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Beethoven’s Ninth Through the Brexit Debacle

By · Date 2/20/2020

I am a child of Europe, I am a liberal cosmopolitan. My family is the genetic equivalent of a UN peace-keeping force. I can read novels in French, and I can sing the ‘Ode to Joy’ in German…[encouraging shouts from audience] ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’…”

This from a bitter “Remoaner,” lamenting the UK’s dismal exit from the European Union in February? Surprisingly not. A month before the 2016 referendum offered Brits the choice of Leave or Remain, the short rendition came from one Boris Johnson, who untunefully blethered a couple of lines from the “Ode” at a Vote Leave press conference. The blonde blitherer continued bombastically with now ironic slogans trumpeting Brexit’s jubilant idealism. Compare and contrast Johnson’s remarkable claim from this speech, that “Brexit is now the great project of European liberalism,” with the dogged refrain of “Get Brexit Done” from 2019. Harold Wilson once told us that a week is a long time in politics—the three and a half years between these statements feels epochal.

But what of that famous “Ode,” the one that Johnson assured us at the press conference that “everyone knows”? The symphony that Guardian contributor Tom Service calls “arguably the central piece of Western art music” holds its own special place in Britain. It has featured in 113 of the last 119 Proms programs—the Halle Choir alone are performing it six times this season—but its commitment to contested ideas of liberty and freedom continue to sit uncomfortably for certain skeptical sections of the populace. Still, the political life and afterlife of the piece is well-documented, and its appearance in countless overtly political situations is enough to defy even the most stringent defenders of “absolute music.” Whether or not one believes the music to be materially political, it has undoubtedly been deployed for such ends. Bernstein’s performance with the Berlin Philharmonic after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the millennium performance by the Vienna Philharmonic at Mauthausen concentration camp; its frequent appearance at official events in Nazi Germany; and the decision to make the melody of the Ninth (minus the words) the anthem of the Council of Europe in 1972 are all telling examples of what the musicologist Nicholas Cook describes as the Ninth’s “burial under the weight of ideology.”

More helpful for those wishing to assess the recent history of the Ninth in Britain is fellow musicologist Peter Tregear’s belief in its celebratory and memorialising role in the discourse of symphonic music. While some instances of the symphony’s reception as a life-affirming work are given above, there is a broader reception history that sees the Ninth as a declaration of Western civilization in times of brutal atrocity. Tregear recalls the BBC Proms director Nicholas Kenyon’s decision to replace the traditional Last Night festivities at the 2001 Proms with a performance of the Ninth alongside other sombre works, following the 9/11 attacks. Kenyon’s declaration that there was “no more universal expression of the power of music” confirmed Beethoven as the figure to turn to in the biggest moments, and the Ninth unquestionably as the work to play. As Tregear writes: “We may reside in a postmodern realm of cynical detachment from the grand aesthetic narratives of old, but when we want to dignify an occasion, the old ideas about the power of music, and Beethoven’s in particular, seem effortlessly to reassert themselves.”

That one figure and one piece can encapsulate such a gamut of emotions in a consistently exalted arena isn’t a testament to the sublime creation of a tortured genius, as may befit some histories, but instead highlights the systems, power structures, and communities that have allowed this status quo to dominate for so many years. It is hard to ignore the continued monumentalizing motion of these structures in our current age too, a trend currently being accelerated by Beethoven 250 celebrations. From #BeatBeethoven (a challenge to run five kilometers faster than it takes an orchestra to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) to The Barbican’s questionable shoehorning of Beethoven into its marketing (with posters of the iconic Beethoven portrait accompanied by the slogans “Radical before Prince,” “Genius before Elton” and “Iconic before Bowie”), scholar Scott Burnham’s notion of the Beethoven Hero is certainly alive and kicking. More importantly, protestations and proclamations alike put Beethoven front-and-center of the debate every time, reinforcing his unassailable presence as a cultural fixture in our lives.

Returning to Johnson’s garbled Götterfunken, how might we understand the Ninth’s reception amid a cultural landscape that still holds Beethoven in the highest regard, but that has also succeeded in adding another series of knotted identities and associations to an ever-complex story? The contest is certainly still on (as if it could ever truly be won). But crucially, the piece’s long, complicated history means it has no one fixed meaning, use or purpose, as some during the Brexit debacle may lead us to believe.

In a Telegraph article entitled “Sorry Remainers – Ode to Joy is not, and never has been an EU anthem,” Ivan Hewett returns to an exacting line of reasoning used in a critical review of Esteban Buch’s Beethoven’s Ninth: A Political History in the New Statesman some years previous.  Hewett’s argument is easy to agree with: yes, the Council of Europe did remove the words of Schiller’s poem from the 1972 version that became the European Anthem for being too universal, rather than European. But detailing the Ode’s political journey through Rhodesia, Nazi Germany, the EU and Kosovo while retaining the generalized, sneery terminology of Leavers and Remainers is part of the problem. To truly acknowledge that the Ode has never been a “Remain anthem,” we need to be detailed about our times as we continue to affirm that the Ode will never be won by any side.

The enduring mass appeal of the Ninth is unquestionable, although how that appeal manifests as has never been uniform. In the final days of the UK’s EU membership, a bland recording of the “Ode to Joy” by megastar Andre Rieu and his orchestra found itself soaring up the UK Charts in direct competition with Dominic Frisby’s twee, top-hatted tale “17 Million Fuck-Offs” for the formerly-important UK Number 1 spot. Both were left languishing (relatively speaking) at 30th and 43rd place, respectively; in a perfect metaphor for the whole Brexit process, there was technically a winner, but neither side really won. But while the enduring historical idea of the Ninth is as an ode to freedom or an expression of the universal brotherhood of man, the “Ode to Joy” behaved in the charts more like a band like Rage Against the Machine (who famously beat X Factor’s Joe McElderry to the coveted UK Christmas No. 1 spot in 2009). The appeal of the Ninth for Caroline Voaden (the Liberal Democrat MEP who began the unsuccessful campaign to get Beethoven to first place) is not Schiller’s paean, or Beethoven’s sublime, but its potential for symbolic protest.

In other instances of mass appeal away from Schiller’s universal vision, Beethoven’s engagement of brotherhood is chiefly found through the Ninth’s musical utility. The symphony as a whole is a more-than-adequate test for professional orchestras, while the “Ode” is performed by everyone from leading ensembles to amateurs, and, increasingly during the Brexit debacle, impromptu scratch groups.

A year on from the referendum, during of a number of close votes in the House of Commons, members of the pro-EU Scottish National Party began a whistled rendition of the “Ode” during a vain attempt to force the government to give all EU citizens in the UK permanent residency after Britain’s eventual exit. With one Member of Parliament conducting the SNP and Liberal Democrat benches (who had now broken into mumbled singing) the interlude was shut down by then-Deputy Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. “I personally don’t mind singing, but I certainly can’t allow it in the chamber,” said Hoyle. “Because before we know it, we could hear other tunes and I don’t want to get into that.”

Hoyle foreshadowed events of 2019, where Members of the House of Commons joined in choruses of traditional political songs from around the UK as they protested attempts by the British government to prorogue Parliament. His likening of the SNP’s rendition of the “Ode” to a chant more likely found at soccer matches is surprisingly useful as a model for understanding recent impromptu “Ode” performances. Short but sweet, largely pre-meditated but requiring a level of pragmatic improvisation, and demanding an alliance between a core group of driven individuals and a larger group willing to follow, these traits are hallmarks of recent scratch performances of the Ninth. A gathering of musicians from around the country outside St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London to play a short section of the “Ode” the evening after the initial vote set the tone for large musical protests involving Beethoven’s Ninth across the whole Brexit period (from Brass Against Brexit and the European Youth Orchestra to more spontaneous outbursts at Bollocks to Brexit and People’s Vote rallies).

As the area outside the Houses of Parliament became Brexit’s symbolic sonic battleground (underscored by the relentless refrains of “Mr Stop Brexit,” Steve Bray), others were turning their backs on Beethoven on the inside. With social media drawing comparisons with Nazi party in the Reichstag, Brexit Party MEPs stood with their backs to the EU Parliament as the acclaimed saxophone ensemble Quatuour Avena marked Strasbourg’s annual opening with the quartet from the final movement of the Ninth. Colleagues branded the move pathetic as #notinmyname trended on Twitter.

Despite the outrage, this stunt has roots before the Brexit process per se. Before the words Remain and Leave split the nation near irreparably, 2014 saw the same protest in an altered guise, as 24 members of the right-wing UKIP (the forefathers of The Brexit Party) turned their backs on the “Ode to Joy” in an act Jon Henley of the Guardian described as “a gesture as eloquent as it was symbolic (or as empty as it was crass).” Former UKIP MEP Paul Nuttall said the move was part of the party’s March for Freedom to the European Parliament, or the “freedom of people from EU legislation and waste”; in turning their backs, Nuttall claimed UKIP “rejected symbols of our servitude inside a political union which the British people reject.” Freedom from servitude for a people enslaved by an oppressive force? Prioritizing a universal vision for the UK beyond Europe? As these principles underpinned the rise of UKIP, Vote Leave and ultimately were the foundations of Brexit, it’s easy to see how the idealistic tenor of Boris Johnson’s Vote Leave speech found space to invoke an understanding of Beethoven’s universality.

Back in post-Brexit times, in the Spectator, Brexit Party MEP for North West England Claire Fox continued this line, claiming that politics spoiled the “universalist brilliance of Beethoven.” In Gloucester, an area which voted to Leave by a significant margin, the triannual visit of the reputable Three Choirs Festival saw usually plentiful audience numbers vote with their feet in the lead-up to a performance of the Ninth in 2019. The response from conductor Adrian Partington? “I am appalled because I don’t really want politics to come into it.” As if it were—regardless of the side—a choice. ¶