If you were to ask any EU citizen born before the fall of the Berlin Wall about the anthem of Europe, it’s likely that you’d get very different answers depending on their origin. If, for example, that citizen were Spanish, they may call to mind a song by rocker Miguel Ríos that has something to do with Europe, Beethoven, and the idea of brotherhood between human beings. Perhaps someone from a different country would recall a song or melody that also has something to do with Beethoven, and with peace and respect between brothers, although they may not be able to recall why. These testimonies help explain the European Anthem and of the anthem of the European Union; why they are what they are and how they have come to define our identity.
By Anna Alvarez Calleja/ 29.03.2021
For a start, the anthem of Europe and that of the European Union are the same song. The only difference lies within the official status of the anthem of the EU, which, as an international body with its own legislation, must respect the song as a symbol in any public act of representation. Because of this, an official version was made, recorded in 1972 and recognised as the official anthem in 1985, which can be listened to and downloaded in compliance with copyright regulations on the EU website. However, any institutional act in which Europe is represented as a continent (including countries that are not in the EU) can also use the anthem. But what is the anthem and why is an official version needed?
Traditionally, since the first meetings of European countries in the 1950s, a section of ‘Ode to Joy’ from the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was played at political or commemorative events. Sometimes, instead of this, other pieces of European origin were played, for example a piece from the ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ by G. F. Handel. However, over the years, the Beethovian melody became the go-to. Therefore, once the EU was formed, and the time came to adopt an official anthem for it, it was decided that the main and best-known melody of Beethoven’s Ninth would play the role.
The amount of times it was being played, along with the easy recognition of the melody by the European population were two main reasons it was chosen. But, taking into account the historical origin of the piece and its position in the cultural canon, certain considerations were made.
On one hand, Beethoven’s symphony presents its subject matter in reference to the poem ‘Ode to Joy’ written by F. Schiller in 1785 (38 years before the composition of the piece). The original poem talks about the idea of brotherhood between all human beings, with no specification as to their origin, which goes to say that it can be interpreted as a reference to all of humanity. Beethoven adopted Schiller’s poem with minor changes that continue to reflect this idea. But, on the other hand, the poem was originally written in German, by a German and set to music by another figure of German origin. For this reason, it was decided that the anthem should be purely instrumental, and an arrangement of the melody and its recording was commissioned from the (also German) grandmaster H. von Karajan.
The use of the song has raised other problems related to its meaning, especially in a political sense. The ‘Ode to Joy’, both with its original lyrics and modifications, has been used by various ideologies and even authoritarian regimes as a result of its easy identification. From Nazism in Germany to Communism in Russia or as the national anthem of countries where apartheid was common practice during post-colonialism. For this reason, the decision to make it the official anthem in the 80s was not easy. (For example, at the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ‘Ode in Berlin’ by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Leonard Bernstein, with a substitution of the word “joy” for “freedom”. This interpretation of the Beethovenian version gave it a very charged meaning).
In addition, one of the ideas in favour of choosing Beethoven’s piece as the anthem, but also an argument against it, is the message that the symphony, particularly the 4th movement, has presented since its origin by the figure of Beethoven. On the one hand, it can be argued that Beethoven was one of the first composers, if not the first, to claim the role of artist-genius in the enlightened society of the early nineteenth century. This idea has been encouraged by the story of the “Beethoven myth”. On the other hand, Beethoven is not seen as such a transgressive figure, since, after all, his activity was mainly supported by the highest classes of society. All this means that the ‘Ode to Joy’ as a piece of music was considered revolutionary, but only from a conservative standpoint.
In any case, the European Anthem functions as a component of identity and aids the creation of community in all corners of the continent. Together with the flag, it represents respect among its members and helps to broadcast this idea beyond its borders. Although no assumption should be made about the identity relevance that the anthem may have for Europeans, it is very likely that its recognition is found in some corner of each of us, either directly or indirectly, whether through a party song or TV advert, in which the European spirit of Beethoven is brought forth.
Buch, E., & Miller, R. (2003). Beethoven’s Ninth: A political history. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Fornäs, J. (2012). Anthem. Signifying europe (pp. 149-203). Bristol: Intellect.