworldly, gave this “bit from the glorious Ninth by Ludwig van”, as protagonist Alex DeLarge puts it, an ironic twist as the theme to a tale of a violent dystopia. David Bowie would use Carlos’ version as intro music during the Ziggy Stardust tour of 1972-73, modishly piggybacking on the controversy of the film, but as it sounded like music from outer space, it also introduced the alien saviour Ziggy ideally.
The Ode to Joy was not the only innovation in music that 1824 bequeathed to the ages. Lord Byron died that year, aged just 36. The rebellious and brooding Byron was significant as one of the first popular cultural icons and was a pop star before the age of pop music, his poetry having made him an overnight success. He had inspired mass adulation across Europe before dying in his prime in Greece following his attempts to get involved in the Greek War of Independence (the war was a cause célèbre for the Romantics, and Delacroix painted his The Massacre at Chios, showing the aftermath of the 1822 massacre of islanders by Ottoman troops, in this year).
This was also an era when the importance of African American culture for popular music was emergent. The first documented accounts of slaves singing spirituals in the American South appeared between 1815 and 1830 and New York’s African Grove Theatre, opened in 1821, had given black performers and playwrights a platform, including famed thespian Ira Aldridge. English comic actor Charles Matthews performed the slave song Possum Up a Gum Tree in blackface in a new act inspired by his tour of America, the first known instance a white performer appropriating African American culture in a way that would later become foundational to popular music.
These are dispersed influences, but the Ode to Joy has come down to us today unchanged and as powerful as ever. For all the nefarious uses the Ode has been put to, today it still stands for a united Europe, one that turned its back on the conflicts of the past and chose harmony instead. Twenty years after the Bernstein concert, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was marked by a flash mob singing the piece in Leipzig railway station, and in 2000 the Vienna Philharmonic played it on the site of Mauthausen concentration camp. On that occasion, Leon Zelman, the head of the Jewish Welcome Service in Vienna and a survivor of the camp said, “We have an obligation to the future, and to the new Europe. Not forgetting Mauthausen is not enough… This event is a symbolic affirmation for the new century.”
Perhaps the message of the Ode to Joy today is fellowship has to be celebrated and lived, if peace is to be preserved.
Dr Sophia L Deboick is a historian of popular culture. Follow her @SophiaDeboick