Members' Research Service By / May 13, 2021

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: From musical masterpiece to European anthem

A lively EPRS online roundtable entitled ‘Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: From musical masterpiece to European anthem’ on 5 May 2021 gathered members of Parliament, historians, musicologists and journalists, who paid tribute to the great composer.

Written by Ivana Katsarova,

No other composer left a mark on music quite like Ludwig van Beethoven. From Bonn to Brisbane, from Vienna to Vancouver, Beethoven is still the superstar among classical music composers. A global artist embodying the then-new ideal of the musician as a passionate, politically engaged Romantic hero, Beethoven needs no introduction and his language requires no translation. Monuments and busts of this distinguished figure can be found on every continent and the legacy he left behind comprises over 650 compositions. The original handwritten composition of his most well-known piece of music – the Ninth Symphony – is part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, which makes Beethoven an international cultural treasure. The Ode to Joy, crowning the symphony’s final movement, became the Council of Europe anthem in 1972, before being adopted as the European anthem in 1986.

A lively EPRS online roundtable entitled ‘Beethoven’s Ode to Joy: From musical masterpiece to European anthem‘ on 5 May 2021 gathered members of Parliament, historians, musicologists and journalists, who paid tribute to the great composer. What is a good symbol? Does the EU need an anthem? Is a famous piece of classical music a good candidate for a modern entity such as the EU? Does an anthem need lyrics? These were just some of the questions participants tried to answer, while the audience took part in three instant polls and could enjoy a series of inspiring musical interludes.

Jutta Schulze-Hollmen, Director for Resources within DG EPRS, set the scene for the debate by underscoring the potential of culture to build bridges and reminding the audience of a famous quote attributed to Jean Monnet, ‘If I had to start all over again, I would start with culture’.

Recalling the significance of culture in these troubled timesChair of the European Parliament committee on Culture and Education, Sabine Verheyen, retraced the genesis of the Ode to Joy and the criticism it prompted at the time. Indeed, Beethoven dared to break away from the traditional norms of the genre by including vocal soloists and a chorus in a symphony. Since then, the Ode to Joy’s lyrics based on a poem by Friedrich Schiller, have become a leitmotiv for peace, equality, joy and friendship. Importantly, as the European anthem, the Ode does not replace national anthems but instead underscores the EU’s shared values: freedom, piece and solidarity. Inspiring flash mobs and impromptu concerts during the lockdown, Beethoven’s call for unity and solidarity is now more relevant than ever. Its symbolic value is perfectly reflected in the EU’s motto ‘United in diversity’.

Recalling the convoluted path that led to the Ode becoming the European anthem, Professor Esteban Buch of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France) reminded the audience that building Europe has never been an easy task. He focused in particular on the controversy surrounding the copyrighting of the anthem’s arrangement by conductor Herbert von Karajan – a former member of the Nazi party. The copyrighted piece of music quickly became a concern, to the point that the then Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Lujo Tončić-Sorinj, tried to convince Karajan to abandon his rights for the musical arrangement, however regrettably, Karajan insisted his arrangement was an original creation and withheld the rights.

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Following this historical introduction, Professor François Foret of IEE-Cevipol, at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, looked at the European anthem through the prism of political science, focusing on two questions in particular: ‘What is the role of a good symbol in politics? and ‘How does the European anthem qualify for one?’ Quite counterintuitively, a good symbol is supposed to create both unity and conflict, thus ‘allowing people sharing little in common to meet under the same flag’.

The different meanings can however lead to varying interpretations, thus prompting conflict(s). The resilience of political communities is judged precisely by their capacity to remain the arenas of such conflicts of interpretation, but also to be the places where solutions are found, so that the members of such communities agree how to disagree. Based on this definition, the potential of the European anthem to create unity and to manage dissent appears quite high. These are the preliminary findings of a survey carried out in eight Member States, analysing how the Ode of Joy fares compared to other EU symbols.

Marie König, musicologist and freelance journalist challenged preconceived ideas about the Ninth Symphony. She regretted, for instance, that Schiller’s beautiful but rather old-fashioned text mentioned ‘brothers’ but not ‘sisters’. She also wondered whether it was not somewhat cynical to sing of joy when witnessing the images of those losing their loved ones while trying to join the EU by boat. Marie König suggested that we should not perceive Beethoven’s symphony as a memorial, but rather view it as an empty room that we can rearrange according to our views, and approach the great composer as a human being. Participants and attendees of the event were also treated to a series of musical interludes. Among those were the first performance of the Ode to Joy as an anthem in the European Parliament in its official version (without lyrics) on 15 September 1992. Attendees could also enjoy three other video excerpts of original renditions of the Ode to Joy performed respectively by:  El Sistema (Japan), the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Quatuor ‘Avena‘, thus witnessing the wide differences in the Ode’s perception by the public and messages conveyed.

In her closing remarks, Sabine Verheyen agreed with the decision to have an anthem without lyrics, because meaning is invariably lost in translations and can lead to misunderstanding. Such emotional symbols show that the EU is not simply a rational economic construct, but also a community of people sharing common values and remaining united in diversity.

The event gathered some 90 virtual participants from Parliament and beyond. Interestingly, three instant polls among those attending the event revealed that 95 % of respondents consider the EU needs an anthem, 48 % are convinced that there is no need for lyrics (with additionally 20 % backing translations of the original and 20 % advocating for modern lyrics) and 94 % support the idea that a piece of classical music can represent a modern entity such as the EU.

An EPRS briefing entitled ‘Story of the European anthem‘ – available also in French and German – provides further insight into the topic.


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