Beethoven's Ninth – Farage turned his back on more than just music

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is a powerful symbol of love, humanitarianism and European unity. The Brexit party’s rejection of the EU anthem shuns our shared history

Yesterday, Brexit party MEPs led by Nigel Farage turned their backs while the anthem of the European Union played at a ceremony to mark the opening of the European Parliament. Their behaviour has been met with disdain by many, with #notinmyname trending on Twitter. This was an emotionally provocative act at a time of political sensitivity, and there is something about the shunning of the anthem itself, an instrumental arrangement of the Ode to Joy from the final movement of Beethoven’s iconic Ninth Symphony, that makes the demonstration particularly inflammatory.

The symphony has a long and chequered history: it has been a symbol of both dark and light. A favourite work of Hitler’s (he liked to hear it on birthdays), the Ninth was also used in Nazi propaganda films, and the closing choral section was performed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was also chosen as the national anthem of the Republic of Rhodesia under the racist administration of Ian Smith. This darkness has been appropriated in film soundtracks: the symphony is associated with extreme violence in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and is a recurring motif representing Alan Rickman’s cultured villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

Yet the Ninth also has redemptive connotations. At the same time as Hitler appropriated the Ninth, it was also used to oppose him, even played in concentration camps by an orchestra of prisoners. Music was used by the SS to control and humiliate, but prisoners also used music as a survival tool. In 2000, the Vienna Philharmonic gave a moving performance of it at Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp, in front of an audience of survivors. Given its history (and also that of the Vienna Philharmonic), the choice of the Ninth was controversial. Nonetheless, Beethoven, as a symbol of the new Europe at the turn of the millennium, was seen as the appropriate choice by many people and the Ninth has been reclaimed as a powerful, sublime symbol of love and humanitarianism. So, how has this transformation come about?

Beethoven’s final symphony was mythologised from its premiere on 7 May 1824. The completely deaf composer was present on the stage and had to be physically turned around to face the audience to see the cheers and applause. The idea of the Ninth was inextricably bound with the way the composer himself is remembered as the heroic, suffering artist, the deaf genius who shunned the world to create the most sublime transcendental music.

Also known as the “Choral” symphony because of its groundbreaking inclusion of lyrics and voices in the final movement, its joyful words include a setting of Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 poem, An die Freude, which speaks of all men becoming brothers: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder.”

The symphony traces a trajectory of struggle and triumph. It takes the listener on a journey from the dramatic buildup in intensity in the first movement to the energetic scherzo of the second movement, the idyllic lyricism of the third movement, and finally the glorious, visionary redemption in the choral conclusion that is so powerful because it is hard won. Beethoven’s musical choices create drama. There are extreme contrasts of sound. There are frenzied bursts of activity and repeated rhythms that drive the music forward. There are also dramatic silences and disruptions. This is music that is created on a grand scale, using the whole expressive range of the orchestra.

Yet the music, the composer and the symphony’s associations with universal brotherhood and redemption are only part of the story that makes the Brexit party’s demonstration so provocative. The Ninth is intimately associated with Europe as a single entity.

Soon after his death, German-born Beethoven, who lived most of his adult life in Vienna, was claimed by Europe as a whole. Different traditions grew in European centres, where his symphonies were adapted to suit local tastes and customs. In England, for example, they were arranged as hymn tunes and heard in cathedrals and played by brass bands. Beethoven became part of our own musical vernacular as, simulataneously, he became part of other European musical traditions. He was also treated with reverence over and above any other composer. One particularly flamboyant French 19th-century conductor, Louis Jullien, donned white gloves and used a jewelled baton that was presented to him on a cushion every time he conducted Beethoven’s symphonies.

Claimed by Europe ... the Beethoven monument in Bonn, Germany.
Claimed by Europe ... the Beethoven monument in Bonn, Germany. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

A statue of the composer was erected in Bonn, his birthplace, in 1845. The King of Prussia attended the unveiling, as did Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The British press was there in force, alongside the French and German press. There was some friction. The French contingent became annoyed because there was no toast to the absent King Louis Philippe. A group of European musicians and heads of state gathered in Vienna in 1927 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death and next year, the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth will be celebrated not only in Europe but around the world, so universal is Beethoven’s appeal.

The image of the Ninth as a powerful symbol of European unity was perhaps claimed in most iconic fashion on Christmas day in 1989 when Leonard Bernstein conducted the last movement of the Ninth to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall with an orchestra consisting of members from East and West Germany as well as the four allied powers: France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the US.

When, in 1972, the Council of Europe decided on its anthem, Beethoven was seen as the obvious choice. EU leaders then adopted the Ninth in 1985 as the official anthem of the European Union. Given, its meaning of unity and its long association with European history, it represented not only the EU, but also Europe in a wider sense.

It is all of this (sometimes painful) shared history, as well as its joy and optimism for the future, that the Brexit Party MEPs reject when they shun the Ninth.

Dr Joanne Cormac is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham.

Joanne Cormac

The GuardianTramp

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