The EU anthem: Ode to Joy – archive, 1972 | Ludwig van Beethoven

Joyful Europe

20 January 1972

The Council of Europe has selected the prelude to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the official Hymn of Europe, and it will be played when Mr Heath receives his European Statesman of the Year award in Strasbourg tomorrow. No decision has yet been taken as to whether the words written for it by Schiller will be retained.

Odes to joining

By William Davis
12 December 1972

You are, I trust, familiar with the European “anthem.” No? Well, it’s Schiller’s Ode to Joy which Beethoven managed to work into his Ninth Symphony. I have no idea who chose it, and why, but I expect Mr Heath will get around to playing it on the organ during the festival which the government has arranged for your edification as soon as this Christmas lark is over.

“Our aim,” says the prime minister, “is to mark the beginning of a new phase to our relations with our European partners.” Well, all right. Without some sort of celebration, I suspect no one would even notice that January 1 is a “great turning point in our history.” After all the heated argument, nothing dramatic is likely to happen – no claps of thunder, no miracles, no storming of the barricades. Three weeks from today everyone will wonder why there’s been so much fuss. They do so already on the continent, where the Common Market is hardly ever discussed outside the charmed circle of politicians, economists and bureaucrats.

The Fanfare for Europe is dotty in places, but on the whole harmless. I doubt if karate, volley ball and judo contests will do much for European relations, and I can’t see the point of trampolining in Cardiff, tree-planting, and a European slanted Opportunity Knocks on television. But there are 300 events altogether and the programme as a whole may make more impact on the British public than the dreary Common jargon we have been getting during most of 1972.

The cultural events can hardly he called a novelty. Beethoven and Mozart, it is true, were Europeans, but they were not exactly unknown in Britain before Mr Heath decided to join the partnership. The same goes for the conductors who have been invited, at considerable expense to preside over some of the proceedings. Unkind critics might argue that the only 100 per cent appropriate event is a production of The Wonderful Adventures of Baron Munchausen – but I, of course, am not among them.

What I do wonder, though, is whether anthems, flags and all the other familiar trap-pings of nationalism fit into the new “Europe.” It’s not just that dear old Schiller’s Ode has nothing much to do with Europe, as that few people have a clue what the European flag looks like. De Gaulle publicly doubted whether a United States of Europe could ever command the some loyalty as an individual country and I’m sure that he was right.

The symbols of Ted’s New Europe are not flags, thrones and splendidly dressed armies, but cars, supermarkets and television aerials. Its suburbs already look remarkably alike, and the cities will soon follow. It is a Europe of espresso and frozen fish fingers, a Europe where idealism tends, at best, to be regarded as a luxury, at worst, a waste of time.

Edward Heath speaking after signing the Treaty of Accession for Britain’s proposed entry into the European Economic Community at Egmont Palace in Brussels, 22 January 1972.
Edward Heath speaking after signing the Treaty of Accession for Britain’s proposed entry into the European Economic Community at Egmont Palace in Brussels, 22 January 1972. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

It is, perhaps, understandable that older generations should cling to the established symbols of unity. But to the young this sort of thing tends to look rather quaint. Many young people, I believe, not only share Mr Heath’s vision but are actually ahead of him. They do not need anthems and flags to convince them that Britain is part of Europe. They are more outward looking, less chauvinistic than their parents. They are appalled by the bickering among politicians, inflated by the automatic assumption that older people have a monopoly on responsibilities, and amused by what Lord Eccles has described “old vanities and prejudices.”

There are exceptions, of course, but most of the young people I know have a more clearcut idea of the kind of Europe they want to live in than their elders. They willingly accept the idea of open frontiers, free trade, mobility of labour, and common laws. But they are bored with the bureaucratic paradise created by the Elderly Men of Brussels; they want to see an altogether different kind of society.

This may reflect nothing more than the natural (and, to me, altogether desirable) impatience of youth, but I think there is more to it than that. Young people want something they can believe in, something which they can identity with. Mr Heath acknowledged as much during the recent Paris summit. The Idea of Europe, he declared, must be brought alive, especially for the young, “We have to capture their imaginations.”

The Italian prime minister’s proposal that the EEC “Club” should abolish passports, and that people should have European citizenships as well as their own, probably got nearer to that particular goal than all the reports, communiques, and Beethoven concerts put together. It’s a pity that the proposal wasn’t taken seriously. The trouble with the Common Market is that politicians are forever shouting “forward,” while at the same time applying the brakes, and the bureaucratic machine opposes anything which is radical enough to make an impact. Perhaps Mr Heath can be persuaded to reflect on this when be sits down to Play the “anthem.”

The Guardian, 8 May 1996.
The Guardian, 8 May 1996. Click to read.

Editorial: an ode response

The Observer, 26 May 1996

How many people, listening to the Ode to Joy from Beethoven‘s ninth symphony, stop and think to themselves that the composer was German? Not many. But to our knowledge there are two exceptions: the Nazis of the Third Reich, and now the British Tory tabloids. It is not a happy pairing, and it is one that ought to give the latter pause for real thought.

This latest entry in the Any Stick To Beat A Dog album arises because the BBC have chosen the Ode to Joy as the theme tune for their coverage of next month’s Euro ‘96 football championships which, in case you have recently returned from Mars, will take place in England. Education secretary Gillian Shephard claims to find the decision “unbelievable”. Party chairman Brian Mawhinney is upset that the BBC could not support British teams with British music. Former industry minister John Butcher finds the choice of the Ode “bizarre and unacceptable”.

It is the Tories’ bad luck that they have turned against Beethoven for being German just as a new tome, Beethoven in German Politics, has been published by Yale University Press. From David B Dennis’s book we discover that Germans are constantly reinventing Beethoven in the image of their own particular era. Over the years Beethoven has been variously recast as a French revolutionary, a German nationalist, a proto-Communist, a proto-Nazi, a precursor of the Third Reich, the GDR, German reunification and the European Union. Bismarck, the Kaiser, Hitler and now Helmut Kohl have all invoked his genius for lesser purposes.

Only the Nazis, however, wanted to celebrate Beethoven because he was a German. And only the Tories and the British tabloids want to drive him off the airwaves for the same reason. Presumably they would prefer a bit of British music – as long as it is not by Handel (German), Delius (son of a German), Holst (sounds German) or Britten (pacifist so probably pro-German). Best to stick with God Save the Queen. Except isn’t she German too?

Ode to Joy was adopted as the organisational anthem of Europe – not to overrule national anthems but to celebrate shared values between nations – in 1972. In 1985 it became the official anthem of the European Community, then the European Union, from 1993.

By Joanne Cormac
3 July 2019

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


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