When I was nine years old, my grandmother introduced me to Mozart, Chopin, Haydn, Bach and Beethoven, by way of a series of children’s books about the lives of some of Europe’s greatest composers.
The story of Ludwig van Beethoven, in particular, touched a nerve, perhaps because Beethoven, like me, was hard of hearing, and by the time he composed his most celebrated work, the 9th symphony, he was almost entirely deaf.
While my knowledge of classical music was – and remains – limited, I fell instantly in love with the choral finale of Beethoven’s 9th, otherwise known as Ode to Joy, and it is one of only two tunes I ever learned to play on my grandparents’ piano. To this day, I relish the opportunity to tap the melody out with my right hand on the piano keys while singing the German lyrics out loud with lots of passion, albeit completely out-of-tune and my pronunciation of the German words nothing short of dreadful.
Originally, Ode to Joy, or An die Freude in German, was a poem penned by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 as a celebration of the unity of mankind, and which Beethoven later set to music. Beethoven’s version would eventually become a popular protest anthem, used by anti-Pinochet protesters in Chile, broadcast in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and performed on Christmas Day 1989 by Leonard Bernstein to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In 1972 the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th was adopted as the Anthem of Europe by the Council of Europe, and in 1985 the European Community made it their official anthem as well.
Fast forward three decades, to the opening ceremony of the European Parliament in Strasbourg earlier this week, when the newly elected MEPs of the Brexit Party all turned their backs on the young musicians performing the anthem. Intended as a protest against the EU having an anthem at all given it’s not a nation-state, the stunt did little but illustrate the bigotry and historical ignorance of the Brexit Party.
Beethoven may have been deaf when he composed and performed his greatest piece of music, but that doesn’t mean he’d lost the ability to listen. Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be the case in Britain today, where the political discourse is dominated mainly by blinkered and ill-informed politicians shouting at each other while refusing to listen to the other side. It’s like my children’s ear doctor says to me, hearing is one thing; listening another.
I’ve all but given up listening to the radio or watching the news on TV, for all the shouting and mud-slinging going on. It’s as if we’re living the alternative universe imagined by Lewis Carroll:
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Meanwhile, my nine-year-old daughter is rehearsing for her school’s end-of-year concert next week, where she’ll be performing on her guitar. And what’s she going to play? Ode to Joy, of course! For the record, I had nothing to do with it her choice of music; it was her decision entirely. The choice, I’m told, stood between Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Céline Dion’s love song from the movie Titanic. My daughter’s final decision was in no way shaped by her political inclinations but wholly pragmatic; she knew the notes for Ode to Joy better and saving herself tedious practice time, she chose that song for her performance. In any event, come concert night, I’ll be sat in the front row, waving an EU flag and no one will turn their back.